Don't weep for Buck

Life, to Buck O'Neil, was about love. He loved to tell stories, and he loved to talk about his friends, and did he ever love women, especially ones in red dresses.

"I love what I have," he said, signing autographs on Main Street in Cooperstown, N.Y., following the National Baseball Hall of Fame inductions in July, "and I love who I am."

John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil, who died Friday night in Kansas City, Mo., at 94, was until the end filled with the love that won him so many admirers. Despite segregation in both education and his baseball career, O'Neil radiated the positive, and only the stonehearted would not melt at what he tried to teach.

Understanding, first and foremost. The white high school that would not let black students attend did not understand, nor did the white Major League Baseball that forced black players to start the Negro Leagues, where O'Neil played and managed with the Kansas City Monarchs.

Patience, too, for O'Neil waited years until he became a coach for the Chicago Cubs and the scout who signed Ernie Banks and Lou Brock.

And acceptance, which O'Neil preached to all his fans and friends who wondered how a special committee that elected 17 Negro Leagues players and executives this year did not include him.

"Don't weep for Buck," he said.

It was quintessential O'Neil, looking for the rainbow among the clouds. He didn't need the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame needed him, and that never was clearer than when it asked O'Neil to deliver a speech before this year's inductions.

Dressed to the nines, O'Neil strutted toward the dais, the walk of a fulfilled man, and asked everybody to hold hands and sing a song: "The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you."

He wanted everybody to feel special, to feel like he was singing it to them as much as he was singing it with them.

With O'Neil, it always was about others. He spent his final years spreading the lore of the Negro Leagues, first through the Ken Burns documentary "Baseball," then as an ambassador for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Walk into the museum on any given afternoon and O'Neil might just greet you at the door, extend his hand and thank you for coming.

His hands were huge and his shake welcoming. O'Neil made people at ease, never more so than that weekend in Cooperstown.

A woman walked up to the table where O'Neil was signing baseballs and bats. She didn't know what to say.

"Come on now," O'Neil said. "It's just old Buck. How about a hug?"

She leaned in, and Buck laid a squeeze on her. He smiled. She smiled back, got her autograph and walked away.

Too bad, I offered, that she wasn't wearing a red dress.

"Nah," O'Neil said. "She was full of love, and that's what counts."