A few weeks before Buck O’Neil died — he died 14 years ago today — I got to tell the red dress story publicly for the first time. We were at some sort of dinner honoring Buck, I can’t remember all the details. I just know I was asked to say a few words about Buck, and he was sitting next to me on the stage. It was a full house.
I was in the middle of the very last edit of my book “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.” The book would come out about eight months after that dinner. I, of course, didn’t know that Buck would be gone by then.
Buck was insistent that I not tell him anything about the book until after it was done. I am not sure why; I think he wanted me to feel free to write it without worrying about his reaction. This was one of so many gifts that Buck gave me: He trusted me completely and utterly to tell his story. He never asked about it. He never offered suggestions about it. He never once came to me during our travels around the country and said, “Hey, can you leave that one out of the book?”
That night, with Buck sitting next to me, I decided to share my favorite story from the book. It goes like this.
We were in New York, and it was a long, hard day. Most of the days during our travels together were easy, smooth, they flew by as we ate well and met friends and Buck told stories. But that day in New York … it was rough. Buck went on a morning show, and I will always remember that when we got to the studio, the security guard in the front recognized Buck and asked what he was doing there. Buck said he was going on this show.
The guard was horrified. ““Please don’t do that show, Mr. O’Neil,” he said. “You are a gentleman. Please don’t do that. It’s the wrong show for you.”
Buck did the show. But the guard was right. The shock jock host began by calling Jackie Robinson a sellout, and it went downhill from there. Buck held his own, as he always did, but I still cringe thinking about that morning. After the show, Buck had a whole bunch of interviews to do and the rest of the day was spent stuck in traffic, waiting for elevators, answering the same questions, and looking at the watch to see just how late we were for the next thing.
And at the end of the day, we were all beat but Buck most of all. He looked as if he had aged 15 years since the morning. He announced that he was going to skip dinner and go right to bed, and for Buck that was serious — he loved dinner most of all. The car pulled up to the hotel and we all began that slow walk through the courtyard and toward the lobby.
And to our left was a woman wearing a red dress.
All these years later, I have a picture in my mind of what she looked like — but I’m not sure that it’s right. I do remember how red and gorgeous that dress was, though. That dress was Marilyn Monroe. That dress was Paris. That dress was the song “La Vie En Rose.” That dress was Rick and Ilsa, the balcony scene, the Temptations singing “My Girl” and chocolate strawberries with wine.
So, when we got into the hotel, I turned to talk to Buck about it.
But Buck wasn’t there.
I looked around but couldn’t find him. I looked back to where the car dropped us off, but the car was gone. And then, yes, I turned and saw the Buck was talking to the woman in the red dress.
They talked. They laughed. They hugged. A man walked over, and Buck hugged him, and they all laughed, and this lasted for a good solid minute or two. By the end, they were all best friends. Buck walked into the hotel lobby, and all the years New York had added that day were gone along with 10 more. “OK!” he said loudly as he made a beeline for the hotel restaurant. “Let’s eat!”
So we walked toward the restaurant, but suddenly Buck stopped. He put his hand on my shoulder and he asked, “Did you see the woman in the red dress?”
“Yes,” I said, and I smiled a little.
I will always remember that stern look Buck gave me then. He shook his head, and squeezed my shoulder, and said those words: “Son, in this life, you don’t ever walk by a red dress.”
I have probably told that story 500 times in the 13 years since The Soul of Baseball came out. People still come up to me sometimes and ask me to tell it. But what I remember now is that first time I told it, with Buck sitting there on the stage with me. He didn’t know it was coming. More than that, I don’t know he would have even remembered saying it had I not brought it up.
And I remember the plate erupted in laughter and cheers after. Buck just kind of looked out into the crowd and smiled and afterward so many people came up to Buck to talk about red dresses. I believe in the last few weeks of his life, numerous women wore red dresses as the came to see him at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, at the handful of events he did and, yes, even in the hospital.
The last time I saw Buck O’Neil, it was in the hospital. We talked about many things, including the book, which I had just finished. Then the doctor came in, and I got up to leave but Buck asked me to stay. The doctor talked a little bit about next steps, and then he walked out, and Buck said, “Next time, bring the book with you and read it to me.” I told him I would. I didn’t know there wouldn’t be a next time. I guess we never do.
“I’ll keep an eye out for red dresses,” I told him as I was getting ready to leave.
“Don’t walk by,” he said. I don’t think those were the very last words he said to me, but they are the last words I remember. In the 14 years since I’ve tried not to walk by — not red dresses or opportunities to make a friend or moments of joy or chances to make a difference. Of course, I have failed repeatedly, daily, hourly.
Then I think of Buck, who was denied a chance to go to Sarasota High School, to attend a white college, to play in the Major Leagues, to manage in the Major Leagues, to buy a home in the white part of Kansas City, to fight side by side with white Americans in World War II. And I think of him asking people in airports if they can remember the first baseball game they attended or their first day of school. I think of him walking up to strangers tables in restaurants and starting conversations. I think of the countless times he would see little girl or boy wearing a baseball glove, and he would pull out a baseball and play catch. I think of him offering hugs to anyone and everyone.
“Give it up!” he used to say.
Red dresses. He never walked by. It’s 14 years, and I still miss him every day.