Buck O’Neil was joy.
He embodied the love we all should have for our lives, no matter the challenges it brings.
He was a baseball man, in all senses of the word. He was a living, breathing, joyful portrait of much of the sport’s history, the good, bad and racist. He played with legends and, as a scout, signed future legends. He broke barriers, being the first black coach in the majors. And he reminded us of a time when athletes were mostly driven by the joy and love for their sport, rather than for their bad-ass crib or their overpriced ride.
His recollection of times long past was almost eerie and sitting with him while he shared them was an experience one did not forget. Talking to him was like sitting with Satchel Paige and other Negro League stars. How many people saw home-run kings Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds? How many saw Paige and Roger Clemens blow smoke past hitters? Making comparisons across generations is usually a futile folly, expect when Buck O’Neil did it.
He was lost to us until 1994 when he touched us in director Ken Burns’ fabulous “Baseball” special. He was 82 then, going on to become baseball’s unofficial ambassador. He reminded all players from whence their blessings come. Heck, he reminded all of us.
Everywhere he went he helped teach us how to love the sport again. He reminded us of its imperfect past but did not dwell on it. He celebrated how it connected so many of us and what it meant to him. “I can’t remember a time when I did not want to make my living in baseball, or a time when that wasn’t what I did get to do,” he told The Associated Press three years ago. “God was very good to old Buck.”
Even when he fell one vote shy of admission to the Hall of Fame earlier this year – an omission that will surely someday be corrected – he was joyful. “Shed no tears for Buck,” he said at the time. “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.”
The stories tell us Old Buck died last night at a Kansas City Hospital near his home where he was admitted last month due to fatigue. I remember kind of chuckling when I read that in September, chuckling to cover the bit of sadness beneath. Heck, Buck O’Neil should be tired, I thought. The man’s 94 years old, travels the world, still plays golf and never seems to allow his smile to leave his face.
Let’s pray we all feel such fatigue some day. Now rest, Buck, rest.