On Sunday in Cooperstown, New York, Carrabelle native son John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil Jr. joined baseball’s immortals when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The class of 2022 included three other posthumous inductions - Bud Fowler, who baseball historians believe was likely the first African American player in professional baseball, playing before the time of segregated baseball; Minnie Minoso, a Cuban-born Chicago White Sox whose groundbreaking career, including impressive stats, as the first Black Latino to play major league baseball included playing on the Negro World Series-winning New York Cubans in 1947; and Gil Hodges, who played with the Brooklyn Dodgers, when they won the 1955 World Series, with the Los Angeles Dodgers when they took home Series rings in 1959 and managed the “Miracle” New York Mets to a World Series win in 1969. .
O’Neil’s induction reflects his baseball life in its entirety, with his plaque featuring him in a suit and tie instead of a Kansas City Monarch uniform. O’Neil’s niece Dr. Angela Terry spoke on his behalf, thanking the Early Baseball Era committee for electing her uncle to the Hall of Fame. “We also applaud the committee for not subjectively limiting their interpretation of an exceptional career in baseball to a singular focus upon statistics. In other words, expanding their view to include the totality of one's work in baseball,” she said.
The three living inductees to the Hall Sunday all had ties to the Minnesota Twins organization, with Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva entering as members of the Twins while David Ortiz played his first six seasons in Minnesota.
Slugger “Big Papi” Ortiz, who was a designated hitter and first baseman, won three World Series titles with the Boston Red Sox, pitcher Kaat earned 16 Gold Glove awards and played on the 1982 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals; and outfielder Oliva earned two World Series rings with Minnesota, as a hitting coach in 1987 and bench coach in 1991.
O’Neil’s career, as impressive as it is lengthy, began with the Sarasota Tigers while still in school, from 1925-27, but because Sarasota lacked one of the state's four Black high schools, he attended Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, where he received his high school education and two years of college.
O’Neil went on to play for the Tampa Black Smokers (1933), Miami Giants (1933-34), New York Tigers (1935), and Shreveport Acme Giants (1936-37). His big break came in 1937 when he joined the Memphis Red Sox, at one point leaving to play briefly for the Zulu Cannibal Giants which he later regretted.
O’Neil became a Kansas City Monarch first baseman in 1938, with whom he helped win the Negro World Series in 1942. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, missing the 1944 and 1945 seasons while doing his part to rid the world of tyranny.
In his return season of 1946, O’Neil won The Negro America League batting title, part of Almendares Scorpions which won the Cuban Winter League. He played on Satchel Paige’s All Stars who barnstormed with Bob Feller’s All Stars in 1946, games that were wildly popular as well as profitable. It was quite a return year for O’Neil into baseball.
He became player/manager of the Monarchs in 1948, and during his stint, he sent more ballplayers to Major League baseball than any other manager in Negro League history, due in part to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947, as well as testament to O’Neil’s ability to manage.
He remained the Monarchs manager until 1955, when he became a fulltime scout for the Chicago Cubs. In 1962, O’Neil became the first African American coach in Major League history. He remained with the Cubs as a scout until his retirement from the organization in 1988.
O’Neil went on to serve on the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee from 1981-2000, and became a scout for the Kansas City Royals in 1988. He was one of the founding members of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in 1990.
When Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball first aired in 1994, O’Neil stole the show as he provided commentary. He used to say he was discovered at age 82.
In 1997 the current Negro Leagues Baseball Museum opened its door, with O’Neil was a cofounder and chairman of its board.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum created the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, an award honoring those who reflect the characteristics of its namesake. The award is given at three-year intervals, with O’Neil as the first recipient of the award in 2008, and later Rachel Robinson and Joe Garagiola. A life-size statue of O’Neil was also commissioned and stands in the Hall of Fame.
The Baseball Hall of Fame website describes the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award recipients as follows, “…an individual whose extraordinary efforts enhanced baseball’s positive impact on society, broadened the game’s appeal, and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by O’Neil.”
Buck O’Neil’s Hall of Fame plaque cements his place as a baseball immortal while forever educating fans to his amazing human spirit.
Baseball aficionado Joshua Weaver has several Buck O'Neil items on loan at the Carrabelle History Museum. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research’s North Florida/Buck O'Neil Chapter based in Tallahassee.
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