Tuesday July 26, 2022
I've been so excited about Twins making the Hall I neglected to talk about Buck O'Neil. Well, why say anything when you've got Joe Posnanski around. As I mentioned yesterday on Twitter, after posting his latest, “One day Joe will write an article about Buck O'Neil that I'll be able to read without tears welling up in my eyes. But not today.” Here's a sample.
Lynn Novick met Buck O'Neil shortly after she started at Florentine Films, working with Ken Burns on “The Civil War” documentary. Ken and Lynn's next project was to tell a different kind of baseball story — one that would show how the game's history and American history intertwine and interweave and mirror each other. This meant telling the story of the Negro leagues as it had never been told before.
But how? Many of the greatest Negro leaguers — Paige, Gibson, Charleston, Cool Papa — were gone. ... Someone told Lynn that she might want to talk with Buck O'Neil. She'd never heard of Buck, but she called, and he seemed amenable, so she showed up at his door in Kansas City with a camera crew behind her. She had absolutely no expectations; she just hoped that he would have some interesting memories.
And what followed was an interview unlike any she has had in her entire life.
“It must have been hard playing in the Negro leagues,” she said to him at one point.
He looked at her with amusement.
“No, it wasn't hard,” he said. “It was wonderful.”
It was wonderful. There was Buck O'Neil in three words. Lynn looked at him in astonishment. Buck was the grandson of enslaved people. He was not allowed to attend Sarasota High School. He was never given a chance to see if he was good enough to play in the major leagues — and he was good enough. He was never allowed to manage in the major leagues — and I have no doubt he would have been an extraordinary manager. He drank from separate water fountains and was turned away from white hotels and was forced to eat in the kitchens of restaurants that would even allow him in. He saw crosses burned and children spit at and once walked into a crowd of white sheets when he confused a ballpark with a KKK rally.
“It was wonderful,” he said.
And he talked about all the wonderful things, the wonderful players, the wonderful games. He told her stories, incredible stories, about Satchel Paige, about Josh Gibson, about Cool Papa Bell. He told her about walking into the Streets Hotel in Kansas City or the Evans Hotel in Chicago or the Woodside Hotel in New York and being treated like a star, and running into Cab Calloway or Count Basie or Ella Fitzgerald. ...
When “Baseball” came out, it had any number of eloquent characters, historians, musicians, some of the best ballplayers who ever lived. But all of them were supporting characters to John Jordan “Buck” O'Neil, who in his own distinctive way captured not only the spirit of the Negro leagues, but of baseball, too.
After it came out, Buck's life would change. For years, he had been largely ignored — people had learned that the story of African-American baseball had begun when Jackie Robinson crossed the line, and they weren't interested in hearing any more. But after “Baseball,” people began listening to him. People began asking him to tell more stories. He wrote a book. He appeared on “Letterman.” He traveled the country.
Lynn Novick was with us in Cooperstown this weekend.
So was her son. His name is John Jordan.