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View Full Version : Farewell, old friend


Pitt Gorilla
10-16-2006, 12:37 AM
The man who was more than a baseball great is gone, but he leaves a legacy of living, loving.
JOE POSNANSKI
The Kansas City Star

Every day since Buck O’Neil died — dozens of times every day — I’ve heard people tell stories about him. There were many Buck O’Neil stories told Saturday. They held his funeral at his longtime church, Bethel AME They held a celebration of his life at Municipal Auditorium. Yes, many stories were told.

These Buck stories are rarely complicated. They are instead about moments. Hugs he offered. Songs he sang. Impressions he left. Memories he shared. Many tell the simple story about having a photograph taken with him. Buck would hold women tight while a husband or boyfriend or friend fiddled helplessly with the camera. “Take your time,” Buck always said, and he squeezed tighter. “I like this.”

This is what he leaves behind. Photographs. Laughs. Hugs. Simple moments.

•••

Every day since Buck O’Neil died — dozens of times every day — I’ve heard people lament that he was not inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He had been a star baseball player with the Kansas City Monarchs and then a winning manager. He was a legendary and pioneering baseball scout, and he was the first black coach in the major leagues. He was, above all, a singular spokesman for baseball and the Negro Leagues. No one has ever lived a baseball life like his. And no one ever will.

The Hall of Fame left him out. Some wondered whether that final snub broke his heart. No one can know another’s heart. But I suspect his heart was too strong to be broken.

He called me late one night just a few days after that Hall of Fame committee of scholars did not vote him into the hall. People close to the process believe Buck fell one vote short. The committee members who ignored Buck O’Neil never revealed themselves. They never explained why.

“Can you do me a favor,” Buck asked me.

“Sure, Buck,” I said.

“I want you to thank all the people. All the people who said nice things since the Hall of Fame thing happened.”

“Of course, Buck.”

“I have never felt more loved. Tell them that.”

I asked him how he felt about being left out. Buck said that by not getting into the Hall of Fame, he had seen more clearly than ever just how much people around America cared about him and loved him. He said that was a blessing.

“Buck, you’re about the only person I know who could feel that way,” I said.

He laughed. “You might be right about that,” he said.

•••

Every day since Buck O’Neil died — dozens of times every day — I’ve thought of the red dress story. There were many women, including Mayor Kay Barnes and Buck’s favorite songbird, Ida McBeth, who wore red dresses at Saturday’s funeral and life celebration. Buck did love those red dresses.

We traveled America in the last year of Buck’s life. We were in New York and it had been a long day. I asked Buck whether he wanted to get some dinner. He said, “No, I’m going to bed.”

We walked to toward the hotel double doors, when suddenly, to the right, I noticed a woman wearing a bright red dress. This was a Marilyn Monroe dress — we were in Queens at the time, but you could see that dress in Brooklyn. I turned to Buck to say something about the dress. He was gone.

I looked around the hotel. He had disappeared. Finally, I saw he was talking to the woman in the red dress. Hugging her, of course. After a while, he came in, and he was refreshed, alive and ready to eat. He asked me, “Didn’t you see that woman?”

I nodded.

He shook his head sternly and said, “Son, in this life, you don’t ever walk by a red dress.”

•••

Every day since Buck O’Neil died — dozens of times a day — people have wondered who would step up and take his place. People do try to keep alive his legacy. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is raising money now to build Buck’s dream — the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center. It will take $15 million. On Saturday, it was announced that humanitarian Julia Irene Kauffman would donate $1 million from a fund at the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation to build the center. You can donate at www.nlbm.com.

But there’s another kind of void Buck left behind, something even more complicated than a legacy. How could anyone take his place? He was everywhere in this town. He spoke for every charity and sang at every benefit. He never said no to a cause.

“There’s a job opening in our community,” U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver told the crowd at the celebration. He said that people who could not let go of their hatred, people who saw colors instead of men and women, people who let bitterness overtake them need not apply. He said that there was no application for this job, and no interview. He said that this job would take many people to fill.

“Ask yourself, ‘What would Buck do?’ ” Barnes said.

•••

Every day since Buck O’Neil died — dozens of times a day — I’ve remembered a song he used to sing. It is called “I Believe,” and it was written in 1952 by four men in an effort to lift spirits and bring people together during the Korean War. Bob Kendrick, director of marketing for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, sang it beautifully in Buck’s honor Saturday. When Buck O’Neil sang it, the room stopped.

The second verse goes like so:

I believe that above the storm the smallest prayer will still be heard.

I believe that someone in the great somewhere hears every word.

Every time I hear a newborn baby cry,

Or touch a leaf or see the sky,

Then I know why I believe.

•••

And yes, every day since Buck O’Neil died — dozens of times a day — I’ve heard Buck’s voice. In the last year of his life, I traveled around America with Buck. I heard him speak many, many times — so many times that after a while I joked with Buck that I could give his speech. He said, “You probably could.”

On Saturday, so many people who loved Buck O’Neil sat in Bethel AME Church, where Buck had been most Sundays since 1947. The choir sang, and the pastor recited Psalm 23, and people raised their arms up to soak in the prayers just as Buck always did. Sunlight poured in through a single stained-glass window. Friends noticed that the beam of sunshine shone on the seat where Buck O’Neil used to sit.

It was a beautiful ceremony, filled with emotion and joy. There were wonderful speeches by friends and relatives. But, I know, everyone in the church thought about what Buck would have said. No one can know another’s heart. But by putting together some of his favorite words, you can guess he might have said:

“I’ve been a lot of places and done a lot of things I loved doing. I hit the home run. I hit the grand slam home run. I hit for the cycle. I made a hole in one in golf. Yeah. I’ve done a lot of things I liked doing. I shook hands with President Truman. I shook hands with President Clinton. And I hugged Hillary.

“I’ve been a lot of places and done a lot of things I loved doing, but I’d rather be right here, right now, than any place I’ve been in my life. Yeah. This is the ultimate — to be here among friends. I thank you. And I love you.

“People should not feel sorry for me. Don’t shed no tears for ol’ Buck. I lived, man. We all lived in the Negro Leagues. I played with some of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. Satch Paige. Yeah. Cool Papa Bell. Josh Gibson. Hilton Smith. Yeah. I ate in some of the finest restaurants in the world; they just happened to be black restaurants. I stayed in some of the finest hotels in the world, they just happened to be black hotels. I listened to jazz, man. I heard Count Basie. I heard Charlie Parker. I heard Billie Holiday.

“I lived a good life. I’ve had the opportunity to live 94 years around the game I love. Who could ask for more than that? People ask me: ‘How do you keep from being bitter?’ Man, bitterness will eat you up inside. Hatred will eat you up inside. Don’t be bitter. Don’t hate. My grandfather was a slave. He was not bitter. I learned that from him.

“And you know what? I wouldn’t trade my life for anybody’s. I’ve had so many blessings in my life. I don’t want people to be sad for me when I go. Be sad for the kids who die young. You shouldn’t feel sad for a man who lived his dream. You know what I always say? I was right on time.”