Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Buck O’Neill (1911 – 2006): Ethics Can Be Tough

Buck O’Neill, who died on October 7, became the face and voice of the Negro Leagues when he appeared in Ken Burns’ massive PBS TV documentary “Baseball.” A teammate of such legends as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, O’Neill told Burns the rich, often tragic stories of the talented players like him who had to play in a rag-tag, under-financed all-black professional baseball league because they were banned from the major leagues and white ballparks. By the time St. Louis Cardinal executive Branch Rickey and Negro League star Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier in 1947, many of the greatest black players had lost their chance for fame and recognition. Buck O’Neill’s stories got some of it back.

O’Neill was a barrier-breaker himself, becoming the first African American to coach in the majors with the Chicago Cubs in 1962. As a scout, he signed Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Lou Brock, and American League MVP catcher Elston Howard. He was a role model and a hero to black players, and an influential and respected advocate among baseball decision-makers, pushing them to acknowledge the need to recognize and honor the Negro League players whose careers had been damaged irreparably by institutionalized racism. Thanks in great measure to O’Neill’s efforts, the Baseball Hall of Fame held a special election last February to enshrine outstanding Negro League players and executives. It was taken for granted that Buck O’Neill, who was beloved, respected, prominent, alive (unlike most on the ballot) and instrumental in getting the election held in the first place, would be one of those elected.

He wasn’t. Buck failed to make Cooperstown by one vote, prompting angry columns from sportswriters across America, and condemnation from O’Neill’s many prominent friends in baseball. But the electors had done the right thing, a difficult thing. It would have been easy to put O’Neill in the Hall; nobody would have complained, and it would have been a wonderful reward for O’Neill’s tireless work as an unofficial ambassador of good will for baseball in general and his Negro League colleagues in particular. But the Hall of Fame isn’t there to honor nice guys and good will ambassadors; it exists to honor great players. Although O’Neill was a slick fielding first baseman who won a batting title once, he was a very good player, not a great one. Electing him would have degraded the honor for the very same players whose careers Buck O’Neill had celebrated in public appearances and interviews across the country. It is certainly true, as some critics readily pointed out, that in the past some less-than-deserving white players have been elected to the Hall more because of their friendships than their accomplishments. But a past wrong can never make repeating the same wrong right. O’Neill’s rejection by the Hall was a cruel blow to an old man, but still the right thing to do. The Hall of Fame voters had an obligation to uphold the integrity of the institution, not to make a gift out of Hall enshrinement, no mater how laudable the recipient.

In the wake of this shattering surprise, Buck O’Neill was still able to teach an ethics lesson of his own. On the day the results of the special election were to be announced, several hundred of his friends and admirers assembled at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, ready for to celebrate O’Neill’s triumph. Buck O’Neill, who helped found the museum, was there too. When the crowd heard the stunning news that Buck had been turned down by one vote, it was paralyzed in awkward silence.

Then Buck O’Neill showed them that while he may have only been a very good baseball player, he was a great and ethical human being. He didn’t give in to disappointment, self-pity, anger or envy. “Shed no tears for Buck,” he told the crowd. “I couldn’t attend Sarasota High School. That hurt. I couldn’t attend the University of Florida. That hurt. But not going into the Hall of Fame, that ain’t going to hurt me that much, no. Before, I wouldn’t even have a chance. But this time I had that chance. Just keep loving old Buck.”

For the crowd, that was easy. For Buck O’Neill and the Hall of Fame, it was behaving ethically when emotion dictated otherwise that was tough.

Yet both mustered the ethical courage to do what they had to do.

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