Last year, there was a special ballot to elect players from the Negro Leagues of Baseball into the Hall of Fame. This was big news because, until last year, these players were not eligible for election. In the end, 17 executives, players and managers were elected.
Overshadowing this wonderful election was the big news that Buck O’Neil had not been elected. As O’Neil has always done, he did not bat an eyelash; instead, he willingly delivered the acceptance speech for 17 new members of the Hall of Fame (all of whom had died well before their election). Two months after the election, Buck O’Neil, the face of Negro League Baseball and the man responsible for the special election, passed on.
Now we come to this year. Since the Negro League election held last year was a special election, O’Neil is now no longer eligible for election by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (the group of writers that votes on who should be elected every year). Once someone’s eligibility runs out, his chance of election rests with the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee, which only votes every other year. As it so happens, this year was a voting year for the Veterans’ Committee, but the problem was that O’Neil did not even appear on the ballot, outraging fans.
That the Hall of Fame should exclude a man like O’Neil is a crime in and of itself, but the fact that he did not even appear on the ballot this year is even worse. O’Neil was the unofficial goodwill representative for the Negro Leagues for years, and baseball has dealt him a slap in the face. If you look at his numbers in the Negro Leagues, he is a Hall of Fame player. If you look at his career as a Negro League manager, he is a Hall of Fame manager. If you look at his career as a Major League scout, he is a Hall of Fame scout.
Above all, Buck O’Neil was a Hall of Fame human being. The fact that O’Neil is not enshrined in Cooperstown is an embarrassment, a sham and an atrocity that is unforgivable. O’Neil willingly served on the Veterans Committee, despite not being a member of the Hall of Fame. He also fought long and hard to have Negro Leaguers elected to the Hall, and when they finally gave him what he wanted, the writers did not even elect him to the Hall of Fame. Most importantly, O’Neil never said a bad thing about the game of baseball or about the major leagues, despite all the reasons he had to do so, and his reward was to not be placed on the ballot.
Let’s really look at O’Neil’s accolades just to see how terrible a crime baseball has committed. While his numbers as a player are not spectacular, his leadership on and off the field was exemplary. Also, O’Neil won two batting titles in 1940 and 1946. On top of that, he was named to the East-West All-Star Classic in 1942, 1943 and 1949. As the manager, he led the Kansas City Monarchs to league championships in 1948, 1950, 1951 and 1953 (he managed from 1948-1955).
In 1956, he became a scout for the Cubs and then, in 1962, he became a coach for the Cubs, making him the first black coach in the Major Leagues. During his career as a scout, he discovered such superstars as Lou Brock, Ernie Banks and Joe Carter. All the while, O’Neil handled himself with absolute class and dignity. During his distinguished life (which included serving in the Navy in 1944 and 1945), he remained a goodwill ambassador to the Negro Leagues (pre-integration years) and a man who represented the very values the Hall of Fame claims to covet.
When baseball looks at itself in the mirror, it should be ashamed that it is excluding a man who is long overdue for recognition. Baseball should be ashamed of the fact that O’Neil will not be elected until at least 2009. How can a man who represents everything that is cherished by the Hall of Fame not be in the Hall of Fame? Baseball must also ask itself how it can exclude a man who represented everything that is good about the game not be honored. The fact of the matter is that keeping O’Neil out of Cooperstown is an insult to him, his legacy and his family. Also, as long as he is kept out, there will be a stain on the game that a man so deserving has been kept out for no good reason. That stain will remain until O’Neil takes his rightful place with the legends of the game. When that day comes (and I have no doubt that it will), baseball will redeem itself and can know that one of its true immortals is home.
Gillenson is a member of the class of 2010.