Buck and the Hall

I’ve written about this many times before … but it’s Baseball Hall of Fame week, and there’s some talk again about electing Buck O’Neil to the Hall. So I think it’s worth, one more time, briefly going over what happened in 2006 (wow, it’s impossible to believe that 13 years have gone by) and once again asking this question:

“What does the Hall of Fame mean, anyway?”

Let’s begin in 2001. That was the year that the Veteran’s Committee voted Bill Mazeroski into the Hall of Fame. Whether or not you believe Maz worthy of the Hall of Fame, that turned out to be a fateful vote. People in and around the Hall — including, obviously, some influential people — felt Maz was not quite up to Hall of Fame excellence and that his inclusion lowered the Hall’s standards.

As such, the Veteran’s Committee was disbanded.

This decision directly impacted the Hall of Fame’s connection to the Negro Leagues; that’s because in addition to voting in veteran players, the Vet Committee also voted in Negro Leagues players. In the previous seven year, the Vets had elected seven of the greatest Negro Leagues players ever:

1995: Leon Day
1996: Bill Foster
1997: Willie Wells
1998: Bullet Rogan
1999: Smokey Joe Williams
2000: Turkey Sternes
2001: Hilton Smith

The driving force on the Veteran’s Committee for Negro Leagues election was Buck O’Neil.

Once the committee was disbanded, however, there seemed no way to elect any more Negro Leaguers. That didn’t sit well with anyone.

“This doesn’t mean it’s the end for the Negro Leaguers,” Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson insisted. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”

Idelson was true to his word. That year, 2001, the Hall of Fame — funded by a $250,000 grant from Major League Baseball — commissioned a study of blacks in baseball before 1960. And when that study ended, the Hall put together the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues — an impressive collection of historians, academics and writers who dedicated much of their lives to study Negro Leagues Baseball — and gave the committee essentially limitless power to elect all the Negro Leaguers they deemed worthy of the Hall of Fame.

It was widely assumed that one of the people the committee would elect was Buck O’Neil (it was so widely assumed that O’Neil was specifically left off the Special Committee). Buck had become the face of Negro Leagues baseball because of his star turn on Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary, because of his relentless efforts to keep the leagues memories alive, because if you happened to meet him you felt your life altered.

These, admittedly, are not the qualities that most people associate with the Baseball Hall of Fame. Those qualities are usually about baseball numbers, baseball achievements, on-the-field excellence. Buck was a good player. He won a Negro Leagues batting title and almost won a second. He was a stellar defensive first baseman. He was fast. He was, as Bill James has written, probably a lot like the fine ballplayer Mark Grace.

Should Mark Grace go the Baseball Hall of Fame?

No. Of course not.

Then again, was Mark Grace a pennant-winning manager? Was Grace the first African American coach in baseball history? Was Grace a pioneering scout? Was Grace a crucial father figure for a whole generation of African American baseball stars, from Ernie Banks to Lou Brock to Billy Williams to Bob Gibson to Dusty Baker? Was Grace a clear voice for the baseball voiceless for more than a half century?

“What does the Hall of Fame mean, anyway?”

We’ll get back to that question.

The 12-person committee met for the final vote on February 27, 2006. They had a ballot of 39 names. A person needed nine of the 12 votes for Hall of Fame election; but the committee members were not limited in how many players they could vote for.

We now know that Buck O’Neil got eight votes — one shy of election. We now know that former commissioner Fay Vincent — who was a non-voting member of the committee — brought everyone back into the room to plead with the group to reconsider (“That was an embarrassment,” he says now). We now know that the committee voted 17 people into the Hall of Fame, and they were all long dead.

Why didn’t Buck get the votes? I believe there were two reasons. One involved a complicated and petty political squabble that is not worthy going deeper into (and we’ll never know how much, if any, impact it had).

The second was, I want to believe, an honest belief that Buck was not a good enough player to go to the Hall of Fame. The Mark Grace argument. It’s a viable argument on baseball terms; Buck himself never thought he was a Hall of Fame player (though he would say, “Hey man, I could play!”).

But there is a serious flaw in the argument. The committee didn’t just vote in players — only 12 of the 17 were players.

The other five were executives. Effa Manley. Alex Pompez. Cum Posey. Sol White. J.L. Wilkinson.

I certainly will not demean any of those five. Effa Manley was a powerful force in the league and she is the only woman in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Alex Pompez was an executive who later led the charge in finding and bringing over baseball talent from the Dominican Republic. Cum Posey was a fantastic basketball player — yes, basketball — and he owned and built the brilliant Homestead Grays. White lived a remarkable life; he was a baseball player, a manager, an executive and a sportswriter. He wrote the first great history of black baseball. Wilkinson, the only white person voted in as part of the Negro Leagues, owned the Kansas City Monarchs, signed Jackie Robinson to his first baseball contract and pioneered night baseball.

They all were powerfully accomplished people. I wouldn’t argue that any of them doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame.

But, even more, I wouldn’t want to be on the side that argues that any of them had the impact on baseball that Buck O’Neil had.

Sol White is a nearly perfect comp. He was a fine player and manager. Sounds like Buck. He made his greatest impact as a writer keeping memories alive of great and forgotten players. Sounds like Buck. He was a beloved figure. Sounds like Buck. He didn’t have Buck’s history in the Major Leagues as a coach and scout. But here’s the biggest difference: Sol White died in 1955, 60-plus years before the vote, while Buck O’Neil was alive and still working day and night to make sure that people heard the story.

As Negro Leagues Museum president Bob Kendrick has often said, “It’s hard to celebrate the Negro Leagues with a bunch of dead folks and no living people.”

When Bob brought in the news that Buck had not gotten the votes, we were crestfallen — that is to say Bob and I were crestfallen. Buck took it with the grace he took everything. Mere seconds after hearing the news, he asked me if he thought the Hall would ask him to speak on behalf of the 17 new inductees.

“You would do that?” I asked him.

“Son,” he said, “what has my life been about?”

He did speak and sing in Cooperstown that year — it turned out to be his last major public appearance. He died about 10 weeks later. There were those who said that he died with a broken heart, and I know those people meant well — but I don’t believe it. Sure, he wanted to go to the Hall of Fame, believed that he had lived a Hall of Fame life, but he’d overcome much, much greater blows in his life. He’d been denied the chance to go to Sarasota High School. He’d been denied the chance to try and play or manage in the Major Leagues. He’d been called every name, pushed to the back of the bus, refused service and, for a short time, forced to paint his face and wear a grass skirt just so he could play ball.

Yes, the last one — Buck never much liked talking about the time he played for the Zulu Cannibal Giants. That was a novelty team where the players were told to entertain the crowd by doing vaguely African looking dances before the game, and use clubs instead of bats and talk in gibberish. Buck always insisted he didn’t dance. But he did the rest. “We would do anything to play ball,” Buck said.

So, no, he didn’t have his heart broken by the Hall of Fame vote.

That heart — it was unbreakable.

“What does the Hall of Fame mean, anyway?”

People argue about this question all the time. Some believe the Hall is all about baseball — the best players should be in the Hall of Fame, period. Some believe it’s about something more than baseball, that character should play a role in who is in and who is out. Some believe the Hall is baseball’s ultimate storybook and that you should be able to get a coherent history of baseball by simply following the people in it. Some want the Hall of Fame expanded. Some want it contracted. Some want it moved out of Cooperstown and to an easier location to access.

Some people believe a little bit of each of these things.

What you believe about the Hall will determine how you feel about Buck O’Neil’s place in it. You know, after the vote, the Hall of Fame — this would be the leadership at the Hall — decided to do something pretty amazing. They commissioned a life-sized statue of Buck O’Neil. Is that the same thing as inducting him into the Hall? No. But Buck is in there, right near the entrance, welcoming baseball fans from all over the world.

There’s a very good chance in the next couple of years, Buck’s name will come up for a Hall of Fame vote again — there are signs that this will happen. And if it does, I know that I will feel mixed emotions. For a long time after he died, Bob Kendrick and I (still bitter from that sad day) would tell each other that we didn’t want him elected, that the whole point of election was him being alive to enjoy it, to cherish it, to know that he had made it. Without Buck, what was the point?

But, years have gone by, and we both feel differently now. Now, we want him to be elected for all of Buck’s friends and fans. We want him elected because we both believe that on that special day in Cooperstown, he will be there.

We want him elected because, what does the Hall of Fame mean anyway? Whatever it means the place is a bit empty without him.