Saturday, October 07, 2006

Lost treasure

Buck ONeil, Negro League legend, the first black coach in MLB, and the undisputed star of Ken Burns' doumentary, "Baseball," died yesterday at age 94. Because I love baseball and its history, I was always aware of O'Neil through his numbers and where that put him in a historical context, but like most people, I never knew the man until "Baseball." Since then, I've been charmed and taught by the guy every time he smiled and opened his mouth.

The things that made him such a endearing subject in "Baseball," as a treasured piece of baseball history---his unabashed joy in the game that has not always been kind to him and the air of almost naive innocence that accompanied his words--- even made him more compelling as the game moved farther away from its fans throughout the steroid era. His humility, kindness, and the generous nature of his spirit seemed so out of place amidst the legions of small men who now own and play the game.

In "Field of Dreams," Terrance Mann said: "The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again." If that is at all true, it is only so because of people like Buck O'Neil.

Upon hearing of O'Neil's death, Reggie Jackson compared him to Rachael Robinson, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa. That might seem like hyperbole, but I think I understand what Reggie meant. Buck taught that, despite the injustices and inevitable bad moments, there is so much joy in baseball and in life, he just had to smile.

1 comment:

Hornless Rhino said...

Buck O'Neill was the real star of Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary. His great stories and genial personality were a welcome relief from the pretentious baseball-is-life claptrap being uttered by the likes of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Mario Cuomo.

I don't think I ever got tired of listening to Buck O'Neill speak. I doubt any baseball fan ever did.