17 years after Pensacola tribute, Buck O'Neil inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame
In 2005, when John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil visited Pensacola for the last time, he was still riding high from the national notoriety gained for his engaging stories about the Negro leagues and legends of the game in Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary “Baseball.”
Already, the former player and manager, primarily with the Kansas City Monarchs, was ensuring Black baseball would not be forgotten by helping to establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
“The museum was a room about this big,” said O’Neil in reference to the WUWF recording studio during an exclusive interview in June 2005,
Initially, the small operation was funded by O’Neil and several other former Monarch ballplayers.
“I paid the rent one month. Connie Johnson paid it a month,” he began.
Eventually the project received $20 million for a facility that is shared with the American Jazz Museum. O’Neil believed it to be one of the most important cultural facilities in the world, because he said it represents the history of Black people in the U.S.
“The only reason we had the Negro leagues is because they wouldn’t let us play in the major leagues, so we organized a league of our own.”
O’Neil, who was born in 1911 in Carrabelle, Florida, spent 17 years in the Negro leagues as a player and coach, beginning in 1937.
For decades, he carried the torch to keep the memory of the Black baseball alive, pointing to little result for his efforts until the PBS film.
“I’ve been saying this for 50 years; nobody listened until Ken Burns,” he said, adding that after the baseball documentary people from all over the world started coming to the Negro Leagues museum.
O’Neil was still serving as chairman of the board at the museum in Kansas City in 2005 when he brought a few artifacts to town for a small exhibition at the former T.T. Wentworth Museum, now the Pensacola Museum of History.
He had been invited to the community for a special night in his honor at a Pensacola Pelicans home game at the University of West Florida. Quint Studer was team owner.
“Unless you were really engaged in baseball, and particularly the old Negro leagues, you probably didn’t know who Buck O’Neil was per se,” said Studer, beginning to explain that he was motivated to make the invitation as a way to promote local diversity and race relations.
Additionally, he said this was a chance to introduce the youth in the community to an incredible individual.
O’Neil had a long and successful career in the Negro American League and later was hired as a scout by the Chicago Cubs, which also named him the first African-American coach in Major League Baseball.
“You know I just thought he was just a hero,” Studer declared this week after O’Neil’s official induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. “And, I think the fact that people now had a chance to get see him, get things signed by him, and often you’re sitting on a hat or you’re sitting on an autograph by a guy who’s in baseball’s hall of fame; that has to be very exciting for people that met him when he was here.”
However, at the time of his 2005 visit to Pensacola, O’Neil was still waiting and hopeful when asked if he thought he would one day receive the honor.
“Possibly,” he responded. “And, it might be for things I did after playing baseball. So, we’ll see what happens.”
The next year, in 2006, O’Neil’s special ballot nomination fell just one vote short of the votes needed.
Despite the disappointment, he remained positive as he stood at the podium in Cooperstown, New York, and gave the induction speech for 17 other Negro leagues players, managers, and executives.
“I’m proud to have been a Negro league ballplayer,” he proclaimed. “It was outstanding.”
O’Neil died at the age of 94 just a few months after that induction speech, never to experience the thrill of his own selection.
That acknowledgement finally came on Sunday, as joined fellow Negro-Leaguer Minnie Miñoso, Black baseball pioneer Bud Fowler, and Boston Red Sox great David Ortiz as part of the Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2022.