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Why Buck O’Neil meant so much to Kansas City, Missouri

Buck O'Nell rounding third
Posted at 1:42 PM, Jul 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-26 10:17:35-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Few people have meant as much to the Kansas City community as Buck O’Neil.

In 1938, the first baseman came to the Kansas City area to play for the Kansas City Monarch’s. Very quickly, O'Neil fell in love with the city.

He would go on to become the first Black scout and later the first Black coach in Major League Baseball.

But when you ask around town, those aren't the first things that most people mention.

"This magnetic personality, this almost larger-than-life personality, he just exuded joy and love everywhere he went,” Bob Kendrick, friend and now-president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, said.

Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, who was also a friend of O'Neil's, reminisced on the good times.

"I think that he taught us that bad things can happen to you, and bad things happened to him, but he also taught us that we can go beyond those bad things," Cleaver said.

O'Neil played during the days of segregated baseball and made it his mission to elevate players like him. He also worked to later share the stories of some of the best players in the game who also happened to be Black.

"Most of us who fell in love with Buck, we never saw him play," Kendrick said. "We never saw him play, but we fell in love with the fact that he told us about the heroes of the Negro Leagues and he almost made you feel like you were there."

Today, the Negro Leagues Baseball Mueum in the Historic 18th & Vine Jazz District is a cornerstone of O'Neil's legacy.

"His view was, and he was right, that the great baseball players that played in that league deserved to be in the other hall of fame," Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt said. "And thank goodness Buck O'Neil is finally going into the Hall of Fame. He should have gone in a couple of decades ago."

After not being voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, Buck graciously delivered a speech on behalf of the Negro Leagues players who did get inducted that year.

Cleaver said that despite everyone’s disappointment at the outcome then, O'Neil remained optimistic.

“If my picture of heaven is any way correct, I can see Buck sitting there saying,' I told you, the Buckster is always on time,'" Cleaver said.

Only a few months after delivering his speech at the Hall of Fame, O’Neil died one month shy of his 95th birthday. It marked a local and national day of mourning.

"(O'Neil) was an extraordinary man who I think represented and extraordinary group of men," said then-Sen. Barack Obama, who would go on to become president. "He loved baseball and he loved life and he loved people. He will be missed."

A public wake was held at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Kendrick remembers that day vividly.

"We opened the doors, and over 15,000 people came through this museum to say goodbye to Buck O'Neil," Kendrick said.

He also noted that the huge crowd came of no surprise to him.

"The sheer number didn't surprise me, because we all knew how beloved Buck O'Neil was," Kendrick said. "Where they came from is a great example of who Buck O'Neil was."

He also said that diversity of the crowd showed just how many people O'Neil impacted.

"They were CEOs of major corporations, they were political dignitaries, they were athletes and entertainers, they were street hustlers, they were homeless, they were Black, they were white, they were men, they were women," Kendrick said. "They all had to come and say goodbye to Buck."

As O’Neil takes what so many believe is his rightful place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Blunt said it proves just how much he accomplished.

"All of those great things he did in baseball were just a reflection of the great things he did in life," Blunt said. "Nobody wasn't better when they spent time with Buck O'Neil."

Kendrick agreed. Everyone loved O'Neil, because he loved everyone in return.

"We fell in love I think, more so however, with a man who so beautifully and vividly demonstrated to all of us that you could indeed get further in this life with love than you could with hate," Kendrick said. "He just meant so much to this city. He loved Kansas City and Kansas City loved him back. It just warms my heart that here we are now 16 years later and people have not forgotten Buck. I don't want them ever to forget Buck O’Neil.”