Friday, October 06, 2006
Around this time last year, I came home from a movie screening to the news that Rosa Parks, one of the great African American pioneers of the last century, had passed away, a long life of struggle and triumph finally over. Tonight, a similar experience, as I learned that John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil was gone at the age of 94. Buck O'Neil, one of the last of the great Negro League baseball players, may not have had the name recognition of a Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson. But in his own way, this eloquent, literate man was just as important for the cause of civil rights as either of them. He also was the best ambassador baseball had going today.
Click on the subject line to read The New York Times' brief but excellent obituary about O'Neil. But here's my own short recollection of him: A few years ago, I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Buck O'Neil at a television press tour, where PBS was presenting a revival of sorts of some of the documentarian Ken Burns' most important works. Among these films were segments of Burns' epic Baseball, in which O'Neil, then a young pup of 82, was introduced to much of America with his colorful tales of life in the Negro Leagues. Buck regaled us reporters with more stories during the Q&A, then continued in followups with a small group of us afterwards. What I recall the most about that encounter was that this man who had more than earned the respect of anyone and everyone around him refused to answer to "Mr. O'Neil." He insisted that we call him Buck. It was that casualness, that ease with people and with his past, that I will always remember about him.
I hope Buck is enjoying the chance to run through the green outfields of heaven right now, and that he will do well in his first game alongside the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and the other greats that he was denied the chance to play with in life. I've got a feeling they're going to be impressed with this newcomer.