February is Black History Month across America, and I’ve been celebrating the moxie of a few of our nation’s most compelling people. Today I’m talking about Buck O’Neil, a baseball standout whose career spanned the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues. But it was O’Neil’s gracious moxie off the field that really made him stand out.
On a hot fall day in 1923 in Sarasota, Fla., twelve-year-old Buck O’Neil paused from his work setting out boxes for celery pickers to fill. He was hot, and he was itchy from the muck from the fields. He paused for a moment, and said mostly to himself, “Damn, there’s got to be something better than this.”
His father, the foreman on the job, overheard his son’s plaintive observation. He later pulled his son aside and assured him that there was something better, but he’d have to leave Sarasota to pursue it.
Young O’Neil was already on his way to doing just that. In addition to hauling boxes of celery, he was playing semi-professional baseball for the Sarasota Tigers. He soon left Sarasota to pursue his education after he was denied entry into his hometown high school because he was black. He landed at Edward Waters College, a historic black institution in Jacksonville, where he played ball for the next several years until he started his professional career.
Jim Crow and racism kept talented black players like O’Neil from proving their skills alongside white players, but it didn’t keep them from playing high-level competitive ball. The Negro Leagues, formed by Rube Foster in 1920, offered all the thrills and show-stopping play of that other, white league on the sports scene.
O’Neil powered his way through several teams – Miami Giants, New York Tigers, and the Shreveport Acme Giants, Memphis Red Sox, Zulu Cannibal Giants – until he landed a spot as first baseman on the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the premier teams of the Negro Leagues.
After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the 1945 and baseball began to integrate, the Negro Leagues began to decline. In 1955, O’Neil retired as a player and manager and accepted a role as a scout for the Chicago Cubs, and went on to become the first black coach in the Major Leagues in 1962. He returned to Kansas City in 1988 and finished out his career there as a scout.
But what set Buck O’Neil apart was more than his considerable talent on the field; it was his presence off the field. People were drawn to his optimism, grace and charm. He never let the hostility and bitterness of the Jim Crow era overtake him. Some lessons from his life:
People with moxie create something better.
As a black man in the era of segregation, O’Neil was regularly denied entry into all manner of hotels, restaurants and more. But instead of dwelling on where he wasn’t welcomed, O’Neil focused on the vibrant, bustling culture and economy the black community created itself.
“We stayed in the best hotels in the world. They just happened to be owned by black people. We ate in the best restaurants in the world. They just happened to be run by blacks,” said O’Neil.
When shut out of the dominant culture, O’Neil and others of his era created, shaped and nurtured a society rich with art, culture and achievement.
People with moxie remember the past.
O’Neil became a driving force in the move to preserve the history of the Negro Leagues, which faded from existence in the 1960s. Preserving the history of the league was about more than remembering the athletes who played the game; it was about honoring the perseverance and spirit of those who refused to live in defeat and oppression.
“It’s very important that we know our history. We have to do that … this is not a sad story. It’s a celebration!” said O’Neil.
And few storytellers were as engaging or winsome as Buck O’Neil. His advocacy was instrumental in establishing the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Now, generations to come will get the opportunity to celebrate this important piece of our cultural heritage.
People with moxie keep everything in perspective.
After an outstanding career as a player, scout and coach, O’Neil fell short of induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006 by just one vote.
His induction had been considered such an obvious choice that a group had gathered to celebrate at the Negro Leagues Museum. Instead, they received the news that their hero had been passed over for the honor. It was O’Neil that consoled the group.
“Shed no tears for Buck,” O’Neil told the crowd. “I couldn’t attend Sarasota High School. That hurt. I couldn’t attend the University of Florida. That hurt. But not going into the Hall of Fame, that ain’t going to hurt me that much, no. Before, I wouldn’t even have a chance. But this time I had that chance. Just keep loving old Buck.”
O’Neil had the unique ability to distill dignity from disappointment. He would not let drawbacks defeat him.
O’Neil passed away a few months later at the age of 94. If I had a chance to talk to O’Neil today, I think I’d want to know more about his resiliency and optimism. What would you ask?