King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Hall of Fame for 17 Negro Leaguers is "wonderful" and overdue. But the voters erred on Buck O'Neil.


Salon Staff
February 28, 2006 10:00PM (UTC)

I don't pretend to be an expert about the Negro Leagues, but I know about contributions to baseball and I know about Buck O'Neil, and I think the special committee that voted 17 people from the Negro Leagues into the Hall of Fame Monday made a mistake by not electing Buck O'Neil.

The surviving 11 members of a 12-member panel of researchers, professors and historians met in Florida over the weekend to cast the final ballots in a process that completed a six-year study of blacks in baseball prior to 1960. The other member, Robert Peterson, author of the classic "Only the Ball Was White," died earlier this month, but he had cast a ballot, which was counted.

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A panel of 50 scholars did the basic pre-1960 research over the last six years, then passed along a list of 94 Hall of Fame candidates, which was whittled down to 39 by a screening committee last fall.

There were two living candidates, O'Neil, 94, who played for and managed the Kansas City Monarchs and was later a major league coach and scout, and Minnie Minoso, 83, who starred for the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians during a long career in the '50s and '60s after spending three years with the New York Cubans.

Both are wonderful characters, remarkably upbeat men, dislike of whom is apparently not possible. Neither made it. So there won't be that particular feel-good element to the ceremony this summer.

Of the 17 who did, 12 were players and five were executives, which seems to me like way too high of a ratio for the suits. The game, after all, was played on the field.

Still, while one can quibble with the particulars or even rage at the exclusion of a particular figure, it can't be overstated how important and overdue this project was. I'm about to rage about Buck O'Neil's exclusion, but his reaction when told that 17 former Negro Leaguers had been elected, not including him, was, "Wonderful!"

The most newsworthy honoree was Effa Manley, who owned the Newark Eagles in the '30s and '40s with her husband, Abe, and who will become the first woman enshrined.

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All I know about Effa Manley comes from news reports about her election, and from the brief mentions of her in "Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball," a wonderful book published by the Hall of Fame that serves as the companion volume to the study that resulted in this election.

Effa Manley ran the business side of the Eagles from 1936 to 1947 while Abe handled the baseball side until his death in 1946. The Eagles won the Negro League World Series that year. She was a skilled promoter who also used the Eagles as a vehicle to promote social causes, especially civil rights.

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But other than the fact of her being a woman, there doesn't seem to be much about her that screams out for Hall of Fame enshrinement. If Effa was a Hall of Fame owner, why wasn't Abe? And if Effa Manley is going into the Hall of Fame for her accomplishments as an owner, how can it be that, say, Walter O'Malley isn't in?

The answer, I guess, is that she's in not for baseball reasons, but because she was a pioneer. She's being honored for her contributions to the game.

She didn't contribute a tenth of what Buck O'Neil has.

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Almost everything I know about the Negro Leagues I know because of Buck O'Neil. You too, I suspect. I live in St. Louis and can go years without seeing a Kansas City Royals cap, but I see Kansas City Monarchs caps all the time. Buck O'Neil put them there.

For decades, when the baseball world and the world beyond it didn't want to hear about Negro League baseball, O'Neil was its spokesman. He became a star in Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary, but he'd already been at it for a generation by then. The Negro Leagues have a Hall of Fame and museum in Kansas City -- it's worth a trip if you're in that part of the country -- largely because of O'Neil's efforts.

He is the greatest ambassador the Negro Leagues have ever known, greater even than his former star pitcher, Satchel Paige. And he might be the greatest ambassador the game has ever known, greater even than his former star shortstop, Ernie Banks.

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He was a good player, a line drive-hitting, slick-fielding first baseman, but not good enough for the Hall of Fame. In "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," James compares him to Mark Grace and Mickey Vernon.

He was a very good manager, leading the Monarchs to five pennants and two World Series titles in eight years. Probably too short a run for the Hall of Fame, but certainly noteworthy.

Then he became a scout for the Cubs, a good one, and, in 1962, the first black coach in the major leagues, also with the Cubs. That takes care of the pioneering element, don't you think?

And then his efforts over the last third of his life so far have been largely responsible for the Negro Leagues and their stars getting their historical due.

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Thirty years ago, when I was a boy obsessed with baseball and its history, I knew about Satchell Paige because he was a celebrity who appeared at old-timers' games. I had a vague understanding that some of the aging black stars I'd seen play -- Banks, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron -- had played in the Negro Leagues. I knew the story of Jackie Robinson.

But I literally never heard the names of such titans as Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell or Oscar Charleston. That was a huge hole in my understanding of the game, no less a travesty than a kid learning about basketball today and hearing nothing about Wilt Chamberlain.

It's impossible for a kid today with the same interest in baseball history that I had to go very far without learning about Josh Gibson. Literally written out of history as of three decades ago, Gibson is today considered, almost without challenge, the greatest catcher who ever lived.

He, and we, can thank Buck O'Neil for a large part of that. That's a contribution, and it's a greater contribution than a lot of Hall of Famers have made. Add that to O'Neil's record as a player, manager, scout, coach and pioneer, and I think he's a slam dunk for Cooperstown.

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Would we know and hear so much about the Negro Leagues today if Buck O'Neil had retired quietly in the '60s, never to be heard from today? Probably. Somebody else, maybe a whole lot of people, would have eventually done the work O'Neil did.

But then, if Babe Ruth hadn't become the game's greatest hitter and star in the 1920s, somebody else would have. That didn't keep Ruth out of Cooperstown.

I have no opinion about Minnie Minoso's credentials. For his major league career alone, he's a borderline Hall of Famer who I think just misses, but it wouldn't bother me if he got elected. I don't know enough about his brief career with the New York Cubans to say if that should tip the balance. In or out, I wouldn't be terribly unhappy.

But Buck O'Neil deserves better.

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He and a few hundred friends and supporters gathered at the museum in Kansas City Monday to wait for the announcement. When the bad news came, O'Neil told them not to shed any tears for him.

"They didn't think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame," he said. "That's the way they thought about it and that's the way it is, so we're going to live with that. Now, if I'm a Hall-of-Famer for you, that's all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck."

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