Old friends

Negro League ballplayers recall game's shameful, glorious past

The old men, who do not seem all that old, laugh about the past, the road trips, the plays, those nights at the Woodside Hotel in Harlem.

Buck O'Neill leads the conversation. He never played in the majors. But he was the first black coach in the Bigs. While a scout with the Chicago Cubs, he signed Ernie Banks and Lou Brock.

These men tell the tales like it was yesterday--but more sweetly and candidly than the many major league baseball players who have the same stories from the other side of town, 50 years ago. You can almost smell the cigarette smoke in the amber shadows of the lobby, they tell it all so well.

"We'd all go over to the Apollo Theater or wherever," says O'Neill. "We were celebrities then--just not to white people." You can practically hear the cocktail glasses rear-ending the beer bottles on the tables.

"Ella Fitzgerald. Duke Ellington. They were all there. It was great times. People say we never had a chance to play with the best in the game--maybe we were the best in the game."

That's the same thing he said during the eulogy at Satchel Paige's funeral.
Buck was one of the best of the Negro Leaguers, a smooth-fielding first baseman from the celery fields of Florida. These men laughing are the last earthly remains of baseball's disenfranchised. Last week I got to have a long, rambling talk with Buck and his buddies from the Negro Leagues--flown into town for a trading-card show--and to connect with a part of baseball most of us know little about. They are eating at Golden Corral and actually thinking it's great. I'm told that starts to happen once your kids grow up.

There is a Little League team at the table across the way; they keep staring over at us. Most of them are white. Well, this was Arlington--maybe that's why they were looking. But one by one, the boys approach the table, because unlike their parent-coaches, this generation knows that table full of old black guys had been war buddies in the long siege to integrate baseball.

It is after the game for both of these teams. One by an hour. Another by 50 years.

The kids figured it all out because Buck O'Neill had been in Ken Burns' "Baseball." That's how these kids knew Buck was on the Kansas City Monarchs team that won three Negro League World Series titles. And why my daddy doesn't know Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe from a double-breasted suit.

The Negro Leagues passed a few generations by. Only now is baseball truly getting in touch with this shameful--and glorious--part of its past. "It makes me feel good," says Buck, "seeing people, kids, wear our stuff.

"I knew one day we'd be in the major leagues. We were thinking so far ahead--like to expansion. We thought that one team wouldn't take a black man in, [but] the major Leagues might take in one whole team from the Negro Leagues."

Turns out, while everyone should have been playing on the same field, these guys had quite a little party going on. And a lot of people missed it. Who lost the most is hard to say.

"You know," says one of the women escorting these guys around Arlington, "when these [men] are gone, that's it. There will always be more major league baseball players. But once these are gone, they're it."

She glances across the faces the next day where they are signing ball cards and stuff at the Arlington Convention Center. I ask Buck for a few minutes. He does not act like I was requesting a kidney.

You can tell these guys never played in the major leagues because they are too darn polite. It's just obvious these guys haven't had enough publicity to render them cynical and grumpy. "Segregation was a terrible thing," says Buck, and our conversation across the decades rambles on. "People say it was a shame Satchel wasn't playing with the best players in the world. Who is to say?"

Buck has a special charm. If women ran the world, baseball would have never been segregated, if for no other reason than John Jordan O'Neill. All ages, all races, all women, come by, at least a dozen in 40 minutes, wanting a hug, joking about a kiss, acting downright bashful until their dates drag them off.

Buck doesn't seem very old. Of course he'd have to be up in years to have played in 1937. The 1946 batting champion can't be Cal Ripken's brother. But the waist on his khakis is yield-sign perfect; the chest is like a countertop. "My daddy was my role model," says Buck. "He was a saw miller and he worked hard. He was a big man, passed in 19-and-52.

"Every child's role model should be their parent."
People are surprised when these men tell them how many white people went to their games. "In Dallas," he says, "there weren't many, because there was a higher population of blacks in Dallas. So there wasn't room for the white folks. But in Waco, there weren't many blacks, so 50 percent were not blacks. Omaha was all white. Tennessee, New York City, was 99 percent black."

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