In September of 1994, there was a reception on the White House lawn for the
premiere of Ken Burns' "Baseball" series on PBS. A hundred or so people milled
about, chatting, dining, trying out the speed-pitch booth. But there was a
constant knot of folks around one charismatic man -- Buck O'Neil. President
Clinton? Eclipsed by Buck, he was off by himself, grazing the buffet table.
Buck O'Neil was a pretty good first baseman in the Negro leagues, a
close friend of Satchel Paige, a mentor to Ernie Banks, the first
African-American coach in the major leagues and the scout who signed Lou
Brock, Lee Smith and Joe Carter. But it wasn't until Burns made him the star
of his series that Buck became a legend -- not so much for what he did, but for
what he projected. Joy. Wisdom. Faith. Grace. Strength. He loved jazz and
golf and Kansas City and people and, most of all, baseball. Just a few
minutes in his presence, and you knew why Hal McRae called him "The Guiding
He refused to be bitter. Once, when asked if he regretted coming along
before Jackie Robinson, Buck said, "I was right on time." He was a tireless
ambassador for the Negro leagues, but last year the Hall of Fame Veterans
Committee failed to include him in what was thought to be the last group of
Negro leaguers to be inducted. Rather than complain, he gave a speech in
Cooperstown, welcoming the last class.
Buck wasn't all sweetness. He hated Charlie Grimm, the Cubs' manager when
he was a coach -- thought him a racist. On a trip to the old ballpark in
Daytona Beach, he went from gratitude ("Jackie played here") to anger ("That
area of the bleachers was the Jim Crow section.")
He lived to be 94, but he was never stuck in the past. He got as much a
kick out of watching Bo Jackson as he did out of watching Babe Ruth. He made
your day, whether you were a fan who stopped by his seat in Kauffman Stadium,
or a player who asked him for tales about Satchel.
He'll be missed, but we'll always have the Ken Burns series, and the
plaques in Cooperstown he lobbied for, and the Negro Leagues Museum he
helped build in Kansas City, and the notion that he touched somebody every
day of his long life.
Back at that White House reception, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and
turned around to see Buck standing with his hand on the head of my
8-year-old son, Bo. "This young man is looking for you," he said.
Temporarily lost, my son had instinctively gone to the one person in the
crowd who could show him the way.
Steve Wulf is an executive editor with ESPN The Magazine.