In the continuing series of having top Juiceblog readers offer up baseball pieces, making a return appearance is my friend, Ken Schultz. The Chicago-based comedian is probably the closest thing to what a sabermetrically-inclined standup would be like. What do I mean by that? Ken is a cerebral cynic, with a body appearance that screams “I’ve never lifted weights.” While most of my readers would find him a witty conversationalist, superficial women (AKA most hot chicks) would think him to be socially awkward. With an introduction like that no wonder some of you have decided not to take advantage of writing a piece for the Juiceblog.
At the age of five, Ken learned about the game of baseball from his father who also passed on a lifelong devotion to the Chicago Cubs. Proving once again that the Cubs are congenital. Ken attended Kenyon College where he majored in English and Drama. After graduating, he was surprised to learn that his degree did not lead to offers from any Fortune 500 company. So instead Ken headed into the lucrative world of telling dirty jokes to drunks in bars. He is known to break into a smile at the mere mention of the names “Ted Williams” or “Ryne Sandberg.”
By Ken Schultz
One year ago, the Baseball Hall of Fame’s specially appointed committee on the Negro Leagues announced the results of their one time only election. Seventeen people were inducted into the Hall but the ballot’s most familiar name, Buck O’Neil, was not one of them. This resulted in much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the baseball writing community, whose main argument seemed to go like this:
“How could you not elect Buck?! He’s…adorable!”
While technically true, such arguments did little to advance O’Neil’s Hall of Fame cause. During this year’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Awards Dinner, host Robert Wuhl attempted to make Buck’s case by shouting “Shame on the Hall of Fame!” approximately 167 times. It prompted the predictable applause break but again gave nothing in terms of an actual argument for his induction. Sadly, Buck O’Neil’s Hall of Fame backers seem to think that this line of debate should be enough to get their man enshrined:
O’Neil Advocate: Buck O’Neil belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Hall of Fame: OK. Why do you think so?
O’Neil Advocate: Burn in hell, you filthy whore!
Perhaps to their amazement, this reasoning has not moved the Hall to reconsider. Now, I too believe that Buck O’Neil should be in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. But I also believe all the shouting and name calling obscures the fact that there is a very logical and compelling argument that makes his case.
Buck O’Neil’s career in baseball can essentially be broken down into four categories: Negro League player, Negro League manager, Major League coach & scout, and ambassador of the game. In three of these categories, he performed at a truly Hall of Fame-caliber level. Unfortunately, the one category in which he was not quite up to par with his fellow Hall of Famers was as a player. O’Neil admitted as much himself in his autobiography, I Was Right on Time:
“Some folks are saying maybe I belong in the 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.”
O’Neil isn’t being modest, he’s being honest. His career was very good. He won a Negro American League batting title in 1946 with a .353 average and was elected to four East-West All Star Games. His career average of .288 included four seasons above the .300 mark.
In other words, Buck O’Neil was a consistently reliable hitter who every so often would put together an outstanding year. Something of a Mark Grace figure. And as much as I liked Mark Grace as a player, he was not a Hall of Famer. (Unless a special committee elects Grace as a pioneer in the field of slumpbusters. Which I think we all agree would make for the least viewable Cooperstown exhibit ever.) I would be willing to guess that those on the Committee who did not vote for O’Neil looked at his stats and worried that a ballot cast for him would be done more based on sentiment than on achievement.
However, this is where Buck O’Neil’s second career comes into play. As a manager, O’Neil led his Kansas City Monarchs to Negro American League pennants in 1948, ’50, ’51, and ’53. That’s right: four league championships in six years. Suddenly in terms of comparables, O’Neil moves out of the Mark Grace category and into the company of a Joe Torre. And Joe Torre most certainly belongs in Cooperstown.
Some may dismiss these titles because they were earned after Jackie Robinson had broken the major league color barrier. However, at the time O’Neil won his final pennant in 1953, only eight of sixteen major league teams had integrated their rosters. (And the Cubs and Athletics barely qualified as “integrated,” having only just begun using black players in September of ’53.) Furthermore, anyone who knows baseball history knows that even the integrated teams of the early fifties weren’t employing more than a handful of black players. While the Negro Leagues were no longer showcasing the Mays, Robinsons, and Campanellas of the world, their caliber of play was still pretty high. The four pennants Buck O’Neil won as a manager are legitimate.
Unfortunately, here Buck runs into another problem: the Hall of Fame has not found a place for Negro League managers. Everyone in the Hall of Fame under the Negro Leagues category either falls under the classification of player or executive. For some reason that I am unaware of, the outstanding achievements of Negro League managers like Buck O’Neil have been completely overlooked by the Hall.
So in order to further make his case, let’s consider the next phase of Buck O’Neil’s career. O’Neil moved on to a position in Major League Baseball and continued to perform his job at a Hall of Fame level. In 1956, he was hired as a scout for the Cubs and was the man responsible for evaluating and signing Lou Brock. Which, given the delightful trade of 1964, only goes to prove he was smarter than every single member of the Cubs’ front office. (I simply state this for the record and not to make his Hall of Fame case. If being smarter than the Cubs’ front office qualified one for Cooperstown, then the Hall of Fame needs to honor Marge Schott’s dogs.)
Furthermore, when Billy Williams had quit baseball during his first year in the minor leagues, the Cubs turned to Buck O’Neil to talk him into putting the uniform back on and giving the game another shot. In other words, as a scout, O’Neil was responsible for starting the career of one Hall of Famer and keeping another from quitting the game entirely. And to top it off, in 1962 O’Neil became a trailblazer when the Cubs named him the first African American coach in baseball history. These are not minor notes in a career, these are achievements that, when added to his already sizable impact on the game, add up to the Hall of Fame.
Again though, precedent does O’Neil no favors, as the Hall does not honor scouts or coaches at any level. So it’s at this point that an examination of Buck O’Neil’s most visible role should have made his election a done deal. Because with the death of Satchel Paige in 1982, Buck O’Neil became the most important Negro Leagues figure of the past twenty five years. No one else even comes close.
As a member of the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee, he was the lone voice of authority championing the election of former Negro Leaguers in the 1980s and ’90s. As honorary chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, he provided a very necessary public face that helped generate interest and needed funding to get the project off the ground. His continued association with the Museum over the years gave it an air of important historic legitimacy.
And most importantly, he stole the show in Ken Burns’s epic Baseball documentary back in 1994, opening thousands of eyes to the history of the Negro Leagues for the first time. With the many speaking engagements and interviews that the Burns movie generated, Buck O’Neil did more than anyone else to keep the story of the Negro Leagues alive. And given how important that story is to understanding how baseball reflects and impacts American culture, that makes Buck O’Neil one of the most significant figures in the history of the game.
And happily, now there is precedent that supports O’Neil’s candidacy. In 2006, the Negro Leagues Committee elected Sol White, a turn-of-the-century player. According to his Hall of Fame bio, White’s most important contribution to the game was…
“In 1907 he authored Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide, the earliest-known work on the topic, and a critical piece of African-American baseball history.”
In other words, Sol White is a Hall of Famer because he kept the story of 19th century black players alive. Based on what he was able to do over the past 25 years alone, Buck O’Neil is a Hall of Famer. When you add in everything else he accomplished in the game, his case should have been a slam dunk. And even though I think the world of the dignity with which he carried himself throughout his life, that does not enter one bit into this argument. Based solely on what he did for the good of baseball, Buck O’Neil should be enshrined in Cooperstown. And a special election to reconsider his case would be entirely justified.