Former Negro Leaguer O'Neil dies

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Buck O'Neil, a batting champion in the Negro Leagues before becoming the first black to serve as a major league coach, has died. He was 94.

The beloved national figure as the unofficial goodwill spokesman for the Negro Leagues died Friday night in a Kansas City hospital, eight months after he fell one vote short of the Hall of Fame.

O'Neil was admitted Sept. 17 with what was described as extreme fatigue. He also had lost his voice. Bob Kendrick, marketing director for the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame, said Saturday that O'Neil died from complications of congestive heart failure and recently diagnosed bone marrow cancer at Research Medical Center.

O'Neil will lie in state Friday at the museum's Field of Legends gallery, where well-wishers can pay their respects. A private funeral and burial service are scheduled for next Saturday at a place and time to be determined, and a separate memorial service open to the public will follow.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig asked for a moment of silence to be observed before Saturday's playoff games.

"Buck was a pioneer, a legend and will be missed for as long as the game is played," Selig said. "I had the good fortune of spending some time with him in Cooperstown a couple of months ago and I will miss his wisdom and counsel."

A star in the Negro Leagues who barnstormed with Satchel Paige, O'Neil later signed Hall-of-Famers Lou Brock and Ernie Banks as a scout. In July, just before he was briefly hospitalized for fatigue, he batted in a minor league All-Star contest and became the oldest man ever to appear in a professional game.

"What a fabulous human being," Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said. "He was a blessing for all of us. I believe that people like Buck and Rachel Robinson and Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa are angels that walk on earth to give us all a greater understanding of what it means to be human. I'm not sad for him. He had a long, full life and I hope I'm as lucky, but I'm sad for us."

A celebration of his 95th birthday has been planned for Nov. 11, with a guest list of about 750 that included many baseball greats as well as other celebrities and political leaders.

Kendrick told The Associated Press the party would still be held, only now as a tribute.

Always projecting warmth, wit and a sunny optimism that sometimes seemed surprising for a man who lived so much of his life in a climate of racial injustice, O'Neil remained remarkably vigorous into his 90s. He became as big a star as the Negro League greats whose stories he traveled the country to tell.

He would be in New York taping the "Late Show With David Letterman" one day, then back home on the golf course the next day shooting his age, a feat he first accomplished at 75.

"But it's not a good score any more," he quipped on his 90th birthday.

Long popular in Kansas City, O'Neil he rocketed into national stardom in 1994 when filmmaker Ken Burns featured him in his groundbreaking documentary "Baseball."

The rest of the country then came to appreciate the charming Negro Leagues historian as only baseball insiders had done before. He may have been, as he joked, "an overnight sensation at 82," but his popularity continued to grow for the rest of his life.

"He brought the attention of a lot of people in this country to the Negro Leagues," former Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. "He told us all how good they were and that they deserved to be recognized for what they did and their contributions and the injustice that a lot of them had to endure because of the color of their skin."

Few men in any sport have witnessed the grand panoramic sweep of history that O'Neil saw and felt and was a part of. A good-hitting, slick-fielding first baseman, he barnstormed with Paige in his youth, twice won a Negro Leagues batting title, then became a pennant-winning manager of the Kansas City Monarchs.

In 1962, a tumultuous time of change in America when civil rights workers were risking their lives on the back roads of the Deep South, O'Neil broke a meaningful racial barrier when the Chicago Cubs made him the first black coach in the major leagues.

"I can't remember a time when I did not want to make my living in baseball or a time when that wasn't what I did get to do."
-- Buck O'Neil

Jackie Robinson was the first black with an opportunity to make plays in the big leagues. But as bench coach, O'Neil was the first to make decisions.

He saw Babe Ruth hit home runs and watched Roger Clemens throw strikes. He talked hitting with Lou Gehrig and Ichiro Suzuki.

"I can't remember a time when I did not want to make my living in baseball, or a time when that wasn't what I did get to do," he said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2003. "God was very good to old Buck."

Born in 1911 in Florida, John "Buck" O'Neil began a lifetime in baseball hanging around the spring training complex of the great New York Yankee teams of the '20s. Some of the players befriended the youngster and allowed him inside.

In February 2006, it was widely thought that a special 12-person committee commissioned to render final judgments on Negro Leagues and pre-Negro league figures would make him a shoo-in for the Baseball Hall of Fame. It would be, his many fans all thought, a fitting tribute to the entire body of his life's work.

But 16 men and one woman were voted in and O'Neil was left out, one vote short of the required three-fourths.

Several hundred of his friends and admirers had gathered at the Negro Leagues Museum for what they thought would be a celebration. Instead, they stood in awkward, restless silence as the old man once again -- (for how many times in his long, eventful life?) -- brushed bitterness aside.

"Shed no tears for Buck," he told them. "I couldn't attend Sarasota High School. That hurt. I couldn't attend the University of Florida. That hurt.

"But not going into the Hall of Fame, that ain't going to hurt me that much, no. Before, I wouldn't even have a chance. But this time I had that chance.

"Just keep loving old Buck."

But among his close friends, few believed that his heart wasn't really broken.

"It is clear the Baseball Hall of Fame has made a terrible error in not inducting Buck on this ballot," Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said. "It is rare that an entire community rallies around a single person, but our city loves Buck, what he stands for and his indomitable spirit.

"Buck O'Neil is a man who has done more than anyone to popularize and keep alive the history of the Negro Leagues," Cleaver said.

In the months that followed, O'Neil embarked on an exhausting schedule that had him flying to California, Ohio, Arizona and New York among other stops. He spoke at the induction ceremonies in Cooperstown. In July, he batted in the top and bottom of the first inning of the Northern League All-Star Game, making him the oldest man ever to play in a professional baseball game.

"He was one of the pioneers of Negro League baseball, and he was one of the guys who never let it die," Oakland third-base coach Ron Washington said. "He was one of the guys that made sure that people knew of all the talent that was in that league. I was quite disappointed when he wasn't inducted into the Hall of Fame, but he made it possible for the ones who were inducted into the Hall of Fame."

O'Neil was especially loved by the very young. In appearances at children's clubs and elementary schools throughout the country, kids of all color would gather around to hear the merry-eyed, grandfatherly figure spin his tales.

Among older African-Americans, however, he would sometimes run into resentment. Why relive the Jim Crow past? Why dredge up bitter memories of segregated lunch counters and public facilities with insulting "whites only" signs?

But O'Neil would fire right back.

"It's very important that we know our history. We have to do that," he said. "I would remind them of a time when baseball was a source of joy for them. Then as we talked about it, they would remember who they were with, even what they wore to the games.

"I would tell them this is not a sad story. It's a celebration!" he said.

In the foreword to O'Neil's autobiography in 1996, Burns wrote of his amazing ability to see the goodness in his fellow man.

"His life reflects the past and contains many of the bitter experiences that our country reserved for men of his color, but there is no bitterness in him," he said.

"It's not so much that he put that suffering behind him as that he has brought gold and light out of bitterness and despair, loneliness and suffering. He knows he can go farther with generosity and kindness than with anger and hate," Burns wrote.

O'Neil had no children; his closest living relative is a brother, Warren O'Neil.