O'Neil mortal, but not his legend
Negro League star passes, but his memory lives
I never thought, although I might have hoped, that John "Buck" O'Neil would live forever. At 94, O'Neil had lived longer than I could have expected him to live. I was prepared for his death, as prepared as any man can when an icon's life hung in the balance.
Yet I didn't expect Buck's death today to touch me the way it has. For his death reminded me of my own mortality, and his death told me how fortunate I was to have spent a few hours of my life in Buck's company.
The last time I saw Buck O'Neil was in Cooperstown, N.Y. He was there in mid-July for the induction of the 18 Negro League-era figures into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Buck was there to speak on behalf of these legends of "black baseball" who had earned a spot in Cooperstown, a spot that should, had life been just, been a place where Buck, too, would have been enshrined.
One morning there, Buck sat on a bench at Doubleday Field. I sat down beside him. It was Buck and me, looking out onto the field, watching Ozzie Smith and others go through drills with kids and talking to them about life.
Buck and I just chatted. Ours wasn't a deep discussion, not this time. And it wasn't my first chat with O'Neil, either.
In the past three years, his path and mine had crossed on a half-dozen occasions. Each time I met him, the meeting thrilled me as much as the earlier ones. In each of those meetings, I came away with a message about life -- or about baseball.
Those were messages that I won't soon, if ever, forget. For you have to listen to men like Buck O'Neil, men who enjoyed life, men who didn't mourn the bad breaks in it and men who greeted each day with a "Hello" and a smile.
Buck was more than a sprite "Hello" and a smile. He was a man of principles, and he was man whose experiences are lessons to us all. He was eager to share those experiences -- at least he was to people who bothered to listen.
I always did. I remember a story he told about his friendship with Satchel Paige, the Negro Leagues legend who gave Buck his other nickname, "Nancy."
But Buck's story this time wasn't the specifics of getting that unusual nickname. The story he was telling on this occasion in Kansas City was, unlike our conversation at Cooperstown, fraught with deep meaning.
In the story, Buck said he and Paige were teammates at the time on the Kansas City Monarchs, and the team was barnstorming through the Deep South. The Monarchs played a doubleheader one Sunday against the Atlanta Black Crackers.
"Have you ever seen a 'black cracker'?" Buck asked as he told the story.
After the game that Sunday, the Monarchs moved on to Charleston, S.C., for a series of games there. The team arrived in town early, so their rooms in a hotel weren't ready.
Buck recalled Paige telling him, "'Nancy, come go with me,' and I said, 'OK.' I didn't know where he was going."
The two men went down to the docks, where they boarded a boat for Drum Island, which is where slave traders had unloaded their cargo of men and women from Africa.
The boat made short work of the ride to the island, and when it hit shore, Buck and Paige got off the boat. They stood on the banks of the island for 30 minutes. Neither man said a word.
Finally, Paige told Buck, "I've got someplace else I need to take you."
The two men went to a warehouse nearby, Buck said.
"Satchel said, 'Now, this is where they used to auction off the slaves.'"
For 45 minutes, Paige and Buck stood together in silence, as if trying to soak up the history in front of them.
Paige finally said, "Know what, Nancy? It feels like I've been here before."
"I said, 'Me too, Satchel.'"
What the two men had realized was that their ancestors might have been sold into bondage on the very spot they stood. Paige wanted Buck to remember the dark past as he was living and enjoying the present.
"This is the Satchel that I knew and loved," Buck said.
Today, I'm not sure how many people have heard that story. I don't care what the number is -- a hundred, a thousand or 150 million. It doesn't matter. For me, Buck's story was a reminder of how much our past has shaped our present. It was a stark reminder of how far America has come, and perhaps how far it still has to go.
But however far it has to go, America will have to go it without Buck O'Neil. The thought of that is unsettling to me. For I feel that we're all lesser people for not having Buck and his wisdom here as a link between that long past and that uncertain tomorrow.
Justice B. Hill is a senior writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.