This night also happens to be Monarchs Night, and the Royals are about to play the Oakland A's while wearing replica uniforms of the 1924 Kansas City Monarchs, who were the first "world champions" of the Negro leagues. This unprecedented homage to a Negro league team by a major league team is a wonderful—albeit overdue—gesture that bridges time, culture, race and spirit.
On the mound to throw the ceremonial first pitch is Burns, dressed in a Monarch jersey. But as he goes into his windup, his catcher, every inch a Monarch, every inch a ballplayer, waves him off. Much to the delight of the crowd, O'Neil takes off his glasses and puts them on Bob Motley, a former Negro league umpire standing behind him. Only then does O'Neil signal for his batterymate to throw the ball.
O'Neil didn't actually become a Monarch until 1938, when he was 26. He had played the '36 season with the Shreveport Acme Giants and most of the '37 season with the Memphis Red Sox. He did spend one month in '37 playing in that straw skirt for the barnstorming Zulu Cannibal Giants. "I was making $100 a month with the Red Sox, and the Giants offered me a lot more, so I jumped," says O'Neil. "Abe Saperstein owned the team, and we didn't think that much about wearing the costume. This was show business. At least I didn't have to put on the war paint like some of the guys. Besides, we had trunks on underneath our skirts. A first baseman in a stretch would have been pretty vulnerable without those trunks."
His stay with the Cannibal Giants was memorable for another reason. The promoter for the team, Syd Pollock, had also worked for the Miami Giants when O'Neil played for them, and Pollock somehow confused this O'Neil with that club's co-owner, Buck O'Neal. So he started hilling the Giants" first baseman as Buck O'Neil, and the name stuck.
The next year, J. Leslie Wilkinson brought O'Neil to Kansas City. Wilkie, who was the only white owner in the Negro leagues, had had his eye on O'Neil for quite some time, and O'Neil immediately became the Monarchs' starting first baseman and number six hitter, "it hit me my first week with the Monarchs," says O'Neil. "I caught a routine throw from the second baseman, and as I was trotting off the field, I thought, Damn! I just caught a throw from Newt Allen. Newt was one of the greatest players in the Negro leagues back when I was a child."
From 1939 to '42 the Monarchs won four straight Negro American League pennants. They had a number of stars: pitcher Hilton Smith; shortstop and right-fielder Ted Strong, who also starred for the Harlem Globetrotters; and outfielder Turkey Stearnes, a peculiar man who liked to talk to his bats. And in '39 Paige joined them, but that's another two dozen stories.
"We were like the New York Yankees," says O'Neil. "We had that winning tradition, and we were proud. We had a strict dress code—coat and tie, no baseball jackets. We stayed in the best hotels in the world. They just happened to be owned by black people. We ate in the best restaurants in the world. They just happened to be run by blacks. And when we were in Kansas City, well, 18th and Vine was the center of the universe. We'd come to breakfast at Street's Hotel, and there might be Count Basic or Joe Louis or Billie Holiday or Lionel Hampton."
World War II broke up the Monarchs" dynasty, at least temporarily. One of O'Neil's few regrets is that he didn't get to play for Kansas City in 1945, the year Jackie Robinson was a Monarch. O'Neil was then in the Navy, stationed with a black stevedore battalion at Subic Bay in the Philippines. Recalls O'Neil, "We loaded and unloaded ships. I was a bosun with 18 or so men under me. One night at about 11 o'clock the commanding officer gets on the horn and says, 'John O'Neil, please report to my office immediately."
"I didn't know what he could want. But when I got to his office, this white man said to me, 'I just thought you should know that the Brooklyn Dodgers have just signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract.' Well. I got on the horn and said, 'Now hear this! Now hear this! The Dodgers have signed Jackie Robinson." You should have heard the celebration. Halfway around the world from Brooklyn, we were hollering and tiring our guns into the air."
After the war O'Neil returned home to Kansas City and married Ora Lee Owen, a schoolteacher from Memphis whom he had met a few years before.