Buck and justice

By Michael Humphrey

A few years back my mother came from Denver for a visit and said to me, “I want to go see Buck O’Neil.”

I said, “Mom, it’s not like he’s on display.”

“I don’t care,” she said. “I want to go to the museum. Maybe we’ll see him there.”

So we headed to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum with me instructing her –dangerously like a parent to a child — “Don’t get disappointed when Buck doesn’t show.”

A few years before this visit, during the grand opening of the museum, O’Neil made a big impression on mom by crossing 18th Street, coming straight at her and saying, “I saw somebody I needed to hug.” Then he hugged her.

Now on this return visit we arrived at the museum and bought our tickets. The gentleman in the booth gave the usual speech about how to enjoy the exhibit best, to be sure to take a good look around the gift shop afterwards and then he finished, “Buck should be here in about 20 minutes.”

My mother gave me a look of pure assurance. (Yes, I know.) It turns out it was his 92nd birthday.

Mom and I talked on the phone last night about O’Neil’s passing. Some of the conversation centered around the discrimination he faced. And how he became a national treasure whose loss diminished all of us a little.

What a story.

The backstory of Buck O’Neil’s life is laced with injustice — and when he spoke of being left out of the white grade school, left out of white restaurants and hotels, left out of the major leagues, it was a powerful warning that we must always watch carefully for prejudices we carry today.

The glamorous story of his life made all of the newspaper articles — the first black coach in the majors, a friend to Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson, the late-emerging star of Ken Burns’ documentary on baseball.

But the true story of Buck’s life was found in his willingness to cross the street and embrace the stranger, while only a few watched. Baseball was merely the medium through which all of these stories were told. 

“If he talked to me about racism, I would listen to him,” my mother says. “I would just believe him because he was so sincere.”

Buck is a reminder that love is still the most powerful force in making good change. And I hope that this truth is part of his legacy when people remember this lover of America’s pastime.

Return to www.kcolivebranch.org


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