Tuesday, July 18, 2006

John "Buck" O'Neil Will Be an All-Star [J. Mark English]

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) - John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil never got a free pass in life.
The grandson of a man brought to this continent as a slave, O'Neil moved to Kansas City to avoid racial persecution in the Deep South and played baseball during an era of segregation.
It figures that on Tuesday night, when the 94-year-old steps into the batter's box during a minor league all-star game, nobody will quibble over an intentional walk.
Except maybe O'Neil.
"I just might take a swing at one," he said before Tuesday night's Northern League event.
The Kansas City T-Bones signed O'Neil to a one-day contract, likely making him the oldest professional baseball player. He would surpass 83-year-old Jim Eriotes, who struck out in a minor league game in South Dakota earlier this month, by more than a decade.
"I imagine the bat's a little heavier than that club I've been swinging," said O'Neil, who maintains he can still shoot his age in golf. "It's been a long time since I've picked up a bat."
Nobody disputes that O'Neil's involvement in the game borders on a gimmick. But his supporters hope it also provides a boost in their quest to get him into Cooperstown.
In May, a special 12-member panel did not choose O'Neil for the Hall of Fame, though it did vote in 17 people from the Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues eras.
On a day that was to be his crowning achievement, O'Neil quietly sat at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., and accepted that his name wasn't called.
"It was a roller coaster for everybody except him," said Bob Kendrick, the museum's director of marketing. "Certainly he was disappointed. But he taught us how to handle disappointment. In the scope of things that have happened in his life, not getting into the Hall pales in comparison."
Since the ballot was cast, the T-Bones have become the unofficial champions of Buck O'Neil.
General Manager Rick Montean said the club has been passing petitions through the stands at all home games, asking commissioner Bud Selig or former commissioner Fay Vincent to intervene.
Team owner John Ehlert then suggested O'Neil actually play in the league's all-star game. The plan is to allow him one at-bat for each team, intentionally walking each time.
"The Negro Leagues were the original independent baseball," Ehlert said. "And Buck O'Neil is the patriarch of independent baseball."
A lifetime .288 hitter and two-time Negro League batting champion, O'Neil became major league baseball's first black coach with the Chicago Cubs. He went on to discover Hall of Famer Lou Brock and countless others as a scout, and now works tirelessly with Kendrick to keep alive the story of the Negro Leagues.
His exclusion from the Hall of Fame caught nearly everybody by surprise. Players including Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Brock took aim at the selection process, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, said the vote had left "a community in tears."
"He should be celebrated in baseball," said Kansas City T-Bones manager Al Gallagher, a former San Francisco Giants pitcher who met O'Neil in the late 1960s. "Why the commissioner hasn't put him in the Hall of Fame, I have no idea."