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05/31/08 8:30 PM ET

O'Neil remembered with monument

Negro League legend's spirit, positivity celebrated in KC

KANSAS CITY -- The clouds floated away a few minutes before the ceremony began. Sun shined on Forest Hill Cemetery.

"It's a beautiful day," said Bob Kendrick, director of marketing for the Negro Leagues Museum, "in recognition of a beautiful human being."

His words couldn't have been truer. A Kansas City and Negro Leagues legend finally got a proper memorial on Saturday. About 500 feet away from he and his wife Ora's grave, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and SI Memorials dedicated a monument to Buck O'Neil.

Cars sped along Troost Street just up the road as the ceremony began. They might as well have been in a different country. Nothing could've disrupted this scene.

Soft jazz and recordings of O'Neil's stories tuned out any noise from the city. The whites, reds and yellows of flowers dotted hundreds of graves, along with leftover mini American flags from Memorial Day.

In the middle of it all, near the front of the cemetery stood the veiled marble structure dedicated to O'Neil. A who's who of Kansas City sat under a green tent next to it -- Mayor Mark Funkhouser, Emmanuel Cleaver II, Ollie Gates.

Friends of O'Neil came, too. So did people who never met him. They all wanted to honor a great man.

"In a time of injustice," Funkhouser said, "he chose to focus on the opportunities he had."

"Buck O'Neil would not allow a down moment to occur," Cleaver said. "No matter how difficult it was, he'd find a way to lift it up and lift you up."

Jazz again filled the air after they shared their stories. This time it was live. Bobby Watson. O'Neil loved Bobby Watson's sax.

The veil was lifted, revealing O'Neil's monument.

A young O'Neil, pictured from his playing days with the Monarchs in the 1940s, crouched down on the front. The back of marble stone displayed his statistics -- a league-leading .353 average in 1946 -- his position -- first base, outfield, manager -- his height, his weight. It was just like a big baseball card.

"We didn't get to see him as a baseball player," Kendrick said. "So we wanted to show him that way."

The monument wasn't complete without a nugget of wisdom from O'Neil. Kendrick told the story behind the quotation they engraved on the statue.

Back in February 2006, everyone knew O'Neil would get elected into Baseball's Hall of Fame. It seemed like a done deal. About 300 of O'Neil's friends planned a celebration.

Then the shock came. O'Neil hadn't made it. He gave this announcement to all of them; the special words he said are now written on the monument below his picture.

"If I'm a Hall of Famer for you, that's all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don't weep for Buck. No, man. Be happy, be thankful."

The class he showed on that day didn't surprise any of his close friends. They knew O'Neil always found a reason to smile. Or laugh. Even if it wasn't for any good reason.

Dr. Edith Coleman knew O'Neil for 27 years. They were both members of the Kansas City Set Club, and Coleman taught in the Kansas City school district with O'Neil's wife.

Every Mother's Day, Coleman received a phone call from O'Neil. He called her and the other eight woman members of the Set Club just to wish them a happy holiday.

Whenever O'Neil entered the gatherings for the Set Club, the members would always shout "The Buck stops here." One time when they said it, O'Neil just broke out into laughter. From then on, all the members would laugh when someone shouted O'Neil's entrance call.

"Just because Buck laughed," Coleman said. "No reason. We laughed because he did."

Somewhere on Saturday, Buck had to be laughing.

Mark Dent is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.