One thing (among many) that we like about baseball are the stories. After all, baseball embraces itself, unabashedly, and well it should.
Did Babe point to center field and predict his home run? Well, I hope so. Lou Gehrig, being taken down by a disease which bears his name, telling us that day he is the luckiest man on earth. Bill Mazeroski hit that unlikely game winning home run in the ninth inning of the 1960 World Series, seventh game no less, never done before or since. Tommy Lasorda, who we can hear on You Tube, with language that at times would make a drunken sailor blush, but who remains larger than life, colorful, inspirational.
Stories, legends, victory, defeat, glory, goats… and always the 7th inning stretch. All part of the diamond, which leads me to John “Buck” O’Neil. At the delightful age of 82 he became more popular than ever with such wonderful tales about life as a player and manager in the Negros Leagues during the 1930s, which thankfully are part of the Ken Burns’ epic baseball documentary. Later Buck worked as a scout, and became the first African American coach in the MLB. He was beloved as a renowned speaker and interview subject. Not surprisingly Buck O’Neil played a very significant role in establishing the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
But, did you know there is an annual award issued by the Baseball Hall of Fame, aptly named the John Jorden “Buck” O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award? It is proudly presented to a person for his or her extraordinary efforts to enhance baseball’s positive impact on society. Buck was the first recipient; others have since included the inimitable Joe Garagioloa and the gracious Rachel Robinson.
We love baseball because it honors integrity, because it is so bold as to make sure to remind us about what really matters, what really counts.
Buck O’Neil is not just a good story, of achievement and class. His story is all the better because it is, as baseball would insist, true and genuine. He is a legend. No fable, no make believe “just” a great gentleman who happened to play baseball. Our game. Our past time. Buck O’Neil, base ball and hope. As American as a hot dog and a kid with a mitt, boy or girl, any color, short or tall.