The name Buck O’Neil is familiar to anyone who watched Ken Burns’s baseball documentary.
O’Neil’s voice brought Negro League baseball to life. No one was more qualified to be its spokesman, since O’Neil lived at its epicenter as a player and manager with the Kansas City Monarchs.
His significance to Chicago baseball should be apparent to any Chicago Cubs fan. As a scout, he was the pipeline through which Black talent reached the North Side.
If it weren’t for O’Neil, Cubs fans would never have enjoyed Ernie Banks and Billy Williams.
In addition to signing Banks, O’Neil signed another Cubs great, Lee Smith, as well as two players who would find success outside of the organization, Joe Carter and Lou Brock.
When I spoke with Billy Williams about O’Neil, he said, “He was like a father figure, not only for me, but other Black players in the organization.”
Like another Kansas City Monarch, Jackie Robinson, O’Neil broke a color barrier. In 1962, the Cubs made O’Neil, who had been a scout with the club since 1956, the first Black coach in the major leagues.
On May 30, 1962, Cubs GM John Holland told the Chicago Tribune, “Buck will serve as an instructor.” The report noted that Holland predicted more than two years before that “O’Neil would become the first of his race to serve as a big league coach.”
O’Neil is credited with taking Banks under his wing when he was manager with the Monarchs.
Then on Aug. 16, 1953, O’Neil was managing the West team and Banks was playing shortstop for him during the East-West All-Star Game at Comiskey Park.
In the 5-1 West victory before 10,000 fans, Banks went hitless in four at-bats, but handled seven chances at shortstop flawlessly and made a spectacular throw to first from deep short on a smash by Verdes Drake, robbing him of a hit.
The next day, sports writer Wendell Smith drove Banks and O’Neil to Wrigley Field so the Cubs could take a closer look.
On Sept. 13, 1953, the Cubs announced that Banks, purchased from the Monarchs, would join the team.
Also that day, the Cubs announced the call-up of shortstop Gene Baker. Baker and Banks would be the Cubs’ first Black players.
O’Neil played an important role in working with Black players in the Cubs system.
Even though scout Ivy Griffin — not O’Neil — signed him, if it weren’t for O’Neil’s intervention in 1959, Billy Williams would never have played in the Friendly Confines.
Williams said that while on a road trip with AA San Antonio, “As the bus rolled down the highway, the white individuals would go in and they would get food, and I had to sit on the bus and wait on somebody to bring me food, so I just got fed up with it and I didn’t want it no more. So I took off and went home. I went back to Alabama.”
Holland called O’Neil and told him to visit Williams and see what was wrong.
As Buck tells it in his book, “I Was Right on Time,” he showed up at Williams’ family’s home for an apparent social call. The next night, after dinner, he convinced Williams to visit a local sandlot ballfield, where Williams was mobbed by young ballplayers who peppered him with questions about Ernie Banks and treated him like a superstar. Williams soon said he was ready to go back, and O’Neil drove him back to San Antonio.
When O’Neil first saw Brock as a freshman at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., he was “a kid with tools and no polish.”
After his junior year, O’Neil recalled, he found out Brock was in Chicago trying out for the White Sox.
But although the Sox offered Brock $15,000, Brock had given his word to give the Cubs the last shot. As a result, the Cubs signed him for $30,000.
In his book, O’Neil wrote about the Brock-for-Ernie Broglio deal with the Cardinals. He said, “People always ask me if I feel bad about the trade, but I just felt happy for Lou. In giving one of his sons the middle name of O’Neil, he gave me one of my greatest honors.”
In 2002, however, O’Neil expressed different feelings in an essay he wrote for “Baseball as America,” a National Geographic Society publication.
He said that when he heard the trade was in the works, he advised Holland against it. Holland, he wrote, “started pulling out letters and notes from people, season ticket holders” asking “What are you trying to make the Chicago Cubs into? The Kansas City Monarchs?” The implication being that the Cubs had too many Black players.
Williams said, “If that was done, I didn’t know about it.”
Williams also pointed out that, “We needed pitching, and Ernie Broglio, between ’62 and ’63, I think he won 30 games, and everybody felt that he could come in and be one of the outstanding pitchers for the Chicago Cubs.”
Brock wound up in the Hall of Fame, and Broglio’s career was soon ended by arm troubles.
Williams said, “If that trade happened today, it wouldn’t have been made, because you would have trainers, you would have doctors, you would have everybody checking that individual out to make sure that he’s sound.”
Writing about his tenure as Cubs coach, which began during the College of Coaches era, O’Neil said Holland “vaguely left open the possibility” that he would part of the “head coach” rotation.
But, he wrote, “I soon found out there was no chance of that happening.”
At the end of his life, O’Neil said he was gratified to see the interest in the Negro Leagues.
He wrote, “It’s wonderful that folks are remembering the people who built the bridge across the chasm of prejudice, not just the men who later crossed it.”