There's nothing greater for a human being than to get his body to react to all the things one does on a ball field. It's as good as sex; it's as good as music. It fills you up. Waste no tears for me. I didn't come along too early. I was right on time.
Buck stuck, but he was Foots first. He has also been called Country and Cap and just plain Jay, and while Satchel Paige was alive, he was a man called Nancy.
John Jordan O'Neil, born Nov. 13, 1911, in Carrabelle, Fla., has collected almost as many nicknames during his seven decades in the game as all of the current major leaguers combined. But then he has led so many different baseball lives, and with the exception of that month back in 1937 when he played in a straw skirt for the Zulu Cannibal Giants, all of them have been distinguished.
As a smooth-fielding first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1938 to '54, O'Neil won a Negro American League batting title (hitting .350 in '46) and played in three Negro League East-West All-Star Games and three Negro World Series. As the manager of the Monarchs from '48 until '55 he won five half-season pennants and shepherded 14 of his players, including Ernie Banks and Elston Howard, into the majors. As a scout for the Chicago Cubs he signed four elected or near-certain Hall of Famers: Banks, Lou Brock, Lee Smith and Joe Carter. In 1962 the Cubs made him the first black coach in the major leagues.
At 82, the still-graceful, still-handsome O'Neil still scouts for the Kansas City Royals. When he's not doing that, or shooting his age over 18 holes, he champions the players and memories of the Negro leagues. But O'Neil is most impressive not for what he does or what he did, but for what he is. Banks, who knew O'Neil when, says, "He is a role model, a father, a mentor, a teacher, a sensei, a hero, a gentleman, a man. Who do you think I got my let's-play-two attitude from? From Buck O'Neil, that's who."
Hal McRae, the Royals' manager, says, "Buck just makes you feel good. You might be blue, you might be in a slump, but a few minutes with Buck and the world is a wonderful place. Do you know what he is? He's the guiding light."
It's a light that shines on the past as well as the present. The Negro leagues were born because organized baseball wanted nothing to do with integration, and O'Neil and his teammates encountered prejudice daily. But the Negro leagues were also a glorious enterprise well worth celebrating, and that's where O'Neil comes in. He takes particular pride in the Monarchs, and he harbors no bitterness over the fact that he was past his prime when Jackie Robinson finally broke the color line, in 1947. "Buck never curses his fate," says Banks. "He knows that what he did as a player and manager paved the way for the rest of us."
And O'Neil's light shines often in Baseball, the nine-inning, nine-night documentary that airs on PBS starting Sept. 18. The film, by Ken Burns of Civil War renown, presents a sweeping panorama of the national pastime, and while Baseball has much to recommend it, its best moments come while O'Neil is on the screen.
He is at the heart of Baseball's "Fifth Inning," subtitled "Shadow Ball." On one level, shadow ball was the amazingly realistic pantomime of baseball—without the ball—often performed by Negro leaguers before their games. But it is also a metaphor for the black baseball that shadowed the segregated major leagues. O'Neil illuminates those shadows, bringing the Negro leagues to life in all their glory and pain, jazz and blues.
As an eyewitness he links Babe Ruth to Josh Gibson to Bo Jackson. As a confidant of Paige's he reveals a new side to the great pitcher. As a singer...well, if you can't watch all 18½ hours of the show, be sure to catch O'Neil during the "Seventh Inning Stretch." He'll take you out to the game.