Pat Sangimino: Remembering Buck and the history lesson he gave to a young school girl (2022)

Pat Sangimino

Buck O'Neil finally got his day. Cooperstown at last rolled out the welcome mat and welcomed him in on Sunday, nearly 16 years after he left us.

It was long overdue. Baseball's ambassador to the Negro Leagues was a treasure — someone who should have been honored decades ago.

Baseball finally got it right. Sadly, theonly thing missing from the festivities was Buck himself.

Every time I think of Buck, I am reminded of my daughter, who on Tuesday celebrated her 29th birthday, and the amazing history lesson Buck treated her to so many years ago.

It was late morning on a Monday in February 2002. School was out in observance of one of the many holidays that allow three-day weekends and cause parents everywhere to scramble for daycare.

Kaylin, then in the fourth grade, and I were roaming the halls of Kansas City’s Negro League Baseball Museum. It was a business trip of sorts. She was collecting information for a report she had been assigned. I was there because, well, I was her ride.

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There was not another paying customer in the museum as we walked among the bronze statues that honored some of the best ballplayers most people never knew. They were mostly unknowns because baseball, like society itself, somehow deemed them unworthy solely because of their pigmentation. As a result, they were never given the opportunity to play on baseball’s grandest stage.

The museum is a wealth of information — a must-see destination for any baseball fan.

Suddenly, we were startled out of our fact-gathering excitement when a kind voice broke our quiet chatter. It echoed through the large high-ceiling room, asking how we were. And then he walked toward us — slowly, but with purpose.

His face matched his voice. Kind. Non-threatening. Welcoming. Gray hair outlined an ebony face with eyes that sparkled even in the dim light and a smile that could brighten a gloomy February day.

He was tall and thin, with the telltale slouch around the shoulders that comes from age. He was well dressed in slacks and a sports coat and the heels of his shiny freshly polished black shoes announced his presence with a rhythmic shuffle that echoed through the room with every step he took toward us.

I’d known Buck O’Neil for years. We’d often run into each other at the ballpark many times — most often in the media dining room, where he would see me eating a pregame meal and invariably ask me the same question:

“How’s the soup today?”

It was a friendly inquiry — his way of breaking the ice and starting a conversation. Buck had seen a lot of baseball in nearly 70 years as a player, manager, coach and scout. And he loved talking about it with others. I was lucky enough to be on the other end of a conversation with him a few times.

On that day, he shook my hand but was far more interested in my 9-year-old companion, who was immediately drawn to him. Most people were. Buck O’Neil, the former first baseman and manager of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League and the first black coach in major-league history, was a captivating man — easygoing, personable and the eternal optimist.

If anyone had a reason for regret, it was Buck, who, in his early 90s, was one of the last remaining Negro League ballplayers still with us. His playing career began a decade before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947. However, there wasn’t a bit of regret — not a stitch or remorse in his being.

“Waste no tears for me,” he used to say. “I didn’t come along too early. I was right on time.”

But Buck, doesn’t it make you sad that you didn’t get to play against the best ballplayers?

“Whose to say I didn’t?”

Indeed.

He’d seen it all. Willie Mays. Henry Aaron. Ernie Banks. He roomed with Satchel Paige.

“What brings you here today, young lady?” he asked Kaylin, dropping to a knee — no easy feat for a man in his early 90s — so that he could look at her and have a face-to-face conversation.

“I am writing a report on a book I read about Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese,” she said.

“Well, you picked the perfect place to come,” he said, explaining to her that he knew both of the former Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Famers.

“You did?” she squealed with a voice of utter excitement that only schoolgirls possess.

“I did,” he said, as he rose to his feet, gave me a we’ll-be-right-back wink and took Kaylin’s hand as he led her on a personal tour of the museum.

I kept my distance and let Buck work his magic. This was a man, who like other negro-leaguers, lived in relative obscurity. However, Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary, “Baseball,” gave the Negro League its due by paying homage to the game and its greats.

Through Burns, Buck became the face, the voice, and the conscience — a newfound national treasure — for that unfortunate time when our National Pastime, was limited to white men.

Jackie Robinson was a social experiment, the brainchild of Branch Rickey, who forced the issue because he saw black ballplayers as the new frontier, the next big thing. Getting in ahead of the rest of the league would give the Dodgers a competitive edge. Integrating the game would have eventually happened with or without Rickey, but his forward-thinking ways put it on the fast track.

However, it should be noted that Jackie Robinson’s debut offered no Kumbaya moment, no startling revelation, that society had seen the error of its ways and would soon institute across-the-board measures to break color lines — as baseball was, albeit grudgingly, doing.

Robinson wasn’t allowed to eat in the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels as his teammates. And in every stadium that the Dodgers visited, he was mocked and subjected to racial taunts by players, coaches and fans. His journey was rocky, lonely and tortuous — one that almost broke him on several occasions because society would be slow to change its hateful ways.

Sadly, those hateful ways, thought to be rectified with a violent Civil Rights Movement in the turbulent 1960s — when cities burned, blood was spilled and influential leaders were slain — have come back to haunt modern-day America. Or was racism always there, merely masked by social programs and integration and desegregation efforts that offered nothing more than cosmetic concealment to something that has never gone away?

Where is our modern-day Buck O’Neil, who dealt with racism for most of his life, and yet still found it in his heart to not only forgive, but also to love his neighbor without pretense or condition?

Until those individuals — someone like Pee Wee Reese — step to the fore to set an example, America is doomed to continue repeating this vicious cycle of hatred, violence and prejudice.

By accepting Jackie Robinson as a teammate — and ultimately, a friend — Reese, a Kentucky native, was turning his back on friends, family members and his heritage. With his acceptance of Robinson, he broke the stereotype of the Southern man that would set an example for the rest of his teammates.

Actually, it was a simple decision. Pee Wee Reese was a ballplayer — first and foremost. He was able to look past Robinson’s skin color to see that he was someone who could help the Dodgers. That’s all that mattered to him. When his teammates passed around a petition, saying they wouldn’t play on a team with Robinson, Pee Wee Reese was one of the few who stood up by refusing to sign.

“When Pee Wee stood up for Jackie, it started the change,” Buck told Kaylin.

Jackie and Pee Wee grew to become friends — lifelong friends, Buck explained to Kaylin. He spoke of their friendship and how important Jackie’s first season in the big leagues was to America’s Black population.

They talked for a while longer. Kaylin asked a few questions and he answered them honestly and openly. He was thrilled to be passing on his love for baseball to someone in the younger generation. My daughter was probably too young to appreciate what she was experiencing.

We thanked him for his time. Buck, again, went down to a knee and thanked Kaylin for stopping by for a visit. He told her he hoped he had helped her with her report.

She smiled, nodded and then did what any fourth grade girl would do. She gave him a hug — one of thousands he received in his lifetime.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7391 or psangimino@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @psangimino

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Pat Sangimino

Night editor

Pat Sangimino is a San Francisco native who has been the Journal Star’s night news editor since April 2018.

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