Buck's moment in the sun

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – This was his greatest-hits speech. Buck O'Neil had six minutes to encapsulate his 94 years, which was like asking him to stuff an ocean liner into a glass bottle. So he cherry-picked all of his best material, walked to the podium at the National Baseball Hall of Fame inductions, cracked a couple of jokes, induced a few tears and led a sing-along preaching love.

All in a day's work.

While this wasn't the last hurrah for Buck, it was perhaps his final dance in the limelight, and did he ever waltz with elegance. Never again will Buck get as big a stage as he did Sunday, when his task was to honor 17 of his Negro Leagues peers who entered the Hall. Not unless the Hall tries to right the mistake of the committee that didn't include him among that group.

How shameful they must feel today, the four members of the 12-person committee who did not vote for Buck. He fell one vote short, most believe, though we don't know for sure since the committee kept its results a secret. So much for standing behind what you believe.

Surely the 11 living members of the committee watched the ceremony, either in person or on television, and saw the sun blazing on a stage filled with Hall of Famers. They might not have known that it rained all day Saturday.

The skies wouldn't dare cry Sunday. They left that to the audience.

From the moment Buck spoke his first words – "This is outstanding," he said – the audience was enraptured. Buck butchered an old standby about shaking hands with President Truman and President Clinton but getting to hug Hillary, and no one knew nor cared. They just wanted to hear more.

Because the speech built like a wave, one surfers see on the horizon and know is going to be memorable. Buck talked about the three biggest black-owned businesses in America: insurers, the cosmetology company of Madam C.J. Walker and the Negro Leagues.

Yeah. The Negro Leagues. Why Buck was here and why the families of long-forgotten players were here. A cause with an effect.

"All you needed was a bus, and we rode in some of the best buses money could buy," Buck said. "Yeah. And a couple of sets of uniforms. You could have 20 of the best athletes that ever lived, and that's who we are representing."

All of them would have been proud. Rather than preach hate toward those who did him wrong, Buck said he "can't hate a human being because my God never made anything ugly." He does hate AIDS, which stole a friend, and cancer, he said, which killed his mother and his wife.

Then, without missing a beat, Buck said: "I'm single, ladies."

Laugh, cry. Do whatever. With Buck O'Neil, it's never about a particular emotion. Just the fact that there is emotion, that he inspires something inside of every person with a beating heart. He asked all of those at the induction to hold hands before leading them in song.

"The greatest thing," Buck sang, "in all of my life, is loving you."

Three more times he belted it, the crowd's voice echoing his. And Buck meant it.

"Now, sit down," he said. "I could talk to you 10 minutes longer, but I've got to go to the bathroom."

Classic Buck. He ends a lot of his speeches with that line. Bathroom humor transcends all age groups.

Come to think of it, so does Buck, which is why anyone who saw his speech Sunday will treasure it. Buck O'Neil, denied admission to the University of Florida and hotels and restaurants because of his skin color and denied admission to the Hall of Fame because of short-sightedness, preached acceptance.

After the ceremony, Buck retreated to a storefront on Main Street where he signed autographs. Under an awning, still wearing his blue snakeskin shoes and with his pants hiked up – that's how he likes 'em – Buck saw scores approach to thank him.

"Very nice speech," one man said.

"Great speech," a kid said.

"Beautiful speech," a woman said.

J.R. Richard, the former Houston Astros great, shook Buck's hand and wished him luck. The grandson of J.L. Wilkinson, the white owner of the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs, for whom Buck played, gave Buck credit for the day. A woman leaned in, kissed Buck on the lips and cooed.

"See ya, baby," Buck said.

By the looks of it, you'd have sworn Buck was among the group inducted earlier. He was the real star. All those years of touring coast to coast, telling stories about Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell, so dedicated to the movement he didn't realize his own legend was building, too.

"Old man knows how to do this," Buck said.

He does, and he'll keep doing it, in small doses, through the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, so long as health permits. He'll tell the same stories and give the same speeches, and that will be fine. He'll always have that Sunday at the Hall of Fame when the sun shone bright and the words came out like thunderbolts and the world learned to love Buck O'Neil one last time.

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