Biking for Buck

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

Please allow me to ask a favor. Three kids and their high school teacher are biking halfway across the United States to spread the gospel of Buck O'Neil. Early on, they lost another rider when he passed out, mid-pedal, in Oregon, and then they soldiered on through 130-degree heat in Death Valley, and now, 1,300 miles from their destination, they are almost broke.

Which is really throwing a wrench in their plans to spend the next 10 days as they've spent the last 12: Retracing the path of a Negro Leagues barnstorming tour from their hometown, Seattle, to Kansas City, Mo., where they expect to present Buck with 10,000 signatures from fans who believe he belongs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame for his role as the present-day emissary and pied piper of the Negro Leagues, among many other contributions.

Five of those signatures come from the group at Chief Sealth High compelled to partake in this bike-for-Buck idea. Yuto Fukushige moved to the United States five months ago from Japan. Chunda Zeng emigrated here from China two years ago. Jasdeep Saran came to Seattle from India five years ago. All of them play baseball for Gary Thomsen, and none of them knew about Buck until taking Thomsen's sports-marketing class. Amanda Zahler, the 18-year-old organizer of the trip, was also in the class, and she is anything but a fifth wheel, even if she does spend her days in the 30-foot truck that rumbles a short distance ahead of the bikers, spreading word of their journey.

So join me in doing a good deed for Buck, still very much alive at 94 years old and eminently deserving recognition leading up to this week's Hall of Fame inductions.

Help the kids make it to Kansas City.

Go to their Web site, Read their diaries. See their mission. And then donate some money, either through the link on the page's left side or through PayPal with the e-mail address I chipped in $100. If another 65 people pledge that, it will be more than enough to fund the rest of the trip, and any excess money will go to the Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center, a $15 million project being undertaken by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

"People think it's so tough what we're doing," Amanda said. "It's nothing compared to what these men went through to play a game. We're not doing much."

They are biking more than 3,000 miles, through seven states, lauding the man who half the group has never met.

"I am tired," Yuto said. "I am hungry."

He paused for a second. He's still learning English.

"And I am having a great time."

There was no mistaking his genuineness. He wants to tell everyone that Buck O'Neil deserves to be in the Hall of Fame and that the 12-person special committee screwed up when it excluded him from a group of 17 Negro Leagues players, managers and executives who will be inducted Sunday and that nothing will stop them from telling his story, not even the worst kind of bad luck.

"We were in Grants Pass in Oregon," Jasdeep said. "We were sleeping in the back of the truck. Chunda was sleeping at the end where the door was open. I was sleeping right next to him. And he started yelling at me. He thought I was grabbing him. A cat had jumped into the truck."

It was black.

In the 1930s, traveling exhibition teams played some of the world's best baseball. Satchel Paige would find the places that promised the most money and take his All-Stars from city to city on barnstorming tours.

Buck O'Neil spent those days with Paige, the great pitcher, learning and laughing. They traversed the country to play in front of sold-out crowds, giving Buck years' worth of tales, like the story behind Paige calling him Nancy.

When in South Dakota, Paige met an Indian woman named Nancy, and he invited her to Chicago. Paige's future wife, Lahoma, showed up, too, so Paige sent Nancy to the hotel room next to Buck's. Before they went to sleep, Paige wanted to talk with Nancy. He banged on her door and said, "Nancy, Nancy, Nancy." And right as Lahoma came out to see the ruckus, Buck jumped out of his room and said, "What, Satchel?"

People know this story because Buck tells it at least twice a day. Unless they saw Ken Burns' brilliant 1994 documentary "Baseball" or have visited the Negro Leagues museum, they might not know much more about black baseball before Jackie Robinson.

"It's frustrating when you're at a high school like ours, which is largely made up of minorities, yet the only available resources when it comes to baseball are on white baseball," Thomsen said. "The black baseball experience is completely forgotten. Mainstream America hasn't looked at the contribution these black ballplayers have made."

Particularly in the Western United States. The best Negro Leagues teams played east of Kansas City, so research on the West was sparse. To help fill the gap, Thomsen's sports-marketing classes in 1999 and 2000 researched the subject and put together an even more ambitious itinerary: 22 kids rode more than 5,000 miles over 71 days, stopping in cities where the Negro Leagues were most popular to play a game.

Thomsen had kept in touch with Buck and planned some kind of celebration in anticipation of his Hall of Fame induction this year. He seemed a shoo-in: decent player (a Negro Leagues batting title), excellent manager (five Negro Leagues championships), superb scout (he signed Ernie Banks and Lou Brock), the first black coach in the major leagues and now an ambassador for black baseball who's so busy he must be cloned. The snub, from a group of academics, shocked Thomsen, commissioner Bud Selig – who always says he believes Buck deserves to be in the Hall – and everyone else in baseball.

And it helped build consensus among Thomsen's students that they would do their part, however small.

"It was one of those nice teaching moments where you had all of the kids engaged," Thomsen said. "And by the end of the week, they were going, Well, this isn't right.'

"It wasn't just what Buck did for black baseball. It was what black baseball did for Buck."

To find that out, students strained their eyes reading microfiche. They went to Bozeman, Mont., and Medicine Hat, Alberta, interviewing Negro Leagues players and stumbling upon the unknown, like baseball cards. Really, some players had baseball cards, which were actually used as business cards.

"You learn that the guys who played baseball, who proved that baseball has nothing to do with race, were the Negro Leagues players," Chunda said. "I should somehow appreciate them."

Every time Chunda pedals, he does. He's getting one step closer to Buck and one further from all the strangers he taught about Buck. He hasn't told the Nancy story because he doesn't know it. Soon enough he will.

"When I see him, I will not know what I say," Yuto said. "But I'm going to thank him for sure."

There is something very old-fashioned about this bike ride. A group of kids felt an injustice. They wanted to remedy it as best they could, and being that the Hall of Fame's policies allow barely a sliver of hope for Buck's enshrining, they pedal in silent protest: heads down, biting their tongues, pushing, kicking, grinding for a greater good, much like Buck himself did as a player during segregation.

"I want to be a part of something big," Jasdeep said. "I'm not a quitter. If I committed to something, I want to finish. And no matter what I'll do, I'll get it done.

"I want to show people what someone can do for the love of baseball."

Originally, they were supposed to leave on July 2. The support truck arrived 10 days late, throwing off their entire schedule. The leg to San Francisco was canceled. Mayors who were supposed to sign 6-foot-tall bats no longer had time. Spencer Gray, the fourth rider, went home because of lingering effects from his crash. Media appearances dried up. The heat in Death Valley, which felt like a blow dryer held to their cheeks, made them want to return to Seattle.

However bad it got, they thought of Buck. They saw him shrug off 100-degree heat and stifling humidity last week in Kansas City to appear at the independent Northern League's All-Star game. The stunt worked two-fold: Buck got his publicity and a nice chunk of change from the Northern League for the education center.

And Thomsen also told them a story about the class' trip in 2000. They had spent two years planning it and were still $7,000 shy of their budget. In the two weeks leading up to the trip, the kids made the money.

Which makes it a safe bet that Aug. 4, four bikes and a truck will pull into the 18th and Vine district in Kansas City. Buck, fresh off delivering the first speech on Hall of Fame weekend, will take them out for dinner at the Peach Tree restaurant for the first good meal they've had in three weeks and thank them.

"We'll make it," Chunda said.

"They don't know what defeat is," Thomsen said. "They don't know impossible. Because they haven't seen that. And they're not going to."

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