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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Buck O'Neil

I am a really avid baseball fan - Chicago Cubs. My favorite player from my day was Billy Williams. Most people think of the Cubs and think Ernie "Mr. Cubs" Banks or Ron Santo - current radio voice of the Cubs and shamefully kept out of the Hall.

I had the good fortune of living in KC, home of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum - a must visit if you are anywhere in the vicinity or visiting in the area. The Negro Leagues existed when the Major Leagues were segregated - BJR (before Jackie Robinson). The Negro teams were amazing and had a number of great players (some who went on to the MLB when it integrated) and some who retired long before the opportunity became available. The Museum chronicles the teams and all the great history of the players and the times. One of the greats was John "Buck" O'Neil. He was my hero and died a couple of years ago.

Buck O'Neil grew up in Florida and wanted to attend the University of Florida - my alma mater. He was turned down because UF at the time was segregated. Buck played baseball for the KC Monarchs and was a standout, though not the best player. He went on to become the first African-American coach in the MLB - for the Chicago Cubs. He was a talent scout and signed Ernie Banks to the Cubs. So, you can see that for me, I had to love Buck.

In his retirement, Buck took on the Negro Leagues with great passion, becoming the ambassador for their story and champion of the museum. Of course, in KC he was a legend and celebrity. He was a tireless and incredibly optimistic supporter of the mission of the Museum across the country. Annually, there is a dinner and weekend in KC for African-American ball players that draws a number of luminaries from the MLB to support the museum. Very cool. All these fans of the Leagues and friends of Buck fought to get him into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sadly, shamefully, an error of historic proportions, worst judgment in history - Buck was denied entry into the Hall in his last opportunity when a vote was taken for Negro League players. With great aplomb, Buck said it was ok and in one of the classiest moments in baseball history - Buck spoke at their induction at the Hall. That's who he was and the character he infused into the Museum. (Note: a statue of Buck was erected outside the Hall - once again indicating the closed door policy of the MLB...).

Buck had a dream for KC - to build an education center for kids in the building where the Negro Leagues were formed. It is a beautiful old red brick structure that has been closed for years and is a silent sentinel to what will be Buck's legacy. I started a group on the UF Alumni social network site - the Gator Nation - called Gators Love Baseball - as a tribute to Buck and his connection to the University. I had hoped to have Buck recognized by the Alumni association, but sadly, he died before I was successful. I hoped that Gator Alumni would donate to Buck's dream.

This weekend the Museum hired a new Executive Director, Greg Baker. There are concerns that the Museum will drop their plans for the Education Center. One, the Museum has always been in financial peril and two, the fundraising for the Center has been lackluster to say the least. Seems that when Buck died, the enthusiasm for these efforts died with him.

I contacted Greg as soon as I heard he had been selected. I've known him and his family since arriving in KC. I am pledging to redouble my efforts to this cause. Maybe the Museum will spin off the Center to another group. Maybe it won't. Doesn't matter - as both causes will go on. The African-American community is quite stirred up about the 8-7 board vote that settled on Greg. I don't envy him having to go into a divided situation like that. Jason Whitlock, sports commentator, wrote a scathing column about Greg's selection. Way to support the cause, Jason! Comments about Greg center on questioning his commitment to the Museum, his commitment to the black community, and his professional skills. Glad the community could come together to honor Buck's memory. Well. I loved Buck. I love baseball. I love UF. I love the Cubs. I have no choice but to support the Museum and the Center. Expect to read more about it here!

1 comment:

Xavier Onassis said...

"With great aplomb, Buck said it was ok and in one of the classiest moments in baseball history - Buck spoke at their induction at the Hall."

It wasn't just one of the classiest moments in baseball history, it was the classiest moment I've ever witnessed by anyone ever. Period.

I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. O'Neil, but I always wanted to. From what I could observe, his outlook on life was the most optomistic and energetic I've ever seen. And this from a man who had every possible excuse to be bitter and filled with hate.

He simply chose not to go down that path.

Every human on this planet would do well to follow his example. Sure would be a lot happier and more peaceful planet if they did.