O'Neil to be celebrated this weekend
Public ceremony will be held on Saturday in Kansas City
KANSAS CITY -- The baseball nation will focus its eyes on more than the postseason on Friday and Saturday as people everywhere continue to mourn the death of Buck O'Neil.
The 94-year-old O'Neil, the face and the voice of "black baseball," died of heart failure in a hospital here last weekend. Officials of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, where O'Neil served as chairman, will hold his body in repose at the museum from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. CT on Friday for people to pay their final respects, according to Bob Kendrick, marketing director of the museum.
"As you can imagine," Kendrick said on Thursday, "it's been a difficult time for all of us who knew Buck."
He said O'Neil's family and close friends will then hold a private service for the baseball icon on Saturday morning at a church near the museum. Later in the day, family, friends, city officials and baseball stars from the past and present will gather in Municipal Auditorium in downtown Kansas City at 5 p.m. CT for a public remembrance of O'Neil.
"Our challenge now is to try to go through this mourning period, which we all are in right now, and try to move from mourning into celebrating this man's life," Kendrick said. "Buck lived a wonderful life.
"He would not want us mourning his death but, rather, celebrating his life. That's the challenge faced by all of us."
He said the museum will forge ahead with its plans to celebrate O'Neil. First on its list of tributes to O'Neil will be the public remembrance, an event that will bring people like Minnesota Twins outfielder Torii Hunter and Ken Burns, whose documentary on baseball helped put O'Neil's life in baseball on public display.
Hall of Famer Joe Morgan will moderate the event.
Beyond that, the museum still plans to hold a tribute to O'Neil on the date of his 95th birthday in November. The museum had been planning to kick off a "Thanks a Million Buck" campaign that day to raise money for an educational component of its mission, a mission that O'Neil embraced wholeheartedly.
Though the campaign will be a fundraiser, it will also be a celebration of a man who defied hatred and bigotry to live a rich, public life in baseball. He was a man who, as Kendrick put it, put duty and mission ahead of his personal well-being.
His appearance at the Hall of Fame induction last July of 18 Negro Leaguers spoke to the latter point.
In what would be his last public speech, O'Neil spoke for the great men and one woman from black baseball who went into the Hall that afternoon. He served as the strong voice for all of the inductees, none of whom were alive. On their behalf, he gave a witty, impassioned speech that, many people had thought, would be his own induction speech.
But the 12 voters in the special election, the outgrowth of a $250,000 research project that Major League Baseball funded, didn't select O'Neil for induction last February. Despite their snub, he took center stage on behalf of his Negro League comrades.
In his speech at Cooperstown, he said, "I've done a lot of things I like doing, but I'd rather be right here, right now, representing these people that helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice. ... This is quite an honor for me."
The fact that O'Neil gave the speech was a tribute to a man who bore no grudges, but it also was a testament to his unflagging will. O'Neil gave that speech on a hot Sunday afternoon in July even though he was in failing health.
"He was sick then," Kendrick said. "He wouldn't have missed that for the world. It should have been his acceptance speech, but it was a speech then for all his colleagues who did make it in."
Now, Kendrick said, it is other people who have to speak for O'Neil on all matters baseball. Their words here on Friday and Saturday will hardly match those of the man himself.
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.