Twenty years ago today, Buck O’Neil told me some of the secrets of life. It was Prince’s party year, 1999, and Buck was turning 88 years old, and all the talk was about the new millennium. What would the next 1,000 years bring? Would all the machines break down? Would they take over? This was before iPhones, before Facebook, before anyone “Googled” things or looked at Wikipedia. This was back when AOL was the biggest thing and people guiltily (or not so guiltily) used Napster to get music.
Ol’ Buck, having been born on this day in 1911, never expected to see a new millennium. He was the grandson of a slave. He grew up working in the celery fields of Sarasota, Fla. His life was framed by the boundaries that white America built all around him. He could not attend the white high school in Sarasota. He could not go to the white colleges all around. He could not stay at most hotels, could not eat in the dining room of most restaurants, could not sit in most train cars, could not even try on a hat in a store without immediately buying that hat. Humiliations, big and small, waited at every turn.
He could dream of playing baseball, they couldn’t outlaw dreams, but he was not welcome to play in the leagues that were written about in the biggest newspapers. He heard about the Negro Leagues, though. He never forgot the boiling hot day he was in the celery fields, and he shouted out in anguish, “Damn, there’s GOT to be something better than this.” And his father told him there was something better, but he had to go out there and get it.
So he went out there and played ball. He was so admired that almost from the start everybody began calling him “Cap,” for “Captain.” He played ball with Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, with a 40-something legend named Oscar Charleston and the fastest man who ever played, Cool Papa Bell (“How fast?” you would ask Buck; “Faster than that,” he would reply). Buck was good at playing ball, a defensive whiz at first base, a line drive hitter good enough to win a batting title. He could really run in those days. He stole home a time or two.
Buck interrupted his career to fight in World War II, but he came back, and he became a successful manager; Buck was born to be a manager, but there were no black managers in the minor or major leagues then. He became one of the first black scouts in the Major Leagues, and then he became the first black coach in the Major Leagues for the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs never let him coach on the bases, though. That was too close to the field.
Buck was impossible not to love, impossible not to admire. He saw the best in people. He saw the best in things. When he faced injustice, he felt assured that things would change. When he came up against hatred, he insisted that there were more good people than bad. I’ve told the story countless times about an Astros game we watched together. A ball was tossed into the crowd, a man reached over a boy’s head to catch the ball and take it away.
“What a jerk,” I said.
“Don’t be so hard on him,” Buck said. “Maybe he has a child of his own at home.”
It was so immediate, so natural for him to think of people that way. That was his superpower. I saw a jerk in a suit taking a ball away from a kid. He saw a father excitedly -- perhaps even too excitedly -- seeing a baseball to take home to his child.
‘Wait a minute,” I said. “If this guy has a kid, why didn’t he bring the child to the ballgame?”
“Maybe,” Buck said without missing a beat, “his child is sick.”
And I knew then -- as I’d always known, I suppose -- that I could never beat him at this game, never break that endless chain of optimism and hope that he carried with him always. You already know that when the call came that he had fallen a vote shy of election into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he instantly said, “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.” And after a moment of reflective silence, he began to think about what he would say in Cooperstown if asked to speak on behalf of the 17 others from the Negro Leagues who were elected.
“You would really do that?” I asked, incredulous because I was angry for him, we were all angry for him, and he smiled and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Son, what has my life been all about?”
And in his last public appearance, as he approached 95 years old, Buck O’Neil spoke in Cooperstown on behalf of 17 people who could not speak for themselves. And then he led the crowd in his favorite song, one that in his mind only had 10 words: “The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you.” Buck died two months later.
Today, on what would have been his 108th birthday, I think about those things. But more, I think about a few of those secrets of life he told me 20 years ago.
-- Drain the bitterness from your heart.
-- Sing a little every day.
-- Tell people you love them.
-- Do a little showboating now and again. Remember, it was the so-so ballplayers who came up with that word “showboat.” If you have something to show, go ahead a showboat a little.
-- Don’t let anger boil up inside you. There’s too much anger out there already.
-- Hold hands with the person next to you. That way they can’t get away. And neither can you.
-- Don’t worry none. Everything will be just fine. You can’t spend your life worrying about things.
-- Always be on time. There’s no use in being late.
-- Be there for old friends.
-- Learn your history. We have come so far. We still have a ways to go but that your job, and your children’s job, and your children’s children’s job.
-- Live a long life. Yeah. You get to see a whole lot that way.
I can still hear his voice. I hear it every day. Negro Leagues President Bob Kendrick and I talk all the time about Buck and how he altered out lives. As Bob likes to say, it’s hard to live like Buck. But we try. Every day, we try. It’s all we can do.