Buck O’Neil, the beloved baseball ambassador, died peacefully at the age of 94 on Friday after a short stay in the hospital where he was admitted last week due to exhaustion. It was a fitting way for O’Neil, a man of indefatigable energy and an almost impossibly optimistic disposition, to pass. He had more vigor and spirit than most people less than half his age. He lived life to the fullest, felt as if he was truly blessed and would likely not want anyone to feel bad for him today. In fact, I’m sure he’d want people to remember him by living an active life, filled with music and friends and conversation and, of course, baseball.
My first job after graduating from college in the winter of 1993-94 was as a post-production gopher on Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary. Until then, I had never even heard of Buck O’Neil. But after watching glimpses of his interviews in a dark mixing studio in New York City over the course of several months, it was not hard to tell that he would be the guiding light of the series. O’Neil was as natural a storyteller as there has ever been, and he had more than a twinkle in his eye as he spoke. He crackled with life. Generous, kind and funny, O’Neil was the right man to put baseball history–particularly as it involved black Americans–into context. He made it human and real.
Burns’ crew was already familiar with O’Neil’s magic touch by the time I came onto the project during the final months of sound mixing. They all spoke about him with unqualified affection and warmth. When he visited New York in May ’94 for a screening, I felt as if I already knew him.
It was a warm, sunny day in Manhattan when I met Buck–a tall, athletic man, elegantly dressed in a tan suit–at his hotel on Park Avenue. It was my job to escort Buck around town for the afternoon. O’Neil did not seem old. He walked briskly and was fully engaged in what was going on around him.
I hailed a cab and we headed to the Jackie Robinson Foundation to visit Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow. On the way over, Buck and I talked baseball. He told me stories about seeing Babe Ruth hit, and playing with the great Satchel Paige. I told him about playing ball in high school. At one point I became painfully self-conscious that my personal experiences were out of place alongside his legendary memories, but Buck would have dismissed my misgivings as silly. He had no airs and didn’t make me feel less important because I was talking about my nothing high school career while he was talking about baseball gods. If anything, he made me feel as if my Little League experiences were just as valid as anything he’d ever lived through.
What I’ll never forget about that ride was staring at Buck’s hands, which resembled a Rodin sculpture. They were simply massive, rough and powerful, with manicured, rounded fingernails. Buck grew up in the celery fields of Florida and later played and later coached in the Negro leagues. Now, all these years later, just gazing at these enormous paws, it was clear that they had a history all to themselves.
Rachel Robinson and her assistant gave us a tour of the Foundation–the walls were lined with a terrific series of photographs of her husband–and soon enough we retired to a conference room and sat around a large round table. I kept my mouth shut and listened to Buck and Mrs. Robinson talk. David Robinson, Jackie’s youngest son, happened to be in the office that day. David lives in Africa, so it was a fluke that he was present. A gaunt man with a white beard, he came into the conference room to say hello. Buck stood up and reached across the table and shook Robinson’s hand. And he didn’t let go. As he held Robinson’s hand, he said, “Now, you know how much your father meant to all of us.”
I don’t recall the exact words, but Buck continued a little speech and refused to let go of Robinson’s hand. It was as if he insisted on saying his piece, and Robinson respected him enough to listen. However, it was as if Robinson wished he could have been anywhere else in the world but there at that moment. (I realized that the pressure of being the child of famous person was a complicated matter. No wonder he lived in Africa, I thought.) The image remains burned in my head: Two men, awkwardly shaking hands across a round table, one assured, confident and at ease with himself, the other palpably uncomfortable.
That night, people naturally flocked around Buck at the reception before the screening. I kept hovering around him, listening to his stories, admiring how warm he was with people. You know when someone is said to have a presence that lights up a room when they enter it? Well, I’ve been around a lot of movie stars from working in the film industry over the years, and none of them has the kind of almost magical aura that Buck possessed. He was a man without pretension. The kind of guy who made you feel special just by talking with you. That was his greatest gift–he made you feel better about yourself. Listening to him and appreciating what he had been through made people want to live a better life.
Over the years I periodically sent Buck postcards just to say “hi.” I didn’t care if he remembered me or not. I knew that I’d never forget him. A few years ago I was able to interview him and he said something that I’ll never forget:
“Let me tell you something: When you stop learning, you’re through. Mm-hmm. I’m 91, but I’m still learning. Not only about baseball, about others things [too]. Yeah, yeah. You should always keep learning, as long as you live. You’re going to write. You’ll learn something. And not only that, you’re going to teach things. ‘Cause what you’re going to write about now, a lot of people, could be baseball fans, don’t know about. Mm-hmm. Of course, you learning, you teaching, that’s life. That’s life….
“Always figure that tomorrow is going to be better. Don’t care how good today is, tomorrow is going to be better. But it is exciting, though, to get up [every day]. It’s like the first time you see a Willie Mays, huh? Mmm, look at this [laughs].”
Buck O’Neil was one of the greatest ambassadors the game has ever seen and is one of the great American characters of our time. He was the first black coach in the major leagues. He scouted Lou Brock and Ernie Banks, Oscar Gamble and Joe Carter. Jackie Robinson once said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on others’ lives.” Buck touched the lives of countless people. He lived a full life, and leaves us with a shining example of the goodness we all have in us. We can repay him by taking a moment to remember him and, more important, by striving to emulate the warmth and generosity of spirit he so willingly showed people of all walks of life. It is safe to say there will never be another one like him.