John J. "Buck" O'Neil, the ex-Negro Leaguer probably best-known as one of the "stars" of the Ken Burns PBS Documentrary series "Baseball" in the 1990's, died yesterday in Kansas City
. He was 94.
O'Neil was born in Florida in 1911 and attended Edward Waters College in Jacksonville. He signed his first professional baseball contract in 1935, and toured with Syd Pollock's Ethopian Clowns. He joined the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League in 1937, and moved to the NAL Kansas City Monarchs in 1938. He played 1B for the Monarchs for many years (where he was a long-time teammate of the legendary Satchel Paige
), helping the Monarchs win four-straight NAL pennants 1939-1942. O'Neil joined the U. S. Navy after the '42 season, and served three years as a Seabee in World War II, before returning to the Monarchs in 1946.
O'Neil won the NAL batting title in 1946 while hitting .346, and played in the Negro League World Series that season as the Newark Eagles (champions of the Negro National League) led by Monte Irvin
, Larry Doby
, and Leon Day defeated the Monarchs in a hard-fought seven games to win the Negro Leagues championship.
Buck was named player-manager of the Monarchs in 1948, and over the next eight years, helped develop many future major leaguers.
What is less well-known about O'Neil is his Cubs connection.
As the "color barrier" broke down and as Major League Baseball began to integrate in the late 1940's and throughout the 1950's, Chicago Cubs owner Phil Wrigley developed a relationship with Monarch's owner Tom Baird and manager Buck O'Neil that resulted in the Cubs acquiring a number of African American players from the Monarchs, including future major leaguers Ernie Banks
, Gene Baker
, George Altman
, and J. C. Hartman
. In fact, most of the black players in the Cubs organization in the 1950's came to the Cubs from the Kansas City Monarchs. So in a way, the Monarchs were a Cubs "farm" club. (The one Monarch the Cubs let get away in the 50's was a good one, that being future star Yankee catcher Elston Howard
O'Neil was hired as a Cubs scout by Phil Wrigley in 1955, the first African American scout to work for an MLB club. Among the players signed by O'Neil during this period was star Southern University outfielder and future Hall of Famer Lou Brock
O'Neil was appointed to the Cubs "College of Coaches" in 1962, becoming the first black MLB coach. He never rotated into the "Head Coach" slot, but if he had, he would have been the first African American manager in big league history.
As a mamber of the College of Coaches, O'Neil rotated between the Cubs major league club and minor league clubs. Although the hiring of Leo Durocher as manager after the 1965 season ended the College of Coaches on the Major League level, the College of Coaches continued to operate throughout the Cubs farm system throughout the 1960's into the 1970's.
After leaving the College of Coaches, O'Neil went back to scouting for the Cubs, and signed outfielder Oscar Gamble
in 1968. He later served as a scout for the Kansas City Royals, and was a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee. 17 Negro League players previously overlooked were elected to the Hall of Fame last February, but O'Neil was not among them. Not bitter over not being admitted to the HOF, O'Neil spoke at the induction ceremony for the 17 Negro Leaguers in Cooperstown this past August.
O'Neil was also one of the founders of the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame & Museum in Kansas City in the 1990's, and Arizona Phil and Mrs. Arizona Phil had the pleasure of meeting Mr. O'Neill there in 1997. And let me tell you, that
was a thrill!