Hall whiffs, leaving out Buck O'Neil

The Kickoff

February 28, 2006|By KEVIN B. BLACKISTONE | KEVIN B. BLACKISTONE,THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS

DALLAS -- Chances were good for a while that if you visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, he welcomed you in person with a warm smile.

Chances were better some years ago that if you called the little shrine in Kansas City, Mo., dedicated to the men who were forced to play their own games because the biggest baseball league was closed to them simply because of the color of their skin, his friendly voice received you via recording.

Chances were greatest that if you learned anything about the men who made up segregated black baseball, it was because this elegant man, Buck O'Neil, educated you, as he did with his reminiscences in "Shadow Ball," the fifth installment of Ken Burns' TV documentary Baseball.

So what if O'Neil became such a keen baseball man that in 1962 the Cubs made him the first black coach in Major League Baseball? So what if he managed the Kansas City Monarchs to four pennants and two World Series crowns? So what if he was a three-time All-Star, a batting champion and as clutch a hitter as black baseball ever witnessed?

The reason O'Neil should've been named to the Baseball Hall of Fame yesterday is because of the unparalleled and unselfish role he's played in garnering recognition for what otherwise would've remained an ignored and forgotten group of men.

That he wasn't elected stands as a Hall of Fame oversight for the ages - for any sport's shrine.

It was admirable that the nation's atrophied former pastime set aside a quarter of a million dollars a few years ago to, once and for all, research Negro leagues baseball in an attempt to winnow the best from the rest. Three historians led a group of 50 researchers and writers on a search that yielded 39 candidates for the final ballot voted on by the committee yesterday. Seventeen made it.

But the whole process, whether it wound up placing O'Neil between Phil Niekro and Jim O'Rourke in Cooperstown, N.Y., was no more than a metaphor for baseball's historical struggle at dealing with inclusiveness anyway: too little, too late. To be sure, O'Neil, now 94, was one of only two living candidates on the final list. Minnie Minoso, 83, was the other.

Why has it taken so long for baseball to recognize the men it wouldn't let play for just about half a century? Because of the twisted notion that somehow segregated Negro leagues baseball was illegitimate and segregated Major League Baseball was not.

The only other thing different between the two leagues, other than the skin color of those who played in them, was that black baseball wasn't as meticulously recorded.

Indeed, Hall of Fame voters say the statistics are unreliable because they are difficult to prove. And the voters suggest that Negro leagues numbers mean less because they weren't established against Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson.

It is lost on too many keepers of baseball that the so-called gentlemen's agreement to separate races cheated not only generations of black men who aspired to play Major League Baseball but also cheated the generations of white men who played what amounted to apartheid ball.

And who is to say that the numbers the Ruths, Cobbs and Johnsons put up playing merely among themselves would be as great had they had to bat against the Leon Days, pitch against the Josh Gibsons and worry about the speed of the Cool Papa Bells of the Negro leagues? Has it been opportunely overlooked that Jackie Robinson merely started a run of six consecutive Rookie of the Year Awards won by former Negro leagues stars, or that 11 of the National League MVPs between 1949 and 1962 were captured by former Negro leagues stars?

That's how good Negro leagues players were, statistics be damned.

Buck O'Neil has tried to explain that to anyone who would listen ever since the Negro leagues died a slow death in the decade following the storming of the major leagues by its best and brightest and even its mediocre. And he's done so with humor, grace and warmth, even when a sledgehammer may have been more appropriate.

If there has been a finer ambassador of any game, of any sport, in the last quarter century than Buck O'Neil, I'm unaware of him or her. That's who the Baseball Hall of Fame just left out.

Kevin B. Blackistone writes for The Dallas Morning News.

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