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Buck O'Neil becomes an immortal

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Sometimes Buck O'Neil would walk toward the Field of Legends and stop. He would stare at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum's statues of the greatest black ballplayers, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige and Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell and half a dozen others and, after soaking in the glory of it all, start to tell stories about each of them.

Only one of the statues didn't receive the standard Buck treatment of grandiosity: his own. Buck's rests behind home plate and through a netting, his favorite place to soak in a ballgame. It catches him in the famous pose: left leg on dugout step, elbow on knee, right hand on hip, head cocked just to the left, hard and pronounced cheekbones belying the gentlest of gentlemen.

When the museum commissioned the statues, it figured to be the greatest work of physical art honoring Buck. Ken Burns' documentary "Baseball" had allowed Buck to spin his yarns, and Joe Posnanski's book "The Soul of Baseball" later took everyone into his beautiful life, but this image of the youthful Buck somehow captured his essence in one snapshot better than anything else.

Or so it seemed. Because there's a new sculpture of Buck. He's wearing a suit and a smile, his two sartorial necessities. In one hand, he holds a Kansas City Monarchs hat. He looks about 75, though that's just a guess because up to his death two years ago, not even the expert on the carnival midway could've guessed he was 94.

The best part: The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., long the place Buck yearned to be, will showcase it forever, a bronze monument to a golden figure in baseball history.

On Friday at noon, the Hall awarded the first Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award to O'Neil with the unveiling of the statue next to where patrons buy tickets, as high-traffic an area as there is next to the gallery of plaques.

"It's a day we've been looking forward to for a long time," said Jeff Idelson, the Hall's president. "It's a recognition he's certainly deserving of. The award is as high an honor as we can give. The fact that it'll be presented no more often than every three years speaks not only to the selectiveness but to how we felt about Buck."

Buck likewise admired the Hall and its willingness to honor players from the Negro Leagues, many posthumously. Every year he traveled to Cooperstown for the induction ceremonies, though none more famously than in 2006.

Earlier that year, the Hall allowed a dozen experts on the Negro Leagues to vote in a special election that would honor previously snubbed players, owners and executives. The intent, as much as anything, was to get Buck into the Hall.

The group chose 17 people. Buck wasn't one of them.

Outrage leeched from his friends, admirers, people all around the game. How? Why? He had fallen one vote short. The voters declined to reveal their votes and still haven't to this day. Buck, crestfallen though he was, soldiered on to speak with his friends and supporters who had gathered expecting a celebration.

"If I'm a Hall of Famer for you, that's all right with me," he said. "Just keep loving old Buck. Don't weep for Buck."

The Hall invited Buck to speak on behalf of the inductees, and he accepted. He encouraged the crowd to sing along with him. People laughed. They cried. Buck knew how to inspire in people the gamut of emotions, and even though he wasn't a Hall of Famer yet, he gave a worthy Hall of Fame speech.

"His star rose probably even more than it already had," said Bob Kendrick, the museum's marketing director and O'Neil's travel companion. "Folks became even more greatly endeared to him by the way he handled the disappointment of not getting in. It was perhaps the most selfless act in sports history: Put yourself past your disappointment and give those folks their proper tribute."

Buck understood who they were because he was one of them. The grandson of a slave, Buck grew up in Florida playing baseball and football. When the Negro American League formed in 1937, he signed with the Memphis Red Sox and the next season ended up in Kansas City, where he would spend the rest of his life.

He was a solid first baseman, distinguishing himself with a batting title and great defense. His lack of a great on-field résumé hurt him in the special election, even though O'Neil's candidacy was based more on all-around accomplishment. He managed the Monarchs from 1948 to 1955 before becoming a scout for the Cubs. He discovered Ernie Banks, Lou Brock and Joe Carter, among many others, and impressed the organization enough that in 1962, he became the major leagues' first black coach.

View photo

Buck O'Neil stands with a statue of himself in this Feb. 11, 2005 photo at the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Few beyond Kansas City knew of Buck until 1994, when Burns' documentary starred him as the Negro Leagues' representative, their embodiment, their soul. From there, he helped turn the museum from a one-room compendium of memorabilia to a gorgeous showcase just down the road from where the Negro Leagues were established.

Inside, a movie narrated by James Earl Jones introduces novices to the Negro Leagues' history: their formation because of segregation, their triumphs and tribulations and their dissolution less than a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. The rest of the museum showcases the greats and lesser-known stars, skewing harmlessly toward hyperbole. Maybe Gibson did swing one-handed and hit a home run into the right-field upper deck at Yankee Stadium, and maybe Double Duty Radcliffe pitched two games and caught two more every Fourth of July.

At the end of the tour, right before the Field of Legends, is a trophy case honoring Buck. There is a bronze mini-bust and a set of bronze hands, a first baseman's mitt from 1955 and the Mike Murphy Honorary Irishman of the Year award. It's a small token of appreciation for a man whose life never would fit in any box.

Next to the display is a visitor's log. In the last week, people from 34 states, Puerto Rico and Canada have signed in.

"Amazing," wrote Roy Watson of Oklahoma City.

"Much, much better than I thought," added Neal Jacobstein of Culver City, Calif.

"It was worth every mile traveled," said Janice Smith of Garner, N.C.

Buck always wanted the museum to think big and act bigger, to honor his friends in the best manner possible, and so it's in his spirit they are raising money for the Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center. The museum's executives hoped it could open by late summer 2010. The $15 million they need to raise isn't coming in quickly enough, pushing back the timetable.

Surely Buck's entrance into the Hall will help. People will see his name, read his story, learn what he stood for – love and happiness, ideals so simple they'd seem disingenuous in anyone else – and give in his honor.

"I know he'd be excited for everything that's going to happen," Kendrick said. "Buck had great admiration and love for the Hall of Fame. He'd be as thrilled and pleased as to what's transpiring this week as he would've been had he gotten in '06.

"I'm also sad because it reminds us we don't have him anymore. We would've liked nothing more than to be able to celebrate this moment with him. We wanted to see this big smile."

Instead, Kendrick and thousands of others will have to imagine he's there. They'll see Buck in the image of his brother, Warren, and his nephew Frank, who plan on attending. They'll think about him looking down from above and giving a thumbs up. They'll beam knowing Buck's legacy finally will reach baseball's ultimate shrine.

"The baseball world will now never forget Buck O'Neil," Kendrick said. "You can't."

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