John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil, the Kansas City Monarchs star player and manager who was passed over for the National Baseball Hall of Fame shortly before his death in 2006, was elected to the hall on Sunday.
O’Neil’s second chance came via an Early Baseball Era ballot of 10 individuals. He was one of two on the ballot elected by a 16-member panel. The other was Bud Fowler, often acknowledged as the first Black professional baseball player, who pitched and played second base in the late 1800s.
Needing 12 votes, O’Neil received 13. He will be enshrined this summer at the Hall of Fame’s annual ceremony on July 24 in Cooperstown, New York.
The news was met with cheers inside the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which O’Neil helped found and where supporters gathered to watch the announcement.
Also Sunday, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Minnie Miñoso and Tony Oliva were elected to the Hall of Fame by the Golden Days Era committee, which voted on another 10-person ballot.
The first Black coach in Major League Baseball, O’Neil spent the majority of his life connected to the game.
He began his playing days as a semi-professional player on the barnstorming circuit before he earned his way into the Negro American League, where he played first base for multiple clubs, but primarily the Kansas City Monarchs.
He registered a career batting average of .288 and batted .300 or better in four seasons. He played in three All-Star Games as well as two Negro World Series despite having his career interrupted for two years during World War II when he joined the U.S. Navy.
He later managed the Monarchs including a stint as a player/manager and won two league titles and a shared title as the club’s skipper. He went on to become a scout and coach for the Chicago Cubs before becoming a scout for the Kansas City Royals in 1988. He’s a member of the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame.
O’Neil helped establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and he served as the board chairman of the museum until his death in 2006 at age 94.
O’Neil’s candidacy has been followed by many across the nation, particularly those who became familiar with him through his appearance in the Ken Burns’ prominent PBS documentary “Baseball” and subsequent national interviews and late night talk show appearances or those who learned about O’Neil in the pages of former Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski’s book “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.”
But O’Neil’s spirit remains woven into the fabric of Kansas City. It’s visible and tangible in various memorials including the Buck O’Neil Memorial Bridge, the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat at Royals home games, the recently debuted Negro Leagues/Buck O’Neil themed KC Streetcar, the life-sized statue at the Negro Leagues museum and the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center.
That spirit is also ever-present in the storytelling and efforts of Negro Leagues historians such as Larry Lester, Phil S. Dixon and current Negro Leagues president Bob Kendrick among others, the memories of those who saw him play and or manage in the Negro Leagues, those who interacted with him during his days as a scout and local folk hero with the Royals.
In 2006, a vote of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Special Committee on the Negro Leagues left O’Neil on the outside looking in as a legendary figure without the ultimate stamp of approval. He’d fallen short of the nine votes needed from the 12-member committee.
Seventeen Negro Leagues representatives were granted enshrinement at that time. O’Neil expressed jubilation for those who were selected despite what had to have been personal disappointment and gave a speech for them that summer during the Hall of Fame ceremony in Cooperstown.
“I’ve been a lot of places,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of things I really liked doing ... but I’d rather be right here, right now, representing the people who helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice.”
A few months later, O’Neil died from complications of congestive heart failure and bone marrow cancer.
The litany of posthumous honors bestowed upon O’Neil included the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush, the Hall of Fame presenting the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award (not more often than every three years) and placing a life-sized bronze statue of him in the Hall of Fame. He was also one of the recipients of MLB’s inaugural Beacon Awards.
Now 15 years after that original committee felt O’Neil fell short of clearing the bar for enshrinement, O’Neil’s name was called on Sunday.
The 16-member Early Baseball Era committee was comprised of Hall of Fame members Bert Blyleven, Fergie Jenkins, John Schuerholz, Ozzie Smith and Joe Torre; MLB executives Bill DeWitt, Ken Kendrick and Tony Reagins; and veteran media members/historians Gary Ashwill, Adrian Burgos Jr., Leslie Heaphy, Jim Henneman, Justice Hill, Steve Hirdt, Rick Hummel and John Thorn.
Hall of Fame voting results
Results of the Golden Days Era Ballot (12 votes needed for election): Minnie Miñoso (14 votes, 87.5%); Gil Hodges (12 votes, 75%); Jim Kaat (12 votes, 75%); Tony Oliva (12 votes, 75%); Dick Allen (11 votes, 68.8%); Ken Boyer, Roger Maris, Danny Murtaugh, Billy Pierce and Maury Wills each received three-or-fewer votes.
Results of the Early Baseball Era Ballot (12 votes needed for election): Buck O’Neil (13 votes, 81.3%); Bud Fowler (12 votes, 75%); Vic Harris (10 votes, 62.5%); John Donaldson (8 votes, 50%); Allie Reynolds (6 votes, 37.4%); Lefty O’Doul (5 votes, 31.3%); George Scales (4 votes, 25%); Bill Dahlen, Grant Johnson and Dick Redding each received three-or-fewer votes.
Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame