Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Kendrick, the president of The Negro League Museum located in Kansas City, Missouri. I sat down with Mr. Kendrick because the Cubs podcast I host, The Son Ranto Show, is hosting an off-season book club for our listeners while we await the return of baseball.
The first book we chose to read was suggested by Mr. Kendrick over Twitter, Robert Peterson's "Only the Ball Was White." It's an informative and fascinating read about the history of the Negro Leagues and the many unsung players, coaches and executives who brought the game of baseball to the world, while being barred from the Major Leagues.
I had intended the interview to last just half an hour, but Mr. Kendrick's wealth of knowledge about a part of baseball history of which I am embarrassingly ignorant, stretched our conversation to nearly an hour an a half. We touched on subjects ranging from the pitching prowess of Satchel Paige to the business acumen of Rube Foster to the modern style of play, which owes more to the Negro leagues than I had ever known.
Of particular interest to Cubs fans was Mr. Kendrick's description of Buck O'Neil, who was instrumental in bringing down the walls of segregated baseball, by being hired by the Cubs as the first African-American scout and coach in the Major Leagues. He is credited with bringing Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Lou Brock, among others, to the Cubs and serving as an inspiration and father figure to many of the first black players
"There's no denying Buck O'Neil's influence on Ernie Banks, on Lou Brock, on Billy Williams, all those guys that came up for the Cubs, George Altman, Gene Baker," Mr. Kendrick said. "Buck took Ernie under his wing. Buck O'Neil was like a father figure to Ernie, He taught him how to be a pro."
I was also told a brief story about when Billy Williams had quit baseball and gone back to Whistler, Alabama only to have Buck O'Neil go down there and bring him back. Without Buck, we might have never had Billy.
We further discussed Buck O'Neil's inclusion in the infamous College of Coaches, employed by P.K. Wrigley in the 1961-62 seasons, where the Cubs used rotating managers instead of a single skipper. Mr. Kendrick lamented: "Buck O'Neil could have been the first very black manager in major league baseball. And had the Cubs, who had that rotating coaching system, put him on the field he would have been," Mr. Kendrick continued, "When it got his turn, they didn't let him on the field. He was disappointed he didn't get that opportunity."
Buck O'Neil was also not allowed to coach on the baselines, even though the "color line" of the MLB had been dropped in April 1947.
When I asked Mr. Kendrick what his most inspirational story was about Negro League Baseball, Buck came up again. In 2006, the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame held a special committee on Negro Leagues election and inducted 17 players into the HOF. Buck missed election by one vote. Although incredibly disappointed, Mr. Kendrick, who was there, said: "Buck came down and delivered one of the most amazing concession speeches that I've ever heard. and while the world was so angry that he didn't get in, he implored all of us not to be angry. Not to be bitter."
At the time, Buck was the only player alive who might have been elected in 2006 and Mr. Kendrick added, "Buck then went to Cooperstown and spoke on behalf of 17 Negro League players, all of them dead, they didn't have a voice. And what I still say is one of the most selfless acts in American sports history. A little over two months later he passed away. He taught us all a great lesson about how to handle disappointment."
It all sounds painfully similar to what happened to Ron Santo, doesn't it? If you have never seen O'Neil's Cooperstown speech, it's well worth watching:
Further, the Hall of Fame hasn't totally left Buck O'Neil out in the cold. The Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award has been given every three years since 2008, and a life-size bronze statue of Buck stands near the museum's entrance. Yet, given Buck O'Neil's contribution to Major League Baseball in the face of such adversity, it hardly seems like enough.
But it's hardly my place to feel angry about it when Buck himself was quoted as saying "God's been good to me. They didn't think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That's the way they thought about it and that's the way it is, so we're going to live with that. Now, if I'm a Hall of Famer for you, that's all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don't weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful."
You can listen to our full conversation here: