Buck O'Neil: Leaving a Lasting Impression on Baseball, History, and Me
By Deana Lockman- Deputy Director, Operations
After 20 years working at Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, I have some favorite moments that really stand out as extraordinary. One of my most memorable days here was March 23, 2004, when we hosted the baseball legend, John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil.
We invited Buck to help us celebrate our special exhibition, Shades of Greatness, which was on loan from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. While Buck was here he was kind enough to take part in two separate events to talk to baseball fans in Louisville about playing baseball in the Negro American League, his life, and the game of baseball.
Aside from O’Neil’s impressive baseball career, it was apparent from the moment I met him that he was special in many ways. When I shook his hand I couldn’t help but notice how large his hands were. You see, O’Neil was 6’2”, but he had exceptionally large hands and feet even for that height. So much so, he earned the nickname “Foots.” Most noticeable though, was his gentle demeanor and radiant smile. I just wanted to be around him and soak in every story he had time to tell.
Buck O’Neil played first base for the Kansas City Monarchs (pictured below) and was promoted to player-coach ten years later. The Monarchs swept the Homestead Grays in the first Negro League World Series with O’Neil batting .353 that season. He was instrumental in leading the Monarchs to four consecutive Negro American League pennants as well as being an All-Star three times for the West. In the midst of his playing career, O’Neil served three years in the U.S Navy Construction Battalion during World War II.
O’Neil also played during the height of the barnstorming days. He was on the same barnstorming team as Satchel Paige and formed a close relationship with the legendary pitcher. Buck got the nickname “Nancy” from Satchel. Many have asked Buck why Satchel called him Nancy, and he shared the story with us that day. There’s no way my words can do that story justice, so it’s best if you just read it in Buck’s own words.
Buck O’Neil never got the opportunity to play Major League Baseball, but he did become a scout for the Chicago Cubs in 1956 and is credited with signing Lou Brock and Ernie Banks to the organization. In 1962, Buck solidified his place in baseball and American history when he became the first African-American coach in Major League Baseball (pictured below).
While Buck O’Neil was certainly a terrific storyteller, it was watching him interact with a group of kids from Lincoln Elementary that showed me what a tremendous impact he had on everyone he met. The kids were drawn to him, and so eager to hear him speak (pictured below with several children from the event). When it was time for questions, every hand in the group flew up. He was patient and kind as he talked with them about love and acceptance.
Buck O’Neil was a man who had the talent to play Major League Baseball but never got the chance because of a segregated America. Yet he was not bitter or angry. He ended the program with the kids by leading them in a song, “The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you.” It was such a powerful moment to witness and one that will always bring a smile to my face. I suspect many of the people who were lucky enough to meet Buck O’Neil have a similar story.