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The Guiding Light
Steve Wulf
September 19, 1994
Buck O'Neil bears witness to the glory and not just the shame of the Negro leagues
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September 19, 1994

The Guiding Light

Buck O'Neil bears witness to the glory and not just the shame of the Negro leagues

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"Hello, Hamp," says O'Neil.

At a New York screening of the "Seventh Inning" of Baseball, the two octogenarians greet each other like long-lost friends. It has been a while since O'Neil has seen Lionel Hampton.

"I loved to watch the Monarchs play," says Hampton, the great bandleader and vibraphonist. "One day in 1948 Cap—that's what the players called Buck—said to me, 'You're around here so much, I might as well put you to work. So Cap let me coach first base for one game, and then he gave me the jersey. It was one of the great thrills of my life."

As strong as jazz and black baseball were in Kansas City in the 1930s and '40s, by the early '50s they had begun to diminish. Nightclubs closed, and the Monarchs, like all the other Negro league franchises, began to suffer because of the integration of the big leagues. O'Neil's job as manager was no longer to win but rather to prepare young black players for their chance at the majors: Banks, Howard, Gene Baker, Pancho Herrera. Sweet Lou Johnson, Hank Thompson.

Before the day-old bread was two days gone again, O'Neil quit the Monarchs after the 1955 season to scout for the Cubs. His job was to find black players in the South, and he put 40,000 miles a year on his car. He discovered Brock when he was a skinny outfielder at Southern University. He tracked down 17-year-old Oscar Gamble in Montgomery, Ala. He also found trouble one night in Jackson, Miss.

O'Neil and Piper Davis, the black scout who signed Lee May, were in Jackson looking for a high school game. They saw the lights of a ballpark, pulled into the parking lot and asked the two men at the entrance if this was where the game was. "Oh, yeah, this is where it is, all right," said one. O'Neil and Davis got out of their car and walked to the field. On the mound, though, was not a pitcher but a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The ballpark was filled with men in sheets, and the two scouts made a hasty exit.

In May 1962 the Cubs made O'Neil the first black coach in the major leagues. Although Ebony did a big feature on him, the predominantly white media largely ignored his appointment. (SPORTS ILLUSTRATED did O'Neil as a FACE IN THE CROWD.) At the time, the Cubs were in their College of Coaches stage, rotating several different coaches as the head coach (i.e., manager), and John Holland, the Chicago general manager, paid lip service to the idea that O'Neil might one day be the manager.

But the Cubs were never serious about that; they didn't even want him on the coaching lines. Perhaps the one man in this world for whom O'Neil holds any animosity is Charlie (Jolly Cholly) Grimm, the old Chicago first baseman and manager who occupied a front-office position while the college was in session. During a 1962 game with the Houston Colt .45s, both head coach Charlie Metro and third base coach El Tappe were ejected. O'Neil was the logical choice to take over third base, but Fred Martin, the pitching coach, was brought in from the bullpen to man the box. "After 40 years in baseball and 10 years of managing, I was pretty sure I knew when to wave somebody home and when to have him put on the brakes." says O'Neil. "Later I found out that Grimm had ordered the other coaches never to let me coach on the lines."

It wasn't until 1975 that the Cleveland Indians made Frank Robinson the first black manager. In the meantime, O'Neil returned to scouting, signing Smith and Carter, among others. It's no coincidence that O'Neil's four Hall of Fame-quality players—Banks, Brock, Smith, Carter—all share his positive outlook on life. "The measure of a man," says Banks, "is in the lives he's touched."

And, in O'Neil's case, the lives he has preserved. "Sometimes," he says, "I think the Lord has kept me on this earth as long as He has so I can bear witness to the Negro leagues." As a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame veterans committee, O'Neil fulfills that responsibility. He says there are still 10 Negro Leaguers worthy of the Hall. For now, he will settle for just one: Leon Day, an outstanding pitcher and outfielder for the Newark Eagles who's still alive and well at 78 in Baltimore. O'Neil also wants to correct the impression of the Negro leagues left by the movie The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. "We weren't a minstrel show," he says. "We didn't just pile into a Cadillac and pick up a game here and there. We had a schedule. We had spring training. We had an all-star game. Most years, we had a World Series. We were professional ballplayers."

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