KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick, and Ollie Gates of Gates Bar-B-Q, sat down with KSHB 41 News anchor Kevin Holmes, to discuss the life and legacy of KC Monarch and Negro League great Buck O’Neil.
The three discussed what his induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame means to Buck’s legacy, baseball and the Kansas City community.
Holmes: I want you all to tell me your first memory of Buck.
Kendrick: I met Buck for the first time in 1993.
Kendrick was an editor for the Kansas City Star at the time, assigned the job of promoting one of the museums first traveling exhibitions.
Kendrick: And I was no different Kevin, than anybody else. When you meet Buck, you fall in love with Buck.
Gates: I liked Satchel (Paige), but I didn’t like Buck. My dad didn’t like Buck, so I didn’t like Buck either.
One of Ollie Gates’ first experience with Buck O’Neil came as a teenager at what was then known as Ol’ Kentuck BBQ, the Gates family-owned restaurant in 1946.
The restaurant was located near Vine Street and east 19th Street.
Gates: Buck came in and was always with Satchel (Paige) all loud. [He was] A "here I am" kind of guy. [He] Came into the place with that attitude, and my mother was standing back by the cash register. So, he grabbed her, walked up to her and kissed her on the cheek. George Gates, my dad was sitting right there, and he turned red. He didn’t like that. He said 'Hey, hey Buck.’ I was at the cash register, and I looked over and was fuming at ole Buck. He said, 'Don’t you come in and hug my wife anymore like that. I don’t like it.' That’s my first recollection of Buck.
That changed later in life, while processing death. Gates and O’Neil were both at a dear friend’s funeral.
Gates: And we watched him throw the dirt on him and Buck says hold on. I was getting ready to walk away and he says let’s hold hands. And we held hands, and watched our buddy go down in the ground. That’s my fondest memory of Buck. Cause he’s a friend to the end. Allegiance, he had to the core. A good guy. I think that’s when I really fell in love with Buck.
Kendrick: My fondest memory of Buck actually came in defeat. When he didn’t get into the National Baseball Hall of Fame that first time.
O’Neil fell one vote short.
Kendrick: I had to tell him that day. And he looks up at me, and smiles and says, ‘Well you know that’s how the cookie crumbles.' And then he asked me how many had gotten in and I said 17. And he hits the table in utter jubilation. He was excited that 17 of his colleagues got their rightful place in the Hall of Fame.
Despite falling one vote short, he proudly spoke on behalf of the 17 Negro Leaguers inducted.
Kendrick: They didn’t think ole Buck was good enough; we’ve got to live with that. But if I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all that matters to me. Just keep on loving old Buck. Now I’m over in the corner now. Tears are just flowing. I’m a wreck at this point in time. What he (Buck) did that day, was, he literally reached out his arms, wrapped them around everyone and said it’ll be okay. He missed by one vote. By one vote.
Gates: And that one vote killed him. That one vote, I’m telling you. You tell a beautiful story Bob. I believe seriously that killed Buck, because it took everything inside him to make everybody else feel good and kill him on the inside. I think he hurt so bad that the negative juices inside your body just stemmed up and poisoned him. If he had been to the Hall of Fame, he’d still be alive today.
Kendrick: A lot of people didn’t think it hurt, because he handled it so graciously. On the outside, he’s poised, strong. Has strength for those standing before him.
Gates: Let me tell you something, I watched Buck die. He literally said to me, I said ‘What’s wrong Buck?’ And he just pointed to his heart.
Kendrick: He always gonna take the high road.
In addition to his big bat and glove on the diamond, O’Neil also had a big heart and love for his community.
Gates: Buck started the renovation of 18th and Vine. You’ve got to understand, the Negro Baseball Museum is the nuclei of what 18th and Vine was, should and could be.”
Gates says Buck helped bring a park for children to Gillham Road and east 27th Street.
He played a role in establishing the Spirit of Freedom Fountain. He played a part in establishing the Bruce Watkins Cultural Museum, the Black Veterans Memorial, the Amphitheater on Troost Avenue and was so instrumental in establishing the First Golf Academy at Heart of America.
Gates: He’s second to me to nobody, but probably the greatest emissary we’ve had, H. Roe Bartle. And they named the whole downtown for H. Roe Bartle.
Buck O’Neil left the Kansas City Monarchs after the 1955 season to be an MLB scout.
By that time, he already sent the Chicago Cubs Earnie Banks, whom he signed to the Monarchs a few years prior.
As a scout for the Cubs, O’Neil signed several future Hall of Famers.
Kendrick: He went on to sign Lou Brock, Hall of Famer, Lee Arthur Smith, Hall of Famer, and Joe Carter, hopefully a future Hall of Famer, to their first professional contracts.
Buck became MLB’s first black coach in 1962 with the Chicago Cubs.
Holmes: Let’s suppose Buck O’Neil is still alive and is accepting his enshrinement into Cooperstown. What do you think would be his theme? Or one thing he’d say that would stick with everybody?
Gates: He’d say right on time. That’s what he’d say, right on time.
Kendrick: His baseball legacy is now complete, but as Mr. Gates alluded to, his legacy is far greater than the game of baseball. What he has given, particularly this city. Come 2024, there will be a new Buck O’Neil Bridge, and who better to have a bridge? I tell people Kevin all the time, he was the ultimate bridge builder. You know he built a bridge between Black and white. Young and old. Men and women. Buck O’Neil’s legacy is far greater than the game of baseball.