I became familiar with Buck through Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary. Without derision or bitterness, O’Neil explained the raw injustice of the Negro League era to a new generation of Americans.
And he was a fantastic storyteller. His mesmerizing account of trying to hit against legendary pitcher Satchel Paige was the highlight of Burns’ documentary.
From the Kansas City Star, here’s the best obituary I’ve read so far:
Buck was the grandson of a slave. He grew up in Sarasota, Fla. — so far south, he used to say, that if he stepped backward he would have been a foreigner. He shined shoes. He worked in the celery fields. He could not attend Sarasota High because he was black.
“Damn,” he said on one particularly hot Florida day in those celery fields, “there’s got to be something better than this.”
“That may have been the first time I ever swore,” he would tell school kids across America. “But it was hot that day, children.”
The lesson of Buck’s story is that there is always something better — but he had to go out and get it. And he did. He played baseball. He was tall and had good reflexes. So he played first base, first for some semi-professional teams and then for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. That, he said, was the time of his life.
Buck never made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He missed it by one vote. Hardly matters. He’ll always be remembered.