In the summer of steroids, baseball's most beloved ambassador traveled the country, often introduced to cheering crowds as "Hall of Famer Buck O'Neil." He was too polite to correct them, so the great Buck O'Neil simply smiled and nodded and began telling his stories.
But now, he isn't in the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is hard to believe, because most of us kind of thought he was, too. He didn't complain about it. He didn't campaign. He could've gotten people good and worked up over his omission, but he never brought it up.
Truth be told, it's partly his fault. For a long time, O'Neil wouldn't let it happen. For nearly 20 years, he stayed on the Veterans Committee because he was determined to get those Negro League players from his day into the Hall of Fame. Most of his peers and predecessors had passed away, but he stayed on that committee and told the voters all about Hilton Smith and Turkey Stearnes and Bullet Joe Rogan.
"Ah," Buck O'Neil said by phone from his Kansas City home, "there were so many players that belonged in there 'fore you'd ever get to me."
That's Buck O'Neil, the last gentleman in baseball. At 94 years old, he's still a throwback in every way. Only now, finally, it is his turn. O'Neil is one of 39 ex-Negro League and pre-Negro League ballplayers a special committee will consider Feb. 27 in Tampa for enshrinement in Cooperstown. The commissioner's office paid $250,000 for a big study to come up with these candidates, but that was for the rest of his guys. Everybody knows O'Neil belongs. That isn't even a question, is it?
"Oh boy, this makes me feel good that I'm maybe qualified to be in the Hall of Fame," O'Neil said.
Close your eyes, listen to that voice, to that beautiful laugh of his, and nothing else sounds like baseball quite the way Buck O'Neil does. Pete Rose has always called himself the game's great ambassador, but that's a joke. Pete Rose has always been selling Pete Rose. The big leagues never banned O'Neil for anything but his skin color and still he has never harbored a dose of anger, nor resentment. He had a right, the way Rose never did.
Now this is an ambassador. More than anyone in history, he has kept alive the memory of the Negro Leagues. And that wasn't simply a part of baseball history but of American history. He can make you laugh and think about a time that probably should make us cry. O'Neil's Negro League career was interrupted for five years by World War II, but he returned to win a batting title for the Kansas City Monarchs and five Negro American League championships.
O'Neil never played beyond the Negro Leagues, but the Chicago Cubs hired him as the first African-American scout in major-league history. He signed a couple of pretty good players for them, Ernie Banks and Lou Brock. Eventually, still with the Cubs, he would be made the first African-American coach in baseball history.
Listen, there are worthy candidates on that Negro League ballot. I won't pretend to know who else belongs. O'Neil belongs. Everyone knows that.
Cooperstown is full of people without the most staggering statistics but with impact. Thousands of people who never saw O'Neil play -- who couldn't tell you where he played, or for whom -- stand and cheer for him. Joe Posnanski, the great sports columnist for The Kansas City Star, spent last summer traveling the country with O'Neil for a book to be released in early 2007, "Baseball and Jazz: A Summer with Buck O'Neil."
"And our last stop was Washington a couple of weeks ago, where he sat before the Congressional subcommittee where all the steroids guys sat," Posnanski said. "Except Buck told them about all the good in baseball."
In the summer of steroids, O'Neil traveled to 20 cities and 18 major stadiums and tried to undo much of the damage done. Baseball has never needed O'Neil more than it has in these troubled times. He's a soothing presence, a living, breathing belief that it can be all right again, that baseball still can be about beautiful summer days like those in that little village in upstate New York when baseball immortalizes one more of its own.
"One of the greatest sights for me at Cooperstown was when George Brett was put in the Hall," O'Neil said. "All I could see out there was our colors, Kansas City's colors, all over the place."
So he was asked whether he dared think about the day that maybe he would get into the Hall of Fame and all those Kansas City colors would return to watch him be inducted in Cooperstown. "Not as much as I was thinking about Frank White," O'Neil said. "Frank White should be in there, too."
It won't be easy getting Buck O'Neil to campaign for himself between now and the vote in February, so people need to do it for him. Of course he wants desperately to get into the Hall of Fame. He fought hard enough for so many others that Buck O'Neil knows better than anyone what it means to get his day in Cooperstown, to get forever there.
"Keep your fingers crossed," O'Neil said before hanging up the phone, and just then, you could hear him laughing and laughing as his voice faded away. The sweet sound of baseball.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His New York Times best-selling book can be purchased at Amazon.com.