Buck O’Neil – Baseball Star Who Broke Racial Barriers

January 13, 2024
3 mins read

Buck O’Neil Was a Charismatic Historian of Black Achievement

By Shola Adenekan

October 9, 2006.

Buck
O’Neil was a grandson of slaves who became a star player in the Negro
Baseball Leagues in the days when black sportsmen were not allowed to
take part in Major Leagues Baseball.

Apart
from being a three-time All-Star first baseman during his Negro Leagues
playing career, O’Neil also broke racial barriers as the first
officially-recognised black coach in the major leagues and late in life
found national fame as the endearing historian of a colourful yet
shameful era in America’s number one sport.

John
Jordan O’Neil was born on November 13, 1911 , in Carrabelle , Florida .
His family later move to Sarasota , Florida where his father, John
O’Neil, found job as a saw-miller on a celery plantation.

He
learned baseball early in life  and became attached to it through his
father who played in a local black team. The young O’Neil was the
batboy, and even then, the future first baseman had good hands. The team
played catch with him and sometimes threw him pennies and nickels. By
age 12, he was already playing for semi-professional black teams.

As
a boy growing up in the 1920s south, then known for rabid racism and
state-supported segregation laws, O’Neil had not seen black players
among the major baseball teams who came to Florida for seasonal spring
training.

That
all changed when his uncle and father took him to Palm Beach, Florida
to watch the famous black baseball player, Rube Foster, played in a team
of black players entertaining white owners of the city’s fancy hotels.

“I
saw these guys play ball,” O’Neil recalled. “I had never seen anything
like it. These guys were running, stealing bases, hitting home-runs,
everything. I said, ‘that’s for me.”

Education
for African Americans in most Southern states stopped at the eighth
grade and there were only four high schools specifically for blacks in
Florida. As Sarasota High School refused to admit him because of his
skin colour, a broken-hearted O’Neil left home to leave with relatives
in Jacksonville , where he obtained his high school diploma followed by a
two year of higher education at Jacksonville ’s Edward Waters College.

After
college, he began playing professional baseball with travelling black
teams, among them was the Zulu Cannibal Giants, whose white owner made
his player wear demeaning straw skirts instead of normal uniforms.

In
1938, O’Neil joined Kansas City Monarchs, one of  the premier black
teams. He led the team to four straight championship titles between 1939
and 1942.

He
was an excellent clutch-hitter and a first-rate baseman, leading the
Negro Leagues with .345 batting average in 1940 and a career-best .358
in 1947. To this day, many baseball players grab their marucci wooden bats and attempt to hit as Buck did.

In 1948, he became the player-manager of the Monarchs, guiding them to two Negro Leagues titles in 1953 and 1955.

In
1962, a tumultuous time of change in America when civil rights
activists were risking their lives on the back roads of the Deep South ,
O’Neil broke a meaningful racial barrier when the Chicago Cubs made him
the first black coach in the Major Leagues. He had been serving as the
club’s scout since 1956.

He was credited with discovering many notable black players some of whom went on to enter Baseball Hall of Fame.

O’Neil
said that he was too old to make the transition into Major Leagues
Baseball when as a 35-year old in 1947, African-American players were
allowed to play alongside white players. It was the year that Jackie
Robinson broke the colour-barrier by becoming the first black player to
sign for a white team when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In
1981, O’Neil became a member of the veterans committee of the National
Baseball Hall of Fame and was a powerful force in the induction of
forgotten Negro Leagues stars into the hall. Nine years later, he was
instrumental in the establishment of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in
Kansas City.

But
O’Neill only became a national celebrity in 1994, when he served as a
commentator and historian of black achievements in the game for a TV
documentary called “Baseball”.

As
a historian of blacks’ role in the game, O’Neil said that he had a
great time playing in the Negro Leagues and recalled spending his free
time in hotel lobbies talking jazz with Count Bessie, Duke Ellington and
Sarah Vaughn.

In
February this year, the man who many had thought was a sure bet for the
Hall of Fame, missed out by one vote, much to the disappointment of his
fans.

His
wife of 51 years, Ora Owen, pre-deceased him in 1997. The couple had no
children and O’Neil is survived by a brother. He died on October 6, 2006.

Please e-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com

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