Over the years, O'Neil has been a strong force behind many Negro league reunions. In fact, it was at such a reunion, in Ashland, Ky., in 1981, that he spoke those life-affirming, baseball-affirming words: Waste no tears for me. I didn't come along too early. I was right on time.
He has also been raising funds for an expanded Negro Leagues Museum, to be built across the street from the current one and next to a new Jazz Hall of Fame. "Wouldn't that be something?" he says. "To see folks flocking to the corner of 18th and Vine again."
O'Neil is leading a small caravan to Forest Hill Cemetery in South Kansas City. That's where Paige is buried. It's also where Confederate General John Shelby put up Shelby's Last Stand, and the irony certainly isn't lost on Burns, who visited the cemetery for his Civil War research: "One of the reasons I decided to do Baseball after The Civil War was that the first real progress in racial integration in this country after Reconstruction didn't come until the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson."
Paige's gravesite, which he shares with Lahoma, whom he married in 1947, is extraordinary. For one thing, it's on an island of grass in the middle of the cemetery's main road. "Satchel was buried someplace else in the cemetery, but they moved him here so that more people could find him," says O'Neil. "Even after he died, Satchel was on the run."
For another thing, there are portraits of Satchel, who died on June 8, 1982, and Lahoma, who passed away four years later. And on the tombstone are inscribed his famous Rules for Longevity: AVOID FRIED MEATS WHICH ANGRY UP THE BLOOD, etc.
We have to know: "Did Lahoma know why Satchel called you Nancy?"
"Oh, yes," says O'Neil. "She loved the story. She knew Satchel. I never would have told the story if she hadn't heard it from him first."
When Paige was buried, O'Neil delivered the eulogy. "People say it's a shame he never pitched against the best," O'Neil said at the time. "But who's to say he didn't?"
It's funny that John Jordan O'Neil is only now being discovered, at the age of 82. But in an age when the racial divide seems to be widening, at a time when baseball is being torn apart, along comes this man to repair some of the damage.