Although I grew up in Teaneck, N.J., and considered myself well versed in surviving harsh winters, the massive storm that hit Chicago earlier this month made me rethink what was possible when it snows. Besides hearing unusual terms like "thunder snow" or hearing how people got stuck on Lake Shore Drive for nine hours while "dealing with upwards of 70 MPH winds," the image that burned into my consciousness was a team of fire engines being escorted by snowmobiles in the middle of Chicago's city streets.
The day after this blizzard, I attended an event for the Chicago Baseball Museum honoring the life and legacy of Negro Leagues star Buck O'Neil. I came to learn that what he navigated in his life, to reach the pinnacle of the game as its ambassador, resembled something a lot like this history-making snowstorm in the Windy City.
You wouldn't know it from Buck that he had hardships. He was a peaceful man, humble, who after his disappointment of missing the Hall of Fame by one vote, spent the next moments consoling all of his weeping supporters to let them know that his being a Hall of Famer in their eyes was all that mattered. He then spoke at the Hall induction service on behalf of the Negro Leagues players who did get in.
I have had the gift of meeting many of our former Negro Leagues players and their supporters. From the group of Philadelphia Stars who became part of a city movement to have a memorial built for their legacy, to the bread I broke at the Negro League Cafe with Chicago's finest Negro Leagues players, to the snapshot I took with Rachel Robinson shortly after I had just finished reading a book about her inspirational husband Jackie, who she helped inspire.
In navigating the two feet of snow that ultimately fell, there were moments when time seemed to have stopped. Neighbors wandered the streets sharing stories, helping each other dig their cars out from the mound of snow that the city plows had created. Most people had heeded the warnings to stay off of the roads, avoid conflict, take it easy, but then again, many had no choice, like the gentleman I met on the train who had to put in his full day's work before taking a bus to a train home.
I imagine that Buck O'Neil and his Negro Leagues contemporaries enjoyed performing on the field, doing what they clearly loved to do, but I also imagine there were blizzards in their path often steeped in misunderstanding, hate, racism and ignorance, while they played. For the most talented, professional baseball became their livelihood and a ticket away from the stagnation in the local leagues of their hometowns, but not without a great price.
At this event for Buck O'Neil, one story told by Chicago Tribune writer Fred Mitchell talked about how Billy Williams was fed up with the racism he was experiencing in his journey through the minor leagues, so he went back home to Mobile, Ala. As his mentor, the Cubs sent Buck O'Neil to intervene in the classy, unassuming way he was known to possess. He took Billy to his old stomping grounds, to the field where he began his journey as a bona fide star. Upon talking to all of his old teammates and locals, Billy heard how proud they were of him, that they had admired his ability to play baseball for a living. He came to see how much his success was a reflection of something bigger than his personal achievements; he had a community riding on his hopes, for they were the hopes of an entire generation. He was their legacy.
Billy rejoined his minor league team, something Buck O'Neil knew would happen long before Billy made his decision.
After numerous encounters with Negro Leagues players, what most awes me is their humility. These players are gentlemen who played during of time of racial tension with a glass ceiling for major league career possibilities. Keeping in mind that Buck O'Neil expressed joy that he played against the best (Ruth, et al.) and with the best in his Negro Leagues teammates, so he didn't speak of missing out. Maybe that is why they did not know of limitation in their spirit, in their sense of hope. Even with certain parks closed to them, they still competed against and with top talent.
We often forget that many of these men served their country. Buck O'Neil was committed to the U.S. Navy (as were many others) during the thick of his productive years. Their service reverberated their hopes for a better future America, because the America of their playing days did not embrace them as full citizens in many ways. Buck believed that this didn't necessarily limit his potential, but America's potential. There was still so much segregation, so much animosity for the players, like a Billy Williams, who was trying to follow a small path blazed by a few who came before him.
When I look back at my career, I understand that my opportunity was directly dependent on my Negro Leagues forefathers and their vision. My career does not happen without courageous men and women who had patience and a belief in something bigger than a moment or a season. Jackie Robinson stayed firmly silent even with the blizzard all around him, so that the next path could be cleared for someone else.
What I have come to understand even more firmly is that these men and their families endured a lot of trials and tribulations to do what they loved to do. Sure, I played for some managers who did not care for me. Sure, I took a shower under the bleachers in some rough minor league cities. Sure, I felt frustrated by my playing time for the 2004 Phillies, but my journey was like staring outside the window of a log cabin with hot chocolate in your hand while Buck O'Neil was digging a car out of two feet of snow that wasn't even his own.
There are people that come your way and mark a time in your life that transform you, maybe even transform history. And when I think of the sheer blindness I felt when I drove through some of the worst of that blizzard, I couldn't help to feel that I needed something bigger than my own driving ability to make it home. I needed to rely on instincts, some sense of having been there before, which is to rely on those who have cleared the way to see me through. Then once I reached home with my family, I understood that people like Buck O'Neil had a gift to be able to see the calm, to see the possibility even in the midst of the worst of conditions and having that kind of gift cannot help but become a gift for everyone you touch. For now they can see through anything.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released May 11, 2010. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com.