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The Art of Black Baseball 

An interview with Buck O'Neil

click to enlarge Buck ONeil, manager of the Kansas City Monarchs, 1948-1955
  • Buck ONeil, manager of the Kansas City Monarchs, 1948-1955

In his autobiography, I Was Right On Time, Buck O'Neil offers his observation about the Negro leagues' place in American culture: "Fact is, you could say Negro-league ball was one of the black arts, like jazz and the blues."

If Negro-league ball was an art, then Buck O'Neil was not only one of its great artists, but also its most prominent art historian. O'Neil began his career in semi-pro ball in 1926 at the age of 15, playing for his hometown Sarasota Tigers. As a player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs, O'Neil played with and against some of the game's greatest legends, including Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Leon Day, Willie Wells, Bullet Joe Rogan and Josh Gibson. He was the first African-American coach in the major leagues, joining the Cubs in 1962, and as a scout for the Cubs, he discovered and signed players like Ernie Banks and Lou Brock.

O'Neil serves as chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City and as a member of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee. When Ken Burns' documentary Baseball aired in 1994, O'Neil became an overnight sensation at the age of 82. He remains one of the game's best ambassadors, telling the world: "The thing about the game is not how you hold on to that baseball but how that baseball, holds on to you."

He is a colorful and animated speaker, making jazz riffs out of old anecdotes, turning memories into music and serving up generous doses of the elixir of language. In anticipation of his appearance at the Arts in Sports Festival, O'Neil took time to speak with the Independent from his home in Kansas City.

What effect did seeing the major leagues and the Negro leagues for the first time have on you?

I didn't know anything about the Negro leagues when I saw major-league baseball. I liked baseball. This was very exciting to me. I saw Ruth, I saw Cobb, I saw all these great baseball players. And then my uncle came to visit us in Sarasota one summer, and I was telling him about the great ballplayers I'd seen, the greatest baseball players in the world. "How you know they're the greatest in the world?" I said, "Well, they're in the major leagues!" He said, "I tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to take you and your dad someplace, down to Palm Beach. I want you to see some other baseball players, then you make up your mind." I said, 'Okay, okay,' but I'm appeasing the old man, because I knew I'd seen the best in the world. I'd seen Ruth, Cobb, Walter Johnson. That's the way I felt about it.

But he did come. He came and took me to Palm Beach. That Rube Foster ballclub -- Rube had eight guys on that team that could steal you 100 bases, could each hit 30 or 40 home runs. I'd never seen anything like it.

Before I went to Palm Beach, the kids would come to my house, and I would spread the Tampa Tribune out on the back yard on the grass, and we would read about the major leagues, what was happening. When we went out to practice or play, we emulated the ballplayers. Maybe I would be Babe Ruth, another kid would be Ty Cobb, another kid would be Walter Johnson.

But after going to Palm Beach, I got back home, and my uncle sent me the Amsterdam News, which was a black weekly. My father subscribed to the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender. Every Tuesday, we'd go in the back yard, and I'd spread the papers out and read in these papers about what's happening in the Negro leagues. So now, when we would go out, one guy would be Rube Foster, another C.I. Taylor, another would be Smokey Joe Williams, another would be Bullet Joe Rogan. Yeah, that's the way we did it. I said "Now this is a chance for me." Because all the ballplayers I'd seen make a living were white. Now I'd say, "I can make a living playing baseball."

As the first African-American coach in the major leagues, were you very conscious of breaking a color-barrier?

I didn't think too much of it. It was actually kind of bittersweet to me. For the simple reason that it's good, I'm glad to be here, making more money, and I'm not running all over the country like I was scouting. That's the good part about it, but the bad part, see, I knew Rube Foster, I knew Dizzy Dismukes and C.I. Taylor, guys who were actually qualified to be coaching and managing in the major leagues 70 years ago. Yeah, and the major league were darn near a hundred years old, and I'm the first black coach? No, it didn't speak too well for baseball.

What do you think is most important for people to know about the Negro leagues?

Most people don't know just how good we were. Really. See, the Bingo Long stories, The Soul of the Game, led people to believe that [those films] were the Negro leagues. But the Negro leagues were never like that. ... The Negro leagues were the third largest black business in this country. Actually, it was a great league, and it had some of the greatest athletes that ever lived. ... Another thing people don't realize about Negro-league baseball, 40 percent or 45 percent of the Negro league baseball players were college men. Because we played in college towns. We played the black-college teams, and that's where we got the majority of our ballplayers.

Do you think it's fair to look at the statistics equally, comparing Negro-league stats to major-league stats?

Of course. Of course. Because one thing about it is, see, you know, Satchel Paige was an old man (42) when he went in the major leagues. He won in the major leagues. Don Newcombe. You know what I mean. Joe Black. These guys pitched in the major leagues [after starting in the Negro leagues], and we had pitchers in the Negro leagues better than they were. Yeah. So, actually, like I say, supply was greater than the demand.

In the introduction to your book, Ken Burns writes that baseball's "hidden history is the key to our salvation." What is some of the important hidden history that people need to find out more about?

It would be more or less about this country and what was happening in this country at that time. See baseball, baseball was just a sport. But what do you think the other million people were doing out there, black people? Yeah, what do you think the hell they were doing out there? All the things they couldn't do that all other citizens could do. Yeah. My father owned property, paid taxes and couldn't vote! Wasn't that sinful? Huh? So many things. And actually, black kids in schools, especially down South, at a lot of the schools 8th grade was as high as they could go in school. Yeah. All of these things. Now that was certainly more than not being able to play major-league baseball. 'Cause we formed a league of our own. Yeah.

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African-American baseball hero Buck O'Neil: I Was Right on Time

O'Neil will speak about his life in baseball and show a video about the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum


Friday, Jan. 21,

1 p.m. for District 11 students at Palmer High School; 7 p.m., free and open to everyone at the East Library

Call 634-7333 for more info. See our listings section or go to www.ArtsinSports.org for details on other events.

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