John Jordan O’Neil Jr. was inducted into Cooperstown over the weekend. Better known as Buck O’Neil, the Kansas City Monarchs and professional baseball legend is finally getting the recognition he would never ask for but always deserved.
Early Days Of Baseball
A Florida native, Buck O’Neil spent the early days of his baseball career playing in exhibition games before he was noticed by a member of the Memphis Red Sox, signing a contract with the American Negro League organization. O’Neil would only spend a season in Memphis before the Kansas City Monarchs acquired his contract in 1938.
O’Neil would spend the next 17 years playing for the Monarchs and even coaching and managing the team in his later seasons. O’Neil was a part of some legendary teams that included players like Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Cool Papa Bell, and Jackie Robinson. In his time with the Monarchs, his teams won six league titles, including the 1942 Negro World Series.
The league would suspend operations for two years during WWII. During that time, Buck O’Neil served for the U.S. Navy; aiding the war efforts on the homefront by helping construct ships in New Jersey before returning to the Monarchs at the war’s end.
Buck In The Majors
After the 1955 season, O’Neil was presented with an opportunity to join the Chicago Cubs as a major league scout. In 1962, he was also named the first black major league coach, although he would not be able to enjoy the same freedoms other coaches had at that time. O’Neil would spend over three decades with the Chicago Cubs, scouting some pretty fantastic players, including Lou Brock, before he ultimately returned to Kansas City to become a Royal.
In 1988, the Royals came calling, bringing O’Neil back to the city he called home for nearly two decades with the Monarchs. He would go on to win the Midwest Scout of the Year Award in 1998. A career with the Royals and Monarchs is about as “Kansas City” as it gets, but that was just the beginning.
A Kansas City Legend
Like most hometown heroes, Buck O’Neil has a bridge named after him in Kansas City, and he earned it. In 1990, Buck O’Neil led the charge to establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, MO, right in the heart of the historic Jazz District. The museum serves as a symbol for how the league and the people who were a part of it helped to advance not only the game of baseball, but society as a whole.
Mr. O’Neil served as the chairman of the museum up until his death in 2006 at the age of 94. But even after death, he continued to move people. The Royals honored him with the “Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat” used to recognize other heroes in the community, a tradition they still celebrate today. Shortly after his passing, he joined Roberto Clemente, Jackie Robinson, WIllie Mays, and Joe DiMaggio in being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Cooperstown Finally Calls
Although Buck O’Neil is a part of several Hall of Fames, he never got the call from Cooperstown. But that didn’t discourage him. He had this to say after receiving an honorary doctorate degree – his second such honor – from Missouri Western State University,
“God’s been good to me. They didn’t think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That’s the way they thought about it and that’s the way it is, so we’re going to live with that. Now, if I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don’t weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful.”Buck O’Neil, May 13th, 2006
However, the Early Days Committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame changed all of that. Towards the end of 2021, he made the top ten finalist list for the Hall before receiving the final vote to become enshrined in December of last year. On Sunday, July 24th, the legacy of Buck O’Neil was cemented in Cooperstown forever.
The impact that Buck O’Neil had on the game of baseball is minuscule compared to the advancements he contributed to society, helping break down barriers that led to the desegregation of the game of baseball and an overall change in societal ideals. As a fellow Kansas Citian, I am proud to share the same home town as the legendary Buck O’Neil. Congratulations, Buck, you deserve it!
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