portrait of a Pioneer

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Hi all. Here’s how I see baseball today.  Here’s a story so well done I couldn’t have improved it in any way.  Ms. Jana Paley has written a brilliant sketch of Buck O’Neil  for her Facebook page and I reprint it here.

“What kind of determination and talent did it take for a young black man to rise out of the poverty of segregated Florida of the 1920s and 1930s? The answer is plenty and just what it takes is personified by John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil who became a role model for a generation of young men, no matter the color of their skin. O’Neil gained a small-time following as a baseball player in the Negro Leagues and big-time notoriety as the first black man to play a role as a coach in Major League Baseball, but Americans didn’t truly fall in love with him until America’s most beloved producer of historic documentaries Ken Burns featured him on his series about Baseball in America. Once Ken Burns introduced O’Neil to the American living room as a narrator for his PBS series, “Buck” rose to the status of national hero.

Though born in Florida’s Panhandle, the O’Neil family moved to Sarasota’s community of Newtown in 1923 when the young O’Neil was just 12 years old. Buck, always a charmer, would say that his family left the agricultural fields of the Panhandle where they worked mainly as pickers for a better life in Sarasota where Buck recounts his his father went into the “recreation business.” His father actually ran a pool-hall in Newtown and during Prohibition his father’s sideline was small-scale bootlegging. Buck’s mother worked various domestic jobs and also in some food establishments, of course, they were of the segregated variety. When the family first arrived, Buck worked in the celery fields in Fruitville. During an interview he admits to mouthing his first swear word while working under the blazing Sarasota sun, “it was hot that day, children,” he told a journalist, and then he said that he wondered out loud if his family had really found the better life they were looking for, and when it was clear to him that they had not, he decided to find his own way out.

Sarasota had two Negro baseball teams, the Nine Devils and the Sarasota Tigers, and many young black men saw those teams as their way out of working the fields or other menial jobs. Buck joined the Sarasota Tigers almost immediately after relocating to Newtown while he shined shoes to help support his family. He also worked as a box boy and he told Sports Illustrated that he was considered to be a very good box boy because “most of the boys could only carry two crates at a time, but I was big and strong enough to carry four. I did that for about 3 years at about $1.25 a day.” After graduating from 8th grade, going to Sarasota High which was only open to whites was not an option for the clearly bright O’Neil; education didn’t immediately seem to provide a gateway, so traveling with the Sarasota Tigers was his best option. After playing for several years, O’Neil who had then started to call himself Buck after the owner of Miami’s semi-pro team the Giants with whom he shared a similar last name, Buck O’Neal, decided to live with family in Jacksonville where he could attend one of Florida’s four high schools for black students. Eventually, he not only earned a high school diploma but he won an athletic scholarship to Edward Walters College in Jacksonville and after completing a two-year course of study in 1934, the Negro League teams came calling looking for players willing to travel and participate in “barnstorming.”

For those of you who don’t know much about the history of semi-pro and professional athletics in America in the 1930s through the 1940s, “barnstorming” refers to the practice of organized sports teams traveling the country outside their organized seasons and staging exhibition matches, most often in small towns. In baseball the term most often refers to Negro League teams challenging semi-pro and Major League Baseball teams. Barnstorming also allowed players to play two different sports, so you could be a professional basketball player during the regular season and then go off and participate in barnstorming baseball games. The early barnstorming exhibitions led to the development of specialty or novelty teams like the Harlem Globe Trotters Basketball Team which conducts exhibitions and also challenges organized teams. Buck O’Neil was never a great baseball player, but he was willing to always give one hundred percent of himself at interracial barnstorming events and in 1937 his efforts paid off when the Memphis Red Sox, one of the first teams in the newly organized professional Negro American League, signed him for $100 a month. A year later, the Sox sold his contract to the Kansas City Monarchs where he would cover first base until the end of his career as a player in 1955. Like most of the professional athletes of his day, World War II interrupted his career; he joined the U.S. Navy serving from 1943-45.

O’Neil was best described as a journeyman player, never a star, but he became a true student of the game. He did play in two Negro World Series and was a member of four All-Star squads. I’m not going to spout statistics, mostly because the numbers for the Negro Leagues are incredibly unreliable and if you look at different baseball almanacs none of the stats seem to match. He was a reliable batter, and certainly had many .300-plus seasons and he was a good fielder, but his true talents began to emerge when he became a player-manager. He was named Manager of the Monarchs in 1948; remember, in those days player/managers were quite common.

By the 1940s, the Negro leagues began to wane in popularity. As World War II came to an end, journalists who had seen early signs of blacks and whites working together in the service signaled that it would not be long before Major League Baseball would have to drop the color barrier, especially since there was so much talent pent up in the small number of Negro teams still playing. Finally, in 1947 history was made when Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was only a matter of time before the Negro League would be an anachronism. When the long time owner of the Monarchs sold the team in 1955, O’Neil felt it was time to pursue a new opportunity, working with a Major League Baseball franchise; though there were black players, there were no blacks in management.

Certainly his love of the game, charming nature, and abilities as a manager went a long way when O’Neil asked the Chicago Cubs if they wanted to use his talents as a scout. O’Neil became the first black man to work on a Major League Baseball team’s scouting force, but real history was made in 1962 when the Cubs named him as a the first black coach. Many young people know O’Neil as the man who signed future Hall of Famer Lou Brock to his first contract as well as many other notable black and white players. Longevity didn’t hurt O’Neil; during the time when most men retired from the game at the age of 65, O’Neil stuck with the game he loved. In the late 1980s when he was already in his late 70s, he gave up coaching and management and returned to the job he loved best, scouting. In 1998 at the age of 87 he was named “Midwest Scout of the Year” while working for the Kansas City Royals.

Shortly after making the move back to scouting, O’Neil took a step toward becoming a national idol representing the national pastime. He entered the national stage in 1990 when he took the lead in an effort to build the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. O’Neil held the top job as the institution’s honorary board chair until his death. Yet, he still was not a household name, but that would happen in 1994 when Ken Burns’ critically acclaimed multi-part documentary series about Baseball would air on PBS. Burns was disarmed by the first baseman when he met him and immediately decided that O’Neil would be the voice of what many referred to as “Shadow Ball” and life in the Negro Leagues. If you have not watched what I can only describe as “required American television,” you should at least watch some of the excerpts on Youtube; no Sarasotan should miss O’Neil describing his adventures as a young black man in Newtown looking for a way out. He poignantly described seeing the New York Giants coming to town and watching the likes of Giants’ Manager John McGraw and players like Babe Ruth saying, “my eyes are now wide open seeing these people play baseball at a level I never imagined it would be.” He spoke of his uncle, a railroader, who visited Sarasota and then took him to West Palm Beach to see Rube Foster at the Royal Poinciana Hotel. He really sets the scene by saying “ballplayers worked as the bellman porters at the hotels there and they played twice a week…on Thursdays when the maids and the chauffeurs were off and could come to the games and on Sundays when they had half a day off.” When he returned to Newtown he pushed his father, who had also played organized ball to buy the black weekly paper The Amsterdam News so he could read about black ballplayers. He told Burns, “It meant everything to me, because I hand’t thought in terms of black and white, you know. All the professional baseball players I’d seen, they were white….but now I was going to see professionals that were black…and this meant so much to me. It meant getting out of the celery field; it meant improving my life. I said I’m going to be a baseball player.” Maybe O’Neil’s career batting average didn’t break .300, but I got to say, he was batting a thousand after appearing in Burns’ documentary.

O’Neil has a certain grace and eloquence that you have to see for yourself, but he was never more gracious than when he was controversially denied his place in the Hall of Fame. Though he himself served on the Veterans’ Committee and helped to install many other players at Cooperstown, the cool hand of fate and perhaps the remnants of prejudice stood in his way. He was on the verge of enshrinement in 1993, but when the Veterans’ Committee led by Ted Williams convened to vote, Roy Campanella, a member who openly acknowledged he would vote for Buck was hospitalized. Campanella offered to “attend” the meeting through conference call, but Williams hung his ballcap on a bylaw which stated members had to vote in person. No one will ever know why Williams decided to be such a stickler for the rules or why other members of the Veterans’ Committee didn’t take a stand to allow Campanella’s vote. Supposedly, other Veterans’ Committee Chairs had accepted proxies in prior years. Many of you have heard stories from Sarasotans who knew Ted Williams; most picture him as a stern man and one who was never known to be gregarious or to seek popularity or approval, so I will let you draw your own conclusions. O’Neil quite decorously spoke at the Hall of Fame after the loss imploring his fans not to begrudge the decision. He specifically never allowed the disappointing decision which kept him out of the Hall to define him; instead Buck used the national spotlight foist upon him by the media to describe his expansive career and to say how important it was never to let anyone forget what is was like to live in segregated America and how he transitioned into the desegregated world.

O’Neil probably won more national acclaim after not getting enshrined at Cooperstown; instead of lamenting the decision he used it to his advantage to get the Negro Leagues a place of recognition at Baseball’s holy altar. However, I should mention that there are websites devoted to him gaining what fans believe is his rightful place in the Hall of Fame. After gaining recognition after the Cooperstown debacle and through his efforts to build a place to remember the Negro Leagues, O’Neil spent the rest of his life being honored in innumerable ways including being given honorary doctorates. Of course one such honor is that Sarasota’s Spring Training and Baseball training center was named for him. Last week I profiled Ed Smith Stadium, now the Spring Training home of the Baltimore Oriole’s; the Stadium is just one piece of the overall complex which features 4 fields in addition to the Stadium’s field and the offices for the Baltimore Oriole’s franchise. The Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex at Twin Lakes is quite a mouthful’ many prefer the center’s nickname, “Birdland South.” Unfortunately, the greatest honor ever given to O’Neil came posthumously. Just three months after O’Neil passed away at the age of 94 in October 2006, President George W. Bush awarded him the country’s highest honor it may bestow on a civilian, The Presidential Medal of Freedom. Buck’s brother became his pinch hitter when he went to White House to accept the medal; afterwards, the President took extra time to share his personal recollections of Buck which he obtained while touring the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum with him as a his guide. President Bush remembered Buck for keep the door open on a time period people might want to gloss over, but which we cannot allow people to ever forget. In many respects Buck’s long life allowed him to be a portal to the past while providing Americans with ideal for the future.

Sarasota may no longer be segregated and there may be more opportunity for black people today than ever before, but young black men still dream of professional athletics as a way out of poverty. When any young kid thinks about a career in professional sports, I’d urge them to look to the example set by John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil who may have seen baseball as a gateway, but who also believed in education and went on to embrace the importance of history and who spent his latter years teaching people what is was like to be a trend-setting black American man.”

Our first two baseball birthdays today are now broadcasters.  Aaron Boone and C. J. Nitkowski are both 43.  Nitkowski, who pitched for the Tigers can be heard on weekends doing a baseball show on CBS Sports Radio.  Aaron Boone is more often seen and  better remembered. First off, he’s the third generation of the Boone baseball family-Ray, Bob and Aaron.  Aaron now does commentary on ESPN baseball games and has for some years.  But he will never be forgotten in New York (or Boston for that matter,) for belting a walkoff home run in the last of the eleventh to beat the Red Sox in game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.  While the Yanks lost that World Series, no moment since then has had the signature quality that Boone’s shot has.

Benito Santiago is 51 today.  With the Padres he was one of the best catchers of his time.

Terry Mulholland is 53.  He’s one of the less likely men to throw a no-hitter, but as a member of the Phillies he has one to his name. He pitched one in August of 1990, a year when many no-hitters were twirled by the likes of Dave Stewart and Fernando Valenzuela. He was from Uniontown, PA, near Pittsburgh and was educated at Marietta College in Ohio.  As a novice basketball announcing team, my broadcast partner and I took our first major road trip to Marietta in December, 1984 for a basketball tournament. Later the Division 3 World Series was played there for a number of seasons. Their stadium is lighted at his personal expense, and its approach road is Mulholland Drive (not the one in the movie.) Mulholland started the final game of the 1993 World Series in Toronto which ended in fireworks on Joe Carter’s walkoff blast.

Dagoberto “Bert or “Campy” ” Campaneris is 74 today.  Think of the 3 World Series-winning Oakland A’s teams and you can’t leave out campaneris, along with Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Sal Bando, Catfish Hunter and the rest of the mustachioed men who marauded through baseball in those 3 seasons. Born in Pueblo Nuevo (NewTown,) Cuba he was their leadoff hitter, with 2249 hits and 649 steals for a career of some 20 years. He led his league in steals 6 times, the last in 1972. He was an All-Star 6 times-5 with Oakland, one with the Rangers. Until campaneris came to town the A’s record for steals in a season was 58 by Eddie Collins in 1914 with the Philadelphia Athletics. Bert swiped 62 in 1968, the team’s first year in Oakland. By 1972 he had broken collins’ franchise high of 376 steals. The Mets hadn’t given up a home run in the 1973 World series until campaneris crushed one in game 7, followed by a Reggie Jackson dinger that doomed the Orange and Blue to defeat. Campaneris never coached in the majors here, but led a Japanese team to two championships in 1987 and 1988.

Joseph Floyd “Arky” Vaughan was born this day in 1912, and died at 40 in 1952.  The 9th All-Star game ever played was in 1941 at the recently renamed Briggs Stadium in detroit, later Tiger Stadium. The National League seemed certain to win because of two home runs hit by the Pirates’ shortstop Arky Vaughan.  In the last of the 9th Ted Williams hit a 3-run walkoff home run, one of only 3 walkoff dingers to win an All-Star game.  As for Vaughan, the name “Arky” came from his Arkansas roots. When the All-Star game was brand new he played in 9 of the early classics starting in 1934. After 10 years over .300 the Pirates traded him to Brooklyn. Talk about jobs being tough to keep back then. After two seasoons he retired early rather than keep playing for Leo Durocher, the Brooklyn manager. When the Lip was suspended for all of 1947 Vaughan made a comeback and played on the World Series team, hitting a double and drawing a walk as the Dodgers lost in 7. He played one more year with the Dodgers. He and another man drowned on a fishing trip in California 4 years later.


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