Posted: Monday October 9, 2006 11:49AM; Updated: Monday October 9, 2006 12:32PM
Buck O'Neil, shown here in February, was a dynamic spokesman for the history of the Negro leagues.
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I don't recall the exact words, but Buck continued a little speech and refused to let go of Robinson's hand. It was as if he insisted on saying his piece, and Robinson respected him enough to listen. However, it was as if Robinson wished he could have been anywhere else in the world but there at that moment. (I realized that the pressure of being the child of famous person was a complicated matter. No wonder he lived in Africa, I thought.) The image remains burned in my head: Two men, awkwardly shaking hands across a round table, one assured, confident and at ease with himself, the other palpably uncomfortable.
That night, people naturally flocked around Buck at the reception before the screening. I kept hovering around him, listening to his stories, admiring how warm he was with people. You know when someone is said to have a presence that lights up a room when they enter it? Well, I've been around a lot of movie stars from working in the film industry over the years, and none of them has the kind of almost magical aura that Buck possessed. He was a man without pretension. The kind of guy who made you feel special just by talking with you. That was his greatest gift -- he made you feel better about yourself. Listening to him and appreciating what he had been through made people want to live a better life.
Over the years I periodically sent Buck postcards just to say "hi." I didn't care if he remembered me or not. I knew that I'd never forget him. A few years ago I was able to interview him and he said something that I'll never forget:
"Let me tell you something: When you stop learning, you're through. Mm-hmm. I'm 91, but I'm still learning. Not only about baseball, about others things [too]. Yeah, yeah. You should always keep learning, as long as you live. You're going to write. You'll learn something. And not only that, you're going to teach things. 'Cause what you're going to write about now, a lot of people, could be baseball fans, don't know about. Mm-hmm. Of course, you learning, you teaching, that's life. That's life....
"Always figure that tomorrow is going to be better. Don't care how good today is, tomorrow is going to be better. But it is exciting, though, to get up [every day]. It's like the first time you see a Willie Mays, huh? Mmm, look at this [laughs]."
Buck O'Neil was one of the greatest ambassadors the game has ever seen and is one of the great American characters of our time. He was the first black coach in the major leagues. He scouted Lou Brock and Ernie Banks, Oscar Gamble and Joe Carter. Jackie Robinson once said, "A life is not important except in the impact it has on others' lives." Buck touched the lives of countless people. He lived a full life, and leaves us with a shining example of the goodness we all have in us. We can repay him by taking a moment to remember him and, more important, by striving to emulate the warmth and generosity of spirit he so willingly showed people of all walks of life. It is safe to say there will never be another one like him.