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Baseball needs Buck

It's days like these I wish Buck O'Neil were still alive. He always put the events of the present into the context of his past, one full of injustices that he refused to let change his disposition.

Baseball is taking it on the chin this week. First the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee denied all of the candidates entry for the third consecutive time. Now Gary Matthews Jr., the Los Angeles Angels' $50 million free-agent center fielder, is popping up in a massive grand jury investigation that alleges he received human growth hormone. The NFL may have more arrests and the NBA a worse reputation, but baseball, in terms of bad publicity, is Secretariat to the field.

You know what Buck would be doing right now? He would be talking about Cool Papa Bell just because he loved talking about Cool Papa Bell. He would bust out one of his great aphorisms – "Cool Papa Bell was so fast," Buck liked to say, "that he could steal second and third on the same pitch" – and tell a few more tales and make you forget about steroids and the Hall of Fame and anything else that tickles the nerves.

And that's why this week when I read "The Soul of Baseball," the fantastic new book that takes author Joe Posnanski across America for a year with Buck, I couldn't help but miss him. Buck always did seem to speak in verse, and throughout the book, Posnanski – a former colleague at the Kansas City Star – quotes Buck like his words are poetry.


That's what I remember most,


Don't remember the games much.

Don't remember names much.

Don't remember the bad times.

I forget who won and lost most of the time.


Silly stories.

I remember those.

Baseball kept Buck going until he was 94. For the last 20 years of his life, he was the voice and face of the Negro Leagues, which were destined to be forgotten. In the meantime, a silly thing happened: This old man, so full of joy, had become the conscience for the sport that had excluded him. And Buck didn't find this the least bit bittersweet.

If someone asked Buck about Matthews this week, he would have offered his love and support. Buck was honest about performance-enhancing drugs. Were they around when he was alive, he said, he would have been tempted to take them. But that isn't why he would have put his arm around Matthews' shoulder and soothed him.

Sometimes, people just need a friend.

Buck had needed one during the road trip. He was 93 at the time and had agreed to appear on a New York radio show. The host, a perverse sort who seemed to take pleasure in riling up Buck, called Jackie Robinson a sellout. Buck objected. The host persisted. Buck left the studio shaken.

When he was down in the lobby, Buck saw two women enter the building.

"Excuse me," he said, "my name is Buck O'Neil. I was hoping I might get a hug."

The women looked at each other, wondering why this stranger would want a hug, and then one said, "Oh, what the hell," and gave the old man what he needed.

Buck didn't need much. He lived in a simple house in Kansas City with a nice TV. He dressed sharp and ate well. He was always shuttling place to place, from Manhattan to Nicodemus, Kan., to talk baseball.

One thing he did want was recognition from the Hall of Fame. He never said so explicitly. Even if it was genuine, Buck didn't like the perception of pandering. He wanted to be in with his friends, next to Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith, for eternity.

Buck would have understood what Ron Santo and Jim Kaat and Marvin Miller are feeling, rejection with suspect reason. Buck was not elected to the Hall last year by a 12-man panel of Negro Leagues historians and experts. Maybe it was because he just wasn't a good enough ballplayer, or because of jealousy over the attention he received, or because of a personal vendetta. Those are all theories that won't be vetted until someone from the electorate breaks the group's self-imposed silence on voting.

Like Buck, Santo and Kaat are both candidates whose composite baseball lives – between their playing career and contributions in broadcasting – would seem to merit induction. Miller, who brought the players' union to prominence, should've been inducted long ago.

Buck, of course, wasn't eligible under the Veterans Committee because he neither played, managed nor was an executive for a big-league club. Never mind his years as a brilliant scout or his becoming the first black coach in the big leagues. Rules are rules, and that's something Buck would have echoed.

There might be hope for Buck yet. The Hall of Fame's board of directors meets in March, and spokesman Jeff Idelson said the members have "a very strong commitment to keeping Buck's legacy alive forever, and is working on ways to honor him in Cooperstown."

Hopefully it's with the Buck O'Neil Award, something that would truly preserve what Buck meant to baseball.

It would honor others and recognize the best people in the sport and celebrate what the game gives to us, Buck's dual missions that kept him going until the first week of October.

Cancer took him like it had his wife and his mother. Buck always said he never hated people, not the ones who wouldn't let him eat in their restaurants or stay in their hotels or play baseball in their leagues because he was black. He hated cancer. There was nothing silly about it.

Nothing like baseball, a game that Buck O'Neil knew had plenty of problems and one he never stopped loving anyway.

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