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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, June 13, 2024

Buck O'Neil, 94, is rejected by Hall of Fame Committee

The living voice of the Negro Leagues did not even blink when the door was slammed in his face one more time. Buck O'Neil just nodded and smiled a little when he was told that he did not get enough votes to be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"All right," he said. "That's the way the cookie crumbles."

That's the way baseball crumbles. Monday, an 11-member committee of academics and authors (a 12th member, author Robert Peterson, died two weeks ago) gathered in a room in Tampa and voted 17 deceased Negro Leagues players and executives into the Hall of Fame. Seventeen. To give you an idea of how overwhelming that number is... only 18 Negro Leaguers are actually in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It took 30 years of work - most of that Buck O'Neil's hard work - to get those 18 players inducted.

But even while doubling the Negro Leagues' Hall of Fame population, the committee could not muster the necessary nine votes for Buck O'Neil, who is 94 and has done more in his life for Negro Leagues baseball than anyone else. One committee member said O'Neil likely fell one vote short. The balloting was secret.

When the voting was finished, no one had the guts to explain why Buck O'Neil was kept out. He was an All-Star player in the Negro Leagues. He was a successful manager for the Kansas City Monarchs. He sent more Negro Leagues players to the major leagues than anyone. He was the first black coach in the major leagues. For the past 50 years, he has been - as author Jules Tygiel calls him in "Shades of Glory,'' the Negro Leagues book commissioned by the Hall of Fame - "the primary spokesperson for the legacy of the Negro Leagues."

In fact, two sources said months ago that the Hall of Fame would have a special Negro Leagues vote with the intention of getting Buck O'Neil in. One Hall official said, "I don't think the Hall of Fame is complete without him."

Thus, for the first time ever, the Hall handed over the voting to a panel of baseball historians and scholars with no affiliation to the major leagues or the hall. This was an extraordinary move for the Hall of Fame. They usually protect the Hall the way tigers protect their cubs. There was not one former player on the committee and not one person who actually observed the Negro Leagues. The committee was given no boundaries - they were told to vote for as many people as they saw fit.

They certainly voted free. By dumping 17 persons into the Hall of Fame, they matched the number of persons inducted into the Hall the past seven years. But when it came to why Buck was left out, no one was talking.

"I don't think the individuals are going to be willing to discuss their individual votes," said Fay Vincent, who served as a nonvoting chairman of the committee. "We agreed we would not do that."

In other words, they decided to hide. After this travesty, you could not blame them. On Monday, when it appeared that O'Neil was short the votes he needed, Vincent apparently made a frantic plea to the committee to consider O'Neil's lifetime achievements and not just his playing days. According to the committee member, he sounded almost desperate.

His words held no sway with this committee. They left him out without a word of explanation. They did, however, vote in Andy Cooper, who was (see if this sounds familiar) a fine player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs. He died in 1941. The book ``Shades of Glory'' is 422 pages long, including acknowledgements. Cooper is mentioned exactly zero times.

The committee also voted in Effa Manley, the first woman inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Her credentials? She co-owned the Newark Eagles with her husband, Abe, for 14 seasons. The team won one championship. Also, she was outspoken. Also, her biographer, Jim Overmyer, was on the committee.

And so on. The injustice of Monday's vote left a trail of disbelief and anger throughout the baseball community, but especially in Kansas City. It had no visible effect on Buck O'Neil, though. He began his Monday morning with a 5:30 a.m. call from a radio show. He came to the Negro Leagues Museum at 10 a.m. and by then he had received more than a dozen congratulatory calls. Everyone seemed sure he was going to get voted in.

Buck himself was not so sure. "I've been on committees like this," he said. "I know that anything can happen." Still, he spent much of Monday morning calling friends in his hometown of Sarasota, Fla., telling them that he would visit if the vote went his way. A camera crew filmed his every move. A half-dozen reporters followed him around.

O'Neil had been told he would hear something by 11 a.m., but the phone would not ring. Rumors swirled that things were not going well in Tampa, but no one wanted to believe it. While Buck O'Neil waited, Hall of Fame player Lou Brock - whom O'Neil had scouted and signed - called and said he was excited. Soon it was 11:30 and then noon, and the call from the hall had not come.

"You know something?" Buck said all of a sudden. "I could play. I was no Josh Gibson. But I could play." It was his only sign of cracking. One of the few criticisms of O'Neil's Hall of Fame case leading into the vote had been that, while he was a good player, he was not a Hall of Fame-caliber player. The criticism did not take into account his countless other contributions to baseball, but you could see that Buck was hurting a little.

At 12:30, there was no word, and a pall had fallen over the museum. Buck seemed to sense that the vote was going against him. He said, "I'll be fine either way."

At 12:34, Bob Kendrick, the marketing director of the Negro Leagues Museum, asked everyone to leave the room, and he said, "Buck, we didn't get enough votes."

All his life, Buck O'Neil has had doors slammed in his face. He played baseball at a time when the major leagues did not allow black players. He was a gifted manager at a time when major league owners would not even think of having an African-American lead their teams. For more than 30 years, he told stories about Negro Leagues players and nobody wanted to listen.

Now, after everything, he was being told that the life he had spent in baseball was not worthy of the Hall of Fame. It was enough to make those around him cry. But Buck laughed. "I'm still Buck," he said. "Look at me. I've lived a good life. I'm still living a good life. Nothing has changed for me."

A few minutes later, when he was told that 17 persons had made it, he shouted: "Wonderful."

That's Buck O'Neil. Who else would respond that way to such a shameful vote? No one. I don't know what the July day will be like when 17 persons long dead - 10 of the 17 have been gone for more than 50 years - get inducted into the Hall of Fame. It's hard to believe it will be much of a celebration. Who will speak for the dead?

"I don't know," Buck O'Neil said. "I wonder if they'll ask me to speak."

Would he really speak at the Hall of Fame after he wasn't voted in?

"Of course," Buck said. "If they asked me."