COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – The plan didn't work. Now, this is not to say the National Baseball Hall of Fame was duplicitous when it formed the committee to elect Negro Leagues players and executives, 17 of whom will be inducted Sunday afternoon. The idea was noble and deserved. It's just that, well, the Hall was banking on Buck O'Neil being included among the group and not simply introducing it.
The people on the committee, a group of historians and academics, said Buck fell in some kind of nebulous territory. Decent player but not good enough. Scouts and coaches don't get in. Couldn't assign a value to ambassadorship. All he has done for 70 years is contribute to baseball, and that wasn't sufficient.
Contributing is such a simple act. It is one of selflessness. Buck O'Neil does not go around trumpeting the history of the Negro Leagues to sell himself. "This is never about Buck," he said last week in Kansas City, Mo. The great part is, it never has been about Buck, either.
His 94 years have taught him that energy is best used toward something you love. And he happens to love baseball. He is one of so many whose deeds have gone unrecognized by the Hall because they didn't fit a category. Which is why the Hall of Fame must consider the idea of a Buck O'Neil Award for Meritorious Contribution.
Currently, there are two standard ways to enter the Hall: through the Baseball Writers' Association of America vote, which is only for players, or the Veterans Committee, which elects players, managers, umpires and executives/pioneers every two years. Ideally, the O'Neil Award would be held the year the Veterans Committee does not meet, and it would choose one person a year for induction in the main wing of the Hall, not a separate display. They would get the same plaques and the same respect.
And the enshrinee could come from any aspect of the game, so long as he – or she – left a long, lasting and worthwhile contribution. Buck would be the first recipient, of course, and naturally he would spend the entirety of his speech talking about other people.
Though Marvin Miller is on the next Veterans Committee list, assuming that the founder of the Major League Baseball Players Association makes it in 2007 is a hefty leap. Miller should have been in 10 years ago, and were the O'Neil Award around, he would have been. He's an easy second choice.
Next on the list is the first debatable choice: Bill James. No matter what someone thinks of statistics and their place in baseball, James' influence is undeniable. Now an advisor for the Boston Red Sox, James is the godfather of sabermetrics – he coined the term – and author of the groundbreaking Baseball Abstract books. "Moneyball" does not exist without him. Neither does Baseball Prospectus, Hardball Times or any of the other compendiums of information that help accent traditional analysis with concrete data.
James does not like talking about himself. Getting him to discuss his Hall of Fame candidacy would be folly. So the easiest way to approach his thoughts on the idea was in an oblique fashion: What do you think about naming an award after Buck and inducting contributors?
"Fixing the Hall of Fame … is kind of a Humpty Dumpty exercise," said James, whose book "Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame" attacks some of the institution's selections. "They have 100 people in there who don't belong, and they can't kick them out, and they can't induct everybody who meets the same standard, because that's 2,000 people. So … what do you do?"
He makes a good point: Would the O'Neil Award water down the Hall of Fame even further?
If it takes the right steps, no. It needs a strong panel of voters: members of the Hall's executive board, baseball's commissioner, one or two Hall of Fame writers and broadcasters, a handful of players, some former executives and perhaps a fan. It needs to elect the right people.
Howie Haak, the Pittsburgh scout who discovered Roberto Clemente and pioneered scouting in Latin American countries, should be the first inducted among many scouts who are denied the privilege. Don't forget Tom Greenwade, who persuaded the Brooklyn Dodgers to sign Jackie Robinson and signed Mickey Mantle and Bobby Murcer, and Tony Lucadello, who signed Mike Schmidt and Ferguson Jenkins among more than 50 major leaguers.
Frank Jobe, the doctor whose elbow-ligament replacement surgery will keep Tommy John's name in the headlines as long as baseball is around, pioneered sports medicine and continues to strive for advances in the field.
Sy Berger, the original designer of Topps baseball cards, revolutionized his industry with the iconic 1952 set and gave kids another reason to love baseball.
Curt Flood, the outfielder who challenged MLB's reserve clause with a lawsuit, fought for players' rights alone against a huge entity and won them the free agency they enjoy today.
Scott Boras, the agent who negotiated Alex Rodriguez's $252 million contract, trampolined Flood's victory into opportunity: His stable of clients has close to $1 billion in contracts, helping ensure owners' profits do not evade the players.
There is Max Patkin, baseball's clown prince, who for more than 50 years made kids and adults alike laugh, and Hal Richman, the creator of the Strat-O-Matic baseball game, who for nearly 50 years has made kids and adults alike yell at dice. There is Allan Roth, hired by Branch Rickey as the first full-time statistician in baseball, who was the precursor to sabermetricians, and Joe Spear, the lead architect at HOK Sport + Venue + Event, who brought the beauty back to ballparks with his innovative design of Camden Yards and most of the other gorgeous edifices from which we watch games.
At The New Yorker, Roger Angell has pontificated on baseball with the touch of a poet, only he has not been recognized by the BBWAA with its J.G. Taylor Spink Award for writers. At Yankee Stadium, Bob Sheppard has called players' names with unparalleled grace as the public-address announcer for 55 years, and he has not been recognized with the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters.
Around the United States, Ted Giannoulas, the original San Diego Chicken, entertained millions of children and made trips to the ballpark memorable.
Isn't that the point? A memory, an experience, a feeling. All of the attention paid to the players would be nonexistent without the contributors upon whom the game was and is built.
While induction would have sweetened an incredible life, Buck O'Neil does not need the Hall of Fame. He will give his speech Sunday with a smile, cracking a joke or two, surely, and telling a few good stories. And he will walk inside and see his friends' likenesses hanging on the wall. And then he will leave and feel proud of how he helped this day happen with what he contributed.
The Hall of Fame does need Buck O'Neil. And more people like him.
- National Baseball Hall of Fame
- Veterans Committee