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10/08/2006 Archived Entry: "Buck O'Neill: Good player, great man, not Hall of Famer"
A Commentary by Bruce Baskin
With the recent passing of John “Buck” O’Neill at the age of 94, the calls for his inclusion in the Baseball Hall of Fame will no doubt be renewed. They’ve been going on for some time now, ever since his prime role as historian and raconteur of the old Negro Leagues in Ken Burns’ PBS series “Baseball” in 1994. The O’Neill advocates became louder upon his exclusion this past spring from a long list of new Hall members as selected by the Negro League Committee, and now with his death, the chorus will likely get even noisier. One sportswriter even called his most recent exclusion from Cooperstown “inexplicable.” But is it? Does Buck O’Neill truly deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame? Let’s take a look at O’Neill’s career in baseball from three angles: His statistics and accomplishments, the opinion of fans from when he was an active player, and the opinions of his peers.
First, the statistics. The impression I get is that O’Neill was a good player, a fine fielder at first base and a decent batter who had four great seasons in a playing career that spanned from 1934 through the demise of the Monarchs in 1955. O’Neill played for minor teams like the Miami Giants, New York Tigers and Shreveport Acme Giants before making his Negro American League debut at 26 with the Memphis Red Sox in 1937. O’Neill jumped the Red Sox during the season for more money with an outfit calling itself the Zulu Cannibal Giants. He moved up to the Kansas City Monarchs in 1938, and remained with them for the next 18 seasons (minus two-plus years due to World War II). So how did O’Neill do?
There were four seasons in which he was outstanding. O’Neill hit .345 in 1940, .353 in 1946 (winning the NAL batting title, .358 in 1947 and .330 in 1949. Those are impressive totals in any league, but what did he do in the years he DIDN’T bat .300? Here are the averages I’ve been able to find: .258, .257, .250, .247, .222, .253 and .253. These are numbers someone like Roger Metzger might put up, not a Hall of Famer, and O’Neill posted them during the prime of his career. There are no fielding statistics available for the Negro Leagues, so I’ll have to take the word of James A. Riley in his book, “The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues.” In it, Riley calls O’Neill a “smooth-fielding first baseman.” So was John Olerud, but nobody is calling for his membership in Cooperstown. It’s true that the Monarch won four consecutive pennants between 1939 and 1942, and another flag in 1946, but it’s fair to say such people as Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Willie Wells, Newt Allen, Willard Brown, Ted Strong and Jackie Robinson were useful members of those clubs. As a player, Buck O’Neill was a good player on a great team, a Negro Leagues version of Moose Skowron.
Now, what did the fans think of Buck O’Neill? While he is a bit of a present-day icon, the fans that followed Negro League baseball when it was played weren’t as impressed. The annual East-West Game was the biggest event of the year in those days, and fans in the cities that had black baseball teams voted on the players who would appear in the game, much like today’s modern all-star games. During his career (allowing for missed wartime seasons), O’Neill appeared in just three East-West Games. He wasn’t even picked during his batting crown season of 1946. Is that the sign of a player who made an indelible impression on people who attended the games? All-star games are often rightly derided as popularity contests, but even on that basis, O’Neill should have been included more often. By the way, in his three East-West appearances playing for the West, he went 0-for-7 with an error.
Finally, what did his peers have to say about O’Neill? One of the things I have found to be consistently true in books that include narratives from ex-players is that the best players get mentioned the most often. Even a venal person like Ty Cobb figured prominently in Lawrence Ritter’s landmark “The Glory of their Times” because his peers were willing to admit that such a rotten human being was also a great player. How does O’Neill square up in this department? The general consensus among other players is that he was a good guy who had a nice wardrobe, but in the books I have on Negro League baseball I find no references to his greatness as a player, if he is mentioned at all. Robert Peterson’s 1970 book “Only the Ball was White” still stands as the bar-setter for all books on the subject, and O’Neill’s name does not come up one time. The same thing occurs in “Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947-59” by Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt. Dozens of players from that era are interviewed, many of whom played for and against O’Neill, and none of them said a word about him. John B. Holway has written a number of books on the Negro Leagues, and I have three of them, but you never see the words “great player” attached to O’Neill when former players are actually talking about him.
Let’s address those who believe Buck deserves enshrinement for what he did beyond his feats as a player. As a manager, he led the Monarchs to five pennants in eight seasons. While that is indeed an impressive record, those pennants came after Robinson integrated the major leagues and a flood of players were signed from Negro League teams, leaving black baseball a far-weaker enterprise than it was before 1947. The teams Kansas City beat out for all those flags were nothing like the ones that included the likes of Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, Willard Brown, Minnie Minoso, Hank Thompson or Luke Easter. While it’s true that greats like Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Ernie Banks made stops in the Negro Leagues before embarking on major league careers, they were not the backbone of black baseball because they simply didn’t stay long enough. In fact, Cool Papa Bell recommended Banks to O’Neill, who responded that he didn’t need a shortstop. It took some cajoling on Bell’s part to get Banks a tryout. O’Neill gets kudos for being the first black scout in 1955, when the Monarchs folded and he moved to the Chicago Cubs; and became the first black coach in the major leagues with the Cubs in 1962. These are all good things, but let’s face it: Being a good manager in a weak league is not a ticket to Cooperstown, nor is being a scout or coach. Neither is being good storyteller.
Buck O’Neill was deservedly beloved as an eloquent spokesman of an earlier time in baseball history, a kind and gentle man who put a face on the Negro Leagues for millions of people who only have heard of them. The affection fans have for Buck O’Neill is both genuine and proper. If there were a Hall of Fame for great people, he'd deserve election on the first ballot. However, based on the criterion used to select members of the Baseball Hall of Fame as the best of the best, he falls short of the mark. While O’Neill’s enshrinement in the Hall of Fame would not be nearly as foolish as that of Effa Manley’s, it would fall under the same category as an honor for a nice person who found a niche in baseball, rather than displaying an ability that put them far and above the ordinary. That’s not what the Baseball Hall of Fame is for, but maybe that’s just me.