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OTL: O'Neil awaiting Hall call

Can one phone call undo decades of exclusion? John "Buck" O'Neil, the 94-year-old former Negro league player and manager, is about to find out.

O'Neil, an all-star first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs and longtime ambassador of the Negro leagues, is one of 39 candidates up for consideration in a Baseball Hall of Fame special election this weekend in Tampa, Fla.

"When you say Hall of Fame, you're better than good," said O'Neil. "You understand? Yeah, that's the top of the line."

O'Neil is proud that 18 Negro league legends have been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame since the 1971 induction of Satchel Paige, but he said there are dozens more who deserve to be inducted.

It has been a long and arduous process to reach even this point of voting on such a large group of Negro league and pre-Negro league era candidates. Mainly, there had been a lack of information that the Hall normally uses to measure its candidates -- statistics.

"In 2000, our board said, 'We don't know enough about the Negro leagues; let's try to pull together a comprehensive study,' " said Baseball Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey.

Aided by a $250,000 grant from Major League Baseball, 50 researchers spent the past five years combing through newspapers in order to study African-Americans in baseball and to create a database of Negro league statistics. They were able to unearth nearly all of the box scores and reporting from the Negro leagues and pre-Negro league eras.

One man involved in the study was Lawrence Hogan, a Negro leagues historian and author of the recently released book, "Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball."

While he concedes there are "gaps and inconsistencies" in the historical record, Hogan feels confident this new body of information can live up to the standards of the Hall of Fame.

"Whatever gaps might be there aren't terribly significant because there's a solid, substantial enough record to give you a very good statistical picture of what happened in Negro league play," said Hogan.

"We now have the statistics on which to judge the worthiness of players, and that's why this election can now be held," said Petroskey. "It's been awhile, and they probably should have been considered before. We just didn't have the stats to go on."

The 39 candidates will be voted on by a committee of 12 historians chaired by former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent. Only 11 will be in attendance this weekend, though; Bob Peterson died on Feb. 11, but he was allowed to cast his vote before he passed away.

Rather than list their top candidates, as is done in traditional voting, the committee members simply will submit a "yes" or "no" for each candidate. Any candidate receiving a "yes" on 75 percent of the ballots will be inducted in July along with modern-day closer Bruce Sutter.

O'Neil and Minnie Minoso, who played three years in the Negro leagues before he began his major-league career with the Indians in 1949, are the only candidates on the ballot who are still alive. To some, the opportunity to induct the only two living candidates could be significant.

"Guys who should have gotten in on the basis of their record, or just didn't know enough about the record at the time, or people weren't listening to it, never made it there, to smell the roses, and if Buck can and if Minnie can, that's special," said Hogan, who has a vote in this weekend's election.

If O'Neil receives the phone call he's been waiting for on Monday, his plaque and those of other previously overlooked Negro league era candidates will adorn the same Hall of Fame wall as the white stars against whom they were not allowed to compete.

Regardless of the results, O'Neil, who also holds the distinction of being the first African-American coach in Major League Baseball, is glad that a full history of both black and white baseball is finally being realized.

"This is a story not only baseball; this is the story of America in that period," said O'Neil, "This is the story that should be told, and people have forgotten the story."

Nicole Noren is a producer for ESPN's Outside the Lines. She can be reached at Nicole.K.Noren@espn.com.