John (Buck) O'Neil's beatific presence lit up the 1994 public-TV documentary "Baseball." The Ken Burns film touched millions of viewers and made the Negro league veteran a celebrity.
Growing up in Sarasota, Fla., O'Neil saw Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and other stars of the all-white major leagues of the 1920s and '30s while keeping up with his Negro-league heroes in the weekly black newspapers. He joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in 1938. He became a fixture at first base, and played with and against some of the greatest names in black baseball: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and James (Cool Papa) Bell.
After the Negro leagues effectively dissolved in the mid-1950s, O'Neil joined the Chicago Cubs as a scout in 1956. In 1962, the Cubs made him the first black coach in the major leagues, a position he held for two seasons before returning to scouting. Since retiring from the Cubs in 1988, he has been a scout for the Kansas City Royals and serves on the Veteran's Committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame. His autobiography, "I Was Right on Time," was published this month by Simon & Schuster.
Here are some excerpts from a recent interview.
What was the toughest part of playing in the Negro leagues?
Segregation. That was the worst part. Lots of teams had it tougher than the Monarchs. We never played in a town where we couldn't get a hotel reservation, so we ended up in hotels that were black-owned. Accommodations were better in the [white major leagues]. We played in smaller towns and stayed in people's houses a lot of time. We had our own restaurants, our own movie theaters. We had our own everything, but why should we have had to have our own? In the United States, there shouldn't have been a black league. We knew we should be playing in the majors. We played the major-leaguers in all-star games, barnstorming in the winter. Most of the time we won, not because we were better; we were trying to prove a point and we put out a little more.
Are you bitter about being kept out of the major leagues?
No. People are always saying to me, "It's too bad you didn't come along 10 years later. Or 20 years later. Maybe you could have played in the majors." Sure, I would love to have played in the major leagues. We all would have loved that. We knew we could play the game as well - or better - than the players in the major leagues. But I don't think I came along too early. I came at just the right time. I just didn't get a chance to play major-league baseball.
But I did get a chance to play with some of the greatest baseball players who ever lived, because the best athletes in the world were playing baseball. Football and basketball were more or less college games. To make a living - a good living, professionally - you played baseball. So the greatest white athletes were playing major-league baseball, and the greatest black athletes were playing Negro-league baseball. I gave the eulogy at Satchel Paige's funeral, and afterward a writer came up to me and said, "Buck, isn't it a shame that Satchel didn't get to pitch against the greatest ballplayers in the world when he was in his prime?" And I said, "Who is it that said he wasn't playing against the greatest ballplayers in the world?"
As far as not playing in the majors, every black ballplayer who played baseball before Jackie Robinson was important. We paved the way. I think that I had something to do with the development of a lot of ballplayers who went into the major leagues. It was in the right spot for me at the time. Don't go around feeling sorry for me or the guys who played in the Negro leagues.
What was it like in the Negro leagues?
Pretty good. Life in the Negro leagues was actually better than a lot of people thought. We had spring training. We had an all-star game. We had a world series. When I came out of spring training, I could give my wife a complete itinerary of our season. It wasn't "Bingo Long" [a 1976 movie depicting a barnstorming black team]. It wasn't just hop up and pick up a game here and pick up a game there. It wasn't a burlesque show. We played an excellent brand of baseball.
Was the style of play different from the major leagues?
Baseball in the Negro leagues was faster, more aggressive. Guys sharpened their spikes and stole second base with their feet in the air. It was definitely rougher. And the one thing about it is, we thought nothing of it.
One of the big differences between play in the Negro leagues and the major leagues now is that back then, everybody could bunt, and did. Even the power hitters.