The African American community experienced a major loss earlier this month when Negro Leagues great John "Buck" O'Neil died at the age of 94 of congestive heart failure.
Unlike Jackie Robinson, who gained national prominence as the first Black baseball player in the major leagues, Buck missed out on integration by a year or two. His playing career was winding down as the color barrier was broken. But he still managed to make his own impact in the dugout. As the major leagues' first African American coach, he brought numerous Blacks to the "show," including future Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Ernie Banks.
Born on Nov. 13, 1911 in Carrabelle, Fla., Buck got his first taste of baseball at an early age through his father, who played around town on local teams.
Nicknamed "Buck" after Buck O'Neal, co-owner of the semi-pro Miami Giants, he was denied the opportunity to play major league baseball because of his skin color. So Buck made the most of the limited opportunities available, carving out an illustrious career in the American Negro Leagues.
After a short stint in Memphis, he settled in with the Kansas City Monarchs from 1938 through 1955, with the exception of a two-year break to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
With a career batting average of .288 including four .300-plus seasons, the first baseman led the league in hitting in 1946 with a .353 average. A year later, he achieved his career best — .358.
A veteran of three All-Star games and two World Series, Buck joined the legendary Satchel Paige to play numerous exhibition games at the height of the Negro Leagues in the 1940s. He rose through the ranks from first baseman to player/manager from 1948 until he turned to full-time management in 1955.
He finally got his own chance in the major leagues, starting off as a scout for the Chicago Cubs. In 1962, he became the first African American coach. Buck eventually returned home, joining the Kansas City Royals as a scout in 1988 and earning "Midwest Scout of the Year" honors a decade later, at the age of 86.
But not until 1994 did mainstream Americans finally know who he was, thanks in part to his role in Ken Burns' PBS documentary "Baseball." His mild-mannered narration of the Negro Leagues' history won him widespread respect and major media attention, including appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman."
As head of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, he proved a tireless crusader for Negro Leaguers deserving Hall of Fame recognition and official historian/storyteller of the Negro Leagues. In fact, earlier this year he proved instrumental in getting 17 Negro League legends inducted. He, however, missed the Hall of Fame by one vote.
Even so, Buck held no grudges and harbored no bitterness. He even gave a speech at the induction ceremony. He always said he was "right on time" despite not receiving baseball's greatest honor.
At his memorial service, which drew more than 10,000 mourners, his great-great nephew, John O'Neil Askew, was called to speak of Buck's legacy.
"He was the most grounded person in our family. He was not caught up in the hype of being the ambassador for the Negro Leagues. He was just 'Uncle Buck'," he said.
Back in 2003, I had the great honor of meeting Buck during a tour of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He definitely lived up to his reputation — a class act. He proved a mild-mannered unassuming man and diehard supporter of the cause.
Buck died knowing his sacrifices paved the way for greater opportunity for African Americans in his beloved sport. He might not have achieved the fame of Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson or Hank Aaron, but he played an instrumental role in breaking down the color barrier in our country in his own way.
When faced with limited opportunity, he took adverse circumstances and made the most of them. Although he personally didn't realize his ultimate dream of playing in the major leagues and winning a spot in the Hall of Fame, he opened doors that enabled his successors to realize their dreams.
Now, if only the Hall of Fame will come to its senses and vote him in posthumously.
Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.