With O'Neil's passing, bit of past slips away

October 08, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Everybody, it seems, has a Buck O'Neil story today. My story is this: I never got the chance to meet him.

I wish, and will wish every day for the rest of my life, that I had. The Ravens play in Kansas City in December, and I was going to try to squeeze the game in around meeting O'Neil and visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, including the site of the education center that upon completion will bear his name.

But I knew time was running out. When it ran out Friday night for O'Neil, at the age of 94, it also ran out for everybody like me who wasn't blessed with the privilege of having spoken to him.

There's nothing like learning history from the actual history-makers, learning of your past directly from your past. Buck O'Neil was baseball history. He was Negro leagues history.

He was the history of a bitterly segregated America, and also of an environment absent of bitterness (or maybe without time for it), which always made sense once he explained it. For example, he insisted he wasn't mad about the Hall of Fame snubbing him this year, and once he made his case, you realized that his life did not require Cooperstown's official stamp for validation, that the Hall has the void, not he.

We were lucky that Ken Burns met him and made him a star of his Baseball documentary 12 years ago. I thought I knew a fair amount about the Negro leagues, but before Burns turned the camera on O'Neil, I barely recognized his name. I know I'm not the only one in that category.

O'Neil's words are still on the record there, in countless interviews since, and in the memories of those who did know him. But it's not the same.

This time, of course, would eventually come, but that doesn't mean we can't mourn its passing. The group of O'Neil's contemporaries is getting smaller, much like World War II veterans. There aren't many left from either time, not many chances to hear firsthand how it was before the stories get diluted by time, translation and, unfortunately, agendas. The tales get polished up or watered down, not always intentionally. But the purity gets lost.

So it is for O'Neil. So it was for Leon Day, who died 11 years ago but whose name lives on in West Baltimore at a ball field and on a Little League. And for Larry Doby, who passed away three years ago, and who I was lucky enough to know when he worked in the NBA, of all places.

The same for Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, Lorenzo "Piper" Davis and Toni Stone (one of a handful of women who played in the Negro leagues), whom I met at a Negro leagues reunion 15 years ago in Cooperstown, but who all have passed in the past 10 years. And Sam Hairston, whose grandson Jerry Jr. played for the Orioles and who died in 1997. And, of course, Sam Lacy, who saw and wrote about them all before his death in 2003.

Thankfully, there still are a few original sources for how it was in baseball and America during that singular era of upheaval, when the national pastime was split by race, then tumultuously joined. It's actually a bit of a relief to realize that when I was a kid in the mid-1970s, I could still cheer for major leaguers who had played in the Negro leagues.

One can still hear the real thing from Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Don Newcombe and Chuck Harmon, ex-Negro leaguers all. Most people know them, but there are other, less-recognizable players with equally vibrant tales.

Several years ago in Oakland, I met a sports agent and former big league scout and coach named Miles McAfee, and agreed to co-write his autobiography, Four Generations of Color. In the summer between graduating high school in Atlanta and attending college at Tuskegee, he played for the Kansas City Monarchs. One can listen forever to stories about that, and about his entry into the minors down South in the 1950s, when baseball integration was brand new.

The clock is ticking on everybody, even for the generation that followed O'Neil and his peers. Frank Robinson's rude dismissal from the Washington Nationals reminded us all that he's 71, and that dugout will no longer be the pulpit for his baseball sermons.

Soon, it all will be second- and third-hand information, from somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody. O'Neil was one of the original somebodies, and we should be grateful that he chose not to keep it all to himself. Sharing it was his nature, and he also saw it as his obligation.

Still, I wish he could have held on until December. My loss. Our loss.

david.steele@baltsun.com

David Steele -- Points After It was a sad week for sports legends: Three days before Buck O'Neil died, Peter Norman passed away. You might know him better as the "other" medal winner on the podium with Tommie Smith and John Carlos after the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics. Norman, the Australian silver-medal winner, wore a human rights badge signifying his support of Smith and Carlos, who gave Black Power salutes. Last year, he made the trip halfway around the world to see San Jose State University dedicate a statue of Smith and Carlos.

Upholding the legacy of O'Neil, Smith, Carlos and Norman ... another NFL player, the Detroit Lions' Kenoy Kennedy, was charged with drunken driving Friday. Meanwhile, two names were inadvertently left off last week's NFL dishonor roll: Koren Robinson (sentenced Wednesday in a case involving a training-camp DUI) and Joe Cullen (Lions assistant charged this summer with drunken driving and indecency).

Not to be outdone: Stephen Jackson and his Pacers teammates, including the one in whose car police found marijuana, at an Indianapolis strip club.

Imagine you're a renowned psychologist, capable of saving anybody from his or her demons. You have time in your schedule to take one of these two patients: Terrell Owens or Alex Rodriguez. Choose. Climbing out the window isn't an option.

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