O'Neil makes history, 50 years ago Tuesday
Legend was tabbed first black coach in Major Leagues in '62
While Jackie Robinson's name will forever be synonymous with breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947, Negro League legend John "Buck" O'Neil made some history of his own by clearing more racial hurdles 15 years later.
Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the day the late O'Neil was officially named the first black coach in Major League history. O'Neil, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 94, was named a coach by the Chicago Cubs on May 29, 1962.
His road to the Majors started nearly 25 years earlier when he suited up as a member of the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs in 1938. His leadership ability came to the forefront in 1948, when he was named a player-manager for the Monarchs. O'Neil remained the club's everyday first baseman through the '51 season and contributed as a reserve until leaving the Monarchs in '55.
It was at that time that O'Neil was brought aboard the Cubs' staff to serve as a Major League scout. Prior to his historic promotion in 1962, O'Neil was vital in bringing black standouts like Lou Brock and George Altman to Chicago's North Side.
"Buck plays an important role in the hierarchy of baseball history," Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, said in a statement. "Just like Jackie [Robinson], Buck felt the pressure of representing a race of people. He knew he had to succeed in his role if others were going to get an opportunity. But just like Jackie, the Negro Leagues had prepared Buck to be successful in his groundbreaking role and as a result he helped open doors for others."
Ironically, O'Neil and Robinson never played together in the Negro Leagues, despite Robinson joining the Monarchs in 1945. O'Neil missed part of the '43 season and all of the '44-45 campaigns while completing a tour of duty in World War II as a member of the United States Navy.
Upon his return to the diamond in 1946, O'Neil wasted no time turning in career-bests in nearly every offensive category, including batting average, RBIs, stolen bases, extra-base hits and runs. Unfortunately, Robinson's historic debut the following year didn't come until O'Neil was 36 years old and starting the decline of his playing days.
O'Neil never expressed animosity as a result of his not getting a chance to suit up for a Major League club during his prime, but instead embraced the opportunity to contribute to the Cubs however possible in his post-playing days. He has, however, admitted that never getting to take the field in his time as a coach was one of the few disappointments in his seven-decade long baseball career.
"I was proud of being the first black coach," O'Neil said prior to his death in 2006. "The travel was better. The pay was better. But really it was bittersweet for me because I knew guys before me who were just as qualified as I was who never got the opportunity. But, it was progress."
It was progress that certainly did not go unnoticed, evident in the honors bestowed upon him -- and even the ones that weren't.
There was a fair amount of public outcry in 2006 when O'Neil fell one vote shy of being elected to the Hall of Fame in a special Negro Leagues election. Instead of wallowing in the pity of his apparent snubbing, O'Neil showed up at the induction ceremony that year and delivered a rousing congratulatory speech for the 17 Negro Leaguers who had made the cut.
Just more than two months after the ceremony, O'Neil passed away from a combination of heart failure and bone marrow cancer. Two months after O'Neil's death, then-President George W. Bush posthumously awarded O'Neil the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was accepted on O'Neil's behalf by his brother, Warren.
The honors continued the following year when, on March 31, 2007, O'Neil was awarded MLB's first annual Beacon of Life Award prior to the inaugural Civil Rights game. In 2008, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum continued to honor O'Neil's legacy through the creation of the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. O'Neil was posthumously declared the first recipient of the award named in his honor.
The award, which can be given out at most once every three years, is intended "to honor an individual whose extraordinary efforts enhanced baseball's positive impact on society, broadened the game's appeal, and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by O'Neil." Roland Hemond won the second such award in 2011.
While O'Neil may not have been elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, the legend has maintained a presence in Cooperstown since the Hall unveiled a statue in his honor in '08.
Though others may look at the missed opportunities and wonder what could have been had O'Neil been born just a decade later, baseball will always have O'Neil to thank for that historic day a half-century ago. And it's the words once uttered by the baseball pioneer -- now embossed on a sheet of glass behind his HOF statue -- that the always upbeat O'Neil stood by until his death.
"Waste no tears for me. I didn't come along too early. I was right on time."