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Celebrating the Life of Buck O'Neil as Sarasota's Newtown Turns 100

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Associated Press archive / Charlie Riede

Buck O'Neil rose from humble beginnings in Sarasota's Newtown neighborhood to become the first black coach in the major leagues. He was able to tell stories spanning almost the whole history of baseball, from Babe Ruth to the Negro Leagues, to Bo Jackson.  As Newtown celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, Ian Cummings of The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports he was the most famous public figure to ever come from their neighborhood.

As a child in the 1920's, John “Buck” O’Neil worked the celery fields in Sarasota while his father ran a pool hall in the African-American community of Newtown.

Seeking a better life elsewhere, O’Neil found it in baseball, achieving greatness as a player in the Negro Leagues and a late-life fame as a storyteller on television. O’Neil became a kind of royalty in his adopted hometown of Kansas City, where he worked for the Kansas City Royals and helped found the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. And he was not forgotten in Newtown, which celebrated his frequent return visits in later years.

“The way he engaged people, the way he loved humanity. And I think that’s why we all fell in love with Buck O’Neil. We fell in love with Buck O’Neil – we never saw him play. We fell in love with the man who told us about these heroes of the Negro Leagues.”
 

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Credit Photo provided / Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Buck O'Neil catches a baseball in an undated photograph released by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. O Neil was a star first baseman and manager in the Negro leagues and a pioneering scout and coach in the major leagues who devoted the final decade of his life to chronicling the lost world of black baseball

That's Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. He says O’Neil was a driving force behind founding the museum. O’Neil had become famous late in life, in 1994, when filmmaker Ken Burns featured him in his documentary “Baseball.”

Through his long career as a player, manager, and major league scout, O’Neil preserved the memory of the Negro Leagues at a time when many had forgotten it. His charisma and storytelling ability made him an instant star.

“Buck being a storyteller, Buck could tell Bo stories as well as anybody. And he always used to say he only heard, you know, three times, did he ever hear this certain crack of the bat. He said there’s this certain sound that it makes. He said it was Josh Gibson, and when he heard the ball go off of Babe Ruth’s bat,” says Curt Nelson, director of the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame.

He knew O’Neil for many years as one of the professional scouts working for the Royals. Nelson says O’Neil was able to tell stories spanning almost the whole history of baseball, from Babe Ruth to the Negro Leagues, to modern legends like Bo Jackson.

“I hear that sound again, I’m in Kansas City. I open the door to go down, and I hear that sound again. Aw man, I rush down on the field, here’s another pretty black sucker swing the bat. Bo Jackson,” said O'Neil, appearing on the Fox Sports Network program “The Best Damn Sports Show Period” about 10 years ago. "I made my living in baseball now, 70 years, and I’m still going to the ballpark. I want to hear that sound again. Yeah, I wanna hear it again.”

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Credit Associated press archive / Charlie Riedel
Buck O'Neil stands with a statue of himself in this Feb. 11, 2005, photo at the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.

O’Neil captivated television audiences, appearing on late-night television with David Letterman and Tom Snyder, just as easily as he charmed in person. It was a second career for a man who had worked for years behind the scenes, as a manager for the Kansas City Monarchs Negro league team, as the first black coach in the major leagues, with the Chicago Cubs, and as a scout for the Kansas City Royals.

After he died in 2006, thousands attended his funeral at the museum he helped found, and the Royals dedicated a seat behind home plate to his memory.

Later in life, O’Neil papered over his humble origins in Newtown. He joked that he once told a skeptical father-in-law that his family was in the “recreation business.” Well, anyway, his father ran a pool hall and did a little bootlegging, he joked. That was recreation. Now, there are baseball fields named after O’Neil in Sarasota.

The Baseball Hall of Fame never inducted O’Neil as a member – still a sore point among some of his admirers – but it did create a lifetime achievement award in his honor and build him a statue in Cooperstown.

“Now, Buck wasn’t the greatest player in the Negro Leagues – he was a very good player – but he lived through a lot of the Negro leagues and he was around through the integration of baseball, he had a blessing of longevity," says Nelson, "and that was also blessing for the history of the Negro leagues, because at a time when that story might have sort of faded away, and there was a rekindling of interest in it, and Buck happened to be one of the gentlemen who was alive to tell the story.”

In later years, when O’Neil wasn’t traveling for public appearances, he spent many days hanging around the Negro Leagues museum. Sometimes, according to Kendrick, the museum director, O’Neil would sit in the lobby for hours waiting for people to come in. He would offer them a personal tour, complete with his own stories about his old friend Satchel Paige and other Negro league legends.

Back in Sarasota, local historians say he was, at least in his time, the most famous public figure to ever come from their neighborhood. He often returned to visit old friends from his days with the Sarasota Tigers ball club that he played for in the 1920's.

“Everywhere I go, no matter what circles there may be, someone has a Buck O’Neil story that they want to share," says Kendrick. "And for me, I welcome that. Because I think in some ways, it keeps him alive.  You know, it’s been eight years since Buck O’Neil passed away but it doesn’t seem that way.”

To learn about Newtown  events, visit newtown100.com. For more information about the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, go to www.nlbm.com.

To read Ian Cummings' story in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, click HERE.