Why, Nancy, There You Are
Call me Buck.
I was born John Jordan O'Neil, Junior, on November 13, 1911, in Carrabelle, Florida, and a few close friends still call me John, including my best friend, Ora Lee Owens, the beautiful woman I married fifty years ago. I have been called Jay, Foots, Country, and Cap, and also Nancy, which is a story I'll get to involving my friend Leroy "Satchel" Paige. I have been called a few names that shouldn't be spoken, and one time I was called something that made me laugh out loud. A few years ago, they were having a big eightieth birthday celebration for me at my African Methodist Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri. There was all this babbling about Buck O'Neil did this and Buck O'Neil did that. But just in case any of it went to my head, a young boy I knew came up to me afterwards and introduced his friend to me; he said, "I'd like you to meet Buck O'Neil. He's an old relic from the Negro leagues." I said, "Son, you are so right."
I might have stayed an old relic, too, had it not been for another friend, Mr. Ken Burns. Ken was nice enough to keep his camera on me for a long time when he was making his documentary, Baseball, and thanks to that film, a whole new generation of people call me Buck. It's kind of nice to be discovered when you're eighty-two years old.
The best thing about the film, though, was that it gave me a chance to tell folks about the Negro leagues, about what a glorious enterprise black baseball was, and about what a wonderful thing baseball is. Back in 1981, at a reunion of us Negro league players in Ashland, Kentucky, a young fellow from Sports Illustrated asked me if I had any regrets, coming along as I did before Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues. And this is what I told him then, and what I'm telling you now:
There is nothing greater for a human being than to get his body to react to all the things one does on a ballfield. It's as good as sex; it's as good as music. It fills you up. Waste no tears for me. I didn't come along too early -- I was right on time.
You see, I don't have a bitter story. I truly believe I have been blessed. Growing up as I did in Sarasota, Florida, I saw men like John McGraw and Babe Ruth and Connie Mack during spring training. As a first baseman for the great Kansas City Monarchs, I played with and against men like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. As the manager of the Monarchs and later as a scout and a coach -- the first African-American coach in the majors -- for the Chicago Cubs, I got to see the young Ernie Banks, the young Lou Brock, the young Bo Jackson.
The first time I saw Ruth, up in St. Petersburg, it wasn't so much the sight of him that got to me as the sound. When Ruth was hitting the ball, it was a distinct sound, like a small stick of dynamite going off. You could tell it was Ruth and not Gehrig and not Lazzeri. The next time I heard that sound was in 1938, my first year with the Monarchs. We were in Griffith Stadium in Washington to play the Homestead Grays, and I heard that sound all the way up in the clubhouse, so I ran down to the dugout in just my pants and my sweatshirt to see who was hitting the ball. And it was Josh Gibson. I thought, my land, that's a powerful man.
I didn't hear it again for almost fifty years. I thought I'd never hear it again. But I was at Royals Stadium, scouting the American League for the Cubs, and I came out of the press room and was going down to field level when I heard that ball sound as if the Babe or Josh were still down there. Pow! Pow! Pow! It was Bo Jackson -- the Royals had just called him up. And I'll tell you this: I'm going to keep going to the ballpark until I hear that sound again.
I have another reason for sticking around: Sometimes I think the Lord has kept me on this earth as long as He has so I can bear witness to the Negro leagues. I'm fortunate enough to be a member of the Veterans Committee for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Monte Irvin and I are the only Negro league players on the committee now that Roy Campanella has passed on, and for years I've been putting forward the names of the players I think belong in the Hall.
Oh, we've been represented very well in Cooperstown ever since 1971, when Satchel Paige became the first black man to be named to the Hall based on his Negro league career alone. Josh Gibson and my name-sake, the great Buck Leonard, who played first base like I did and was our answer to Lou Gehrig, went in the next year, followed by Monte Irvin, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, and Oscar Charleston.
These men were elected by a special committee set up by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn specifically to nominate Negro league ballplayers. When the committee was done with its work in 1977, it fell to the Veterans Committee to make the nominations, and over the next four years John Henry Lloyd, the great Cuban Martin Dihigo, and Rube Foster, the father of the Negro leagues, got in. But then things slowed down. It took until 1987 before Ray Dandridge made it in, and then nothing happened for eight more years.
The problem was, the Veterans Committee votes on all kinds of managers, umpires, baseball executives, and the ballplayers who were passed over by the baseball writers when they were eligible for admission. The committee could elect only up to two people each year, and, being one of the eighteen people on the committee, I could see how tough it was for any of the Negro league players to get the 75 percent of the vote they needed. Listen, it's hard enough to get fourteen people to agree on anything.
But the Negro league ballplayers were at a greater disadvantage because the other candidates were getting a second crack, while the Negro leaguers had never been voted on at all by the writers, because Negro league players aren't on the original ballot. They don't get all the publicity that other players get for making it or just missing when the writers' votes are announced every year. So I got to thinking, and I talked to the committee and the Hall of Fame people about it, and we were able to change the rules to make it a little easier for the Negro league players.
It sounds strange, but I told them, "You got to start putting us in a separate category the way you did fifty years ago." They call that ironical, but all I know is that it worked out. There are about a dozen men left who deserve their own plaques, but the one guy I was concentrating on was Leon Day, a great little pitcher and a fast little outfielder for the Newark Eagles, among other teams. The reason I wanted Leon in was that he was still alive, living down in Baltimore in ill health.
So, last March, when the Veterans Committee elected Richie Ashburn and William Hulbert, we also elected Leon Day. Leon was in the hospital when he got the word, and a week later he passed away, knowing he was a Hall of Famer. We made it just in time with Leon.
The problem is, the Hall only gave us five years to rectify this unfair situation, which isn't enough time, because we've got more than four players who should be in the Hall of Fame. Just off the top of my head, I can rattle off about a dozen, pitchers like Bullet Joe Rogan and Smokey Joe Williams and Willie Foster and Hilton Smith and Cannonball Redding. Hitters like Turkey Stearnes and Mule Suttles and Louis Santop and Biz Mackey and Willard Brown and Ted Strong, and slick fielders like Willie Wells. There are 82 players from the major leagues during the years the Negro leagues existed who are in the Hall; it stands to reason that more than eleven of us were good enough to be worthy of the honor, too.
Some folks are saying maybe I belong in that Hall, too. But I'm honest with myself about it. If people say it, it's probably because of the Ken Burns series, not because they saw me play ball. The truth is, I don't belong; I was a very good ballplayer, but very good ballplayers don't belong in the Hall of Fame. Great ballplayers do. Oh, I'd like to think I might get in the Hall one day, but maybe as a manager or for other contributions that I made to baseball. Right now, my job is seeing to it that the guys I know are qualified to get in do get in.
Looking around now, there are getting to be fewer and fewer of us old Negro-leaguers. But whenever we get together nowadays, we have a fine time recalling our playing days. It's interesting how much we've improved over the years. We started out as good players, but as the years go by, we just get better and better. Why, it's amazing how great we were! We could do things the players of today can only dream of. That's not true, of course, but the way we talk, you'd think it was.
But the sad thing is that, like with Leon Day, when we do get together it's usually at funerals. And with every Negro league player we bury, we say goodbye to another person who can testify to the glory of our times. We might not have played in the major leagues, but we kept the faith and cleared the path for Jackie Robinson. We might not have batted against Lefty Grove or pitched to Ted Williams, but we had to stand in against Bullet Joe Rogan and face Josh Gibson. It's like I said at Satchel's funeral in 1982: People say it's a shame he never pitched against the best. But who's to say he didn't?
A lot of people think that Negro baseball was like that movie with James Earl Jones, Richard Pryor, and Billy Dee Williams, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. But we were no minstrel show. We didn't just all pile into a Cadillac and pick up a game here and there -- although there were times when I did some of that stuff. I had to if I wanted to keep eating. That was reality. But in the Negro leagues proper, we had a schedule and we had coverage by newspapers and we had league commissioners and league presidents. Like the white big-league fellows, we had spring training down South. We had an all-star game every year for over twenty years in Comiskey Park, and we outdrew the white all-star game some of those years, when we'd have fifty thousand people looking at us. Most years, we had a World Series, too.
Mostly, though, we had a tradition of professional men, going back to the 1800s when Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first black man to play in the big leagues around 1884 before they hounded him out of the game. Black baseball wasn't organized until 1920, but black men had been playing since the Civil War, and there were great players and great teams the whole time, teams like the Philadelphia Giants and the Cuban Giants -- who were really black -- and the Indianapolis ABCs and the Algona Brownies and the Tennessee Rats. Then came the Chicago American Giants and Kansas City Monarchs and Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords and Newark Eagles.
At one time, we had three or four leagues playing all at once, the Negro National League, Negro American League, Negro Southern League, Negro Western League, and so on. We had black and white businessmen, brilliant men like J. L. Wilkinson, a wonderful and kind man who owned my Kansas City Monarchs. Show you how smart Wilkie was, he invented night baseball five years before the big leagues got around to playing at night, though when they did nobody ever gave him any credit.
And we had names. We had Fox and Piggy and Bunny and Possum and Groundhog and Rats and Mule and Frog and Burro and Early-bird and Goose and Turkey. Turkey, whose name you've already come across, was really Norman Stearnes, one of the greatest hitters and strangest men I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. They called him Turkey because of the way he flapped his arms around when he ran. You expected Turkey to take off and fly when he was running, but I was more fascinated by his devotion to hitting. Turkey carried around his bats, a thirty-four-incher and a thirty-five-incher, in a special bat case, like they were violins. One time, after a tough loss, the Monarchs were in the hotel eating dinner, and the manager, Frank Duncan, asked me to go check on the Gobbler -- that's another thing we called Turkey, you see. So I knocked on the Gobbler's door, and he said, "Come in," and there he was, sitting in the middle of his bed dressed in his pajamas talking to his bats. He said to the 34-incher, "I used you and only hit the ball up against the fence." Then he turned to the 35-incher and said, "If I had picked you, I would have hit the ball over the fence and we would have tied the game." Strange man, but Turkey's another guy who belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Man, did we have names. We had Sea Boy and Gunboat, Steel Arm and Copperknee, Darknight and Skin Down, Mosquito and Jitterbug, Popsickle and Popeye, Suitcase and, of course, Satchel. Our trainer with the Monarchs was Jewbaby Floyd -- I can't recollect why we called him that, and I can't remember what his real first name was. There were some pitchers with great nicknames, Steel Arm Davis, Ankleball Moss -- that's where that mean sonuvagun threw the ball from, his ankles -- and Cocaina Garcia. Cocaina, whom I used to face down in Cuba, got his name from his wicked curveball, which made all us hitters go numb.
As for my own names, well, there are some pretty simple explanations for them -- and some pretty complicated ones, too. Jay, or J.J., is what the members of my family called me when I was growing up in Carrabelle and Sarasota. "Jay," my father would tell me, "when I'm away, you're the man of the house." Along with the responsibility, my father passed on some of his baseball talent. When I was fourteen, the local semipro team, the Sarasota Tigers, asked my school principal Emma Booker if they could borrow me to play first base. By then, I had a nickname as well as a position: Foots. That's because I had pretty big dogs, size eleven since I was twelve.
It was Ox Clemons, the great coach at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, who gave me my next handle. I had gone to Edward Waters straight out of eighth grade because they didn't allow blacks at Sarasota High School -- only four high schools in the whole state did. (I finally did get my diploma from Sarasota High in the spring of 1995 -- sixty-four years after my original class graduated!) Ox saw my rural ways pretty quickly among his city boys, and he started calling me Country. Cap, short for Captain, was a name that came along later in life, when I was manager of the Monarchs, and it's what one of my first base coaches, Mr. Lionel Hampton -- the same Lionel Hampton who's a magician on the vibes, even in his eighties -- calls me to this day.
But it was Buck that stuck, which is funny because that one was purely a case of mistaken identity. I left Edward Waters in 1934 to go play for the Miami Giants, a pretty good team that was owned by a man named Buck O'Neal -- that's right, a different spelling. Although I'm not proud of it, a few years later I was playing in a grass skirt for the barnstorming Zulu Cannibal Giants, a team that was owned by Abe Saperstein, a big-time promoter of Negro league games in the Midwest who also started the Harlem Globetrotters. Abe was perfecting the Globetrotters' act with us ballplayers, even though we hated doing things like wearing the grass skirt, putting war paint on our faces, and generally acting like a bunch of fools to draw white folks to the park -- though, let me say, I don't believe many white fans came just to see us clown around. Most had respect for us as ballplayers and would've come regardless.
Anyway, the promoter of the Zulu Cannibal Giants was Syd Pollock, a vaudeville theater owner out of Tarrytown, New York, who also used to work for the Miami Giants. Syd somehow got me confused with Buck O'Neal, so he started billing me as Buck O'Neil, and it stuck once the black newspapers picked up on it and began writing me up.
Nancy was also a case of mistaken identity, except it wasn't really a mistake -- it was done on purpose. When Satchel and I were with the Monarchs, we played this one game on an Indian reservation near Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It was there that Satchel, who had a weakness for a pretty face, and the more of them the better, met this beautiful Indian maiden named Nancy, and since we were going to Chicago to play the Chicago American Giants, he invited Nancy to visit him there. She had some relatives there or something, so she accepted his invitation, and he told her we were staying at the Evans Hotel.
Well, now we were in Chicago, and I was sitting in the coffee shop of the Evans Hotel when I saw a cab pull up, and out stepped Nancy. I went out to greet her and tell her that Satchel was upstairs, and the bellhop carried her bags to his room.
A few minutes passed, and another cab pulled up, and this time out stepped Satchel's fiancée, Lahoma, who wasn't supposed to be coming by, as far as Satchel knew. Seeing how this might complicate things just a little bit, I jumped up and greeted her. "Lahoma," I said, "so good to see you. Satchel's not here right now, but he should be along shortly. Why don't you sit here with me, and I'll have the bellman take your bags up to the room."
I went over to the bellman, explained the situation to him, and told him to move Nancy and her bags into the room next to mine, which was also next door to Satchel's, and then to knock on Satchel's door and tell him Lahoma was here. A few minutes later, the bellman came down and gave me the sign that everything was okay. In the meantime, Satchel had climbed down the fire escape, and, lo and behold, there he came, walking down the street.
I said, "Look, Lahoma, here comes old Satchel now." Satch gave her a big greeting -- "Lahoma, what a nice surprise!" -- and led her upstairs.
That might have ended the trouble, except that later that night, after we had turned in, I heard Satchel's door open and close. Then I heard him knock on Nancy's door. I think he wanted to give her some money and apologize, but while he's whispering kind of loud, "Nancy! Nancy!" I hear his door open again, and I knew it was Lahoma coming out to see what was going on. I jumped out of my bed, opened my door, and said, "Yeah, Satch. What do you want?" And he said, "Why, Nancy. There you are. I was looking for you. What time is the game tomorrow?"
And from that night on, until his dying day, Satchel called me Nancy.
It was the Negro leagues that gave me an identity, but it was a lot more than just a nickname. I am proud to say it was the Negro leagues that turned me into a man. That's why this fame that's come my way so late in life is so funny to me. Thanks to Ken Burns, I became an overnight star in my eighties. But as far as I'm concerned, I felt like I was already on top of the world when I got to play with and against some of the best ballplayers who ever lived. In 1942, our Kansas City Monarchs beat the mighty Homestead Grays of Josh Gibson in the Negro World Series. I also met my wife Ora that year. That was a very good year. I never felt higher on top of the world than I did that year.
The big-leaguers might not have known who I was, but that was okay, because when I first thought of playing baseball for a living I never thought I would play major league baseball. I thought major league baseball was a white man's game. It was a thrill and a privilege to play against the big-leaguers in all-star games, and you know, we did pretty well against those boys, and it made us believe we did belong up in the bigs.
But it just meant more to a black kid from the Deep South to know that millions of my people knew who I was. Believe you me, by the time those people were calling me Buck, I knew I had it made.
Copyright © 1996 by Buck O'Neil and Steve Wulf
I Was Right On Time
In I Was Right on Time, he charmingly recalls his days as a ballplayer and as an African-American in a racially divided country. Whether he's telling of his barnstorming days with the likes of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson or the day in 1962 when he became the first African-American coach in the major leagues, O'Neil takes us on a trip not only through baseball's past but through America's as well.