© 2022 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

'At long last,' Kansas City legend Buck O'Neil will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame

0721_AP_BuckONeil_Monarchs.jpg
Charlie Riedel
/
AP
John "Buck" O'Neil walks to the field as he is introduced before a minor league all-star game in 2006, in Kansas City, Kansas. O’Neil, a champion of Black ballplayers during a monumental, eight-decade career on and off the field, has joined Gil Hodges, Minnie Miñoso and four others in being elected to the baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday.

Sixteen years after his death, the former Monarch legend’s name, and memories of his personality and wisdom, are still being passed along in Kansas City. The ceremony is set for this weekend in Cooperstown, New York.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick still remembers the day in 2006 when John “Buck” O’Neil, surrounded by fans and community leaders, learned he had fallen one vote short of entering the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“I’m the one that had to break the news to him, and I know in his heart that he thought he was in,” Kendrick said. “We all thought he was in, and it didn’t happen. It was devastating to all of us.”

After this weekend, Kendrick will have a more fitting memory to recollect.

On Sunday, O’Neil, who rose to fame as a first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs, will be posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“Obviously it’s bittersweet. I wish that my friend was here,” said Kendrick. “We won’t get the opportunity to high-five, chest bump, hug our guy. But it certainly does not diminish the accomplishment.”

O’Neil will be inducted in the executive category — he was the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s board chairman for years and played a critical role in its founding in 1990.

But O’Neil influenced the game in countless ways.

As a former Hall of Fame committee member, he got an inside look at the selection process, and he’d seen deserving players get passed over before. The 2006 snub was something he had braced for, he said at the time.

“Everybody thought I was a shoo-in, but I knew better,” said O’Neil. “I knew what could happen.”

Still, when 17 figures from the Negro Leagues were inducted that summer, O’Neil was on the dais to speak on their behalf, something he had been doing for years.

“I’ve done a lot of things I like doing,” said O’Neil in Cooperstown, New York. “But I’d rather be right here, right now, representing these people that helped build the bridge across the chasm of prejudice.”

O’Neil died that October at the age of 94.

Lessons passed down

O’Neil became the first African American coach in Major League Baseball with the Chicago Cubs in 1962. He also had an eye for talent and, as a scout, signed future Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Lee Smith.

A man wearing an orange baseball shirt with the word "Giants" on the front watches a baseball game from inside a dugout. Some players can be seen on a field in the background.
Greg Echlin
/
KCUR 89.3
Stevenson, who was scouted by Buck O'Neil, now coaches in the Ban Johnson Baseball League. He thinks of O'Neil frequently.

Kansas City native Ronnie Stevenson was also scouted by O’Neil, back when Stevenson played at Alcorn State University.

Stevenson said he often thinks about O’Neil when he’s on the baseball diamond and when he walks by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Stevenson never made the big leagues, but he did go on to direct inner-city baseball programs at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kansas City. He also coaches in the Ban Johnson Baseball League.

“The love for the game, that was Buck,” said Stevenson, from the dugout at the Creekside Baseball Complex in Parkville, Missouri. “Not just the love for the game, it’s the love for people — you can’t be in this dugout if you’re not a people person.”

It’s just one lesson learned from O’Neil that Stevenson now coaches into his young players.

“Buck was an icon,” he said.

Reminders of excellence

In Kansas City, O’Neil has already reached some level of immortality. Physical reminders of his lasting impact exist throughout the metro.

Since 2016, drivers crossing the Missouri River near the downtown airport have used the Buck O’Neil Bridge. A new bridge under construction in the same area will continue to bear his name, and Kansas City is looking for innovative ideas to preserve and repurpose the original.

At Kauffman Stadium, the Kansas City Royals use the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat to honor people who have made a difference in the community.

Buck O'Neil Mural by Alexander Austin
Libby Hanssen
/
A Negro Leagues-era Kansas City Monarchs team and baseball legend Buck O’Neil are featured on the walls of the Paseo YMCA, in the 18th and Vine District.

In the 18th and Vine District, at the Paseo YMCA where the Negro Leagues were founded in 1920, work is under way to create the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center. Once completed, fans, students, and researchers will be able to study every aspect of the Negro Leagues and social history, according to the center’s webpage.

O’Neil’s likeness was even applied in sticker form to a KC Streetcar stop at Union Station.

Beginning this weekend, O’Neil will also have his rightful place in Cooperstown.

Meanwhile, more people are flocking to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, where a life-size statue of O’Neil watches over an open area called the Field of Legends.

Museum President Bob Kendrick said attendance has spiked since last December, when the Hall of Fame announced O’Neil and six others would be inducted.

“I do think a lot of that coincided with the jubilation that people had that Buck was, at long last, being inducted into the National Baseball of Hall of Fame,” said Kendrick.

That long-awaited ceremony is set for Sunday afternoon, and will be broadcast live on MLB network and at MLB.com.

Kendrick plans to seize the opportunity with a new fundraising effort called, “Thanks a Million, Buck.”

He’s asking O’Neil’s fans to donate “one buck” each, with the goal of raising $1 million for the education and research center in his name.

“We have to do exactly what Buck O’Neil would have wanted us to do,” said Kendrick.

A man stands facing the camera. Behind him is an old wooden fence and a baseball scoreboard that reads "Field of Legends."
Greg Echlin
/
KCUR 89.3
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick, under the Field of Legends scoreboard. The field features life-size statues of Negro Leaguers, and serves as the museum's centerpiece.

Sports have an economic and social impact on our community and, as a sports reporter, I go beyond the scores and statistics. I also bring the human element to the sports figures who have a hand in shaping the future of not only their respective teams but our town. Reach me at gregechlin@aol.com.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make non-profit journalism available for everyone.