JACKI LYDEN, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Baseball great Buck O'Neil died last night at a Kansas City hospital. He was 94. O'Neil starred as a player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. Later he became the first black coach in the majors. From Kansas City, Laura Ziegler has more.
LAURA ZIEGLER: Buck O'Neil was a standout player, if not one of the all-time greats of the Negro Leagues. He was a batting champion for the Kansas City Monarchs and later a successful manager. As a scout for the Chicago Cubs, he recruited Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock, among others, and became a pioneering coach when the Cubs hired him in 1962.
Mr. BUCK O'NEIL (Baseball Player): Thank you. Thank you, ladies.
ZIEGLER: But late in his life, O'Neil spent most of his time as a good will ambassador for the Negro Leagues and chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
Mr. O'NEIL: (unintelligible) was a good friend of mine. Actually, I put him in a uniform and let him coach first base for me one year. There's Lena Horne throwing out the first pitch in a ballgame. We've had Joe Louis throwing out the first pitch. It was actually a gala affair, and they would come to the ballgame, honey, looking good.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ZIEGLER: O'Neil believed history had gotten it wrong about the Negro Leagues, so like during his playing days, he barnstormed the country until just a few months ago, spreading the truth about black baseball.
Mr. O'NEIL: See, the Negro Leagues was a lot different than a lot of people thought. They're the largest black business in this country. Somebody might tell you some old sad story like that's what Hollywood want to know, but not for Negro Leagues. Forty percent of the Negro League ballplayers were college men. We weren't tramps.
(Soundbite of choir singing)
ZIEGLER: Recently, O'Neil was looking healthy and strong as he swayed with a gospel choir at a fundraiser for his church. It was a night of testimonials about his many achievements and unique ability to rise above adversity. Joe Posnanski is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star.
Mr. JOE POSNANSKI (Sports Columnist, Kansas City Star): The thing about Buck that's so amazing to me is he's completely without bitterness. Considering that he was kept out of the Major Leagues, certainly kept out of having a chance to be in the Major Leagues for all those years, and had to stay in all-black hotels and eat on buses and do all of the things that he had to do, he looks at his life and sees that it was the best life he could have possibly had.
ZIEGLER: O'Neil watched with pride as his friends like Satchel Paige went to the Major Leagues when he never got the chance. But this year, O'Neil had the last great disappointment of his life. He was nominated as one of 29 Negro Leaguers to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but lost by one vote. As Bob Kendrick of the Negro Leagues Museum made the announcement, it was Buck O'Neil who reminded everyone that the induction of any Negro Leaguers was a victory for all.
Mr. BOB KENDRICK (Negro Leagues Museum): ...conducted the induction of Negro League players, and unfortunately we did not get enough votes for our very own Buck O'Neil to receive the call, but fortunately 17 other Negro League figures did receive the call today to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Mr. O'NEIL: Seventeen?
Mr. KENDRICK: Seventeen.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. O'NEIL: Yeah!
ZIEGLER: Buck O'Neil's name became well-known outside the baseball world when he narrated the documentary Baseball, by Ken Burns. Burns says he got to know O'Neil well when the traveled for the project.
Mr. KEN BURNS (Filmmaker): His love and his generosity for people (unintelligible) the most surly cab driver, distract the most disinterested waiter or elevator operator or hotel clerk, and changes their lives in a way one feels, I suppose, if you cross the path of a holy man.
ZIEGLER: Buck O'Neil would have turned 95 on November 13th. In his long life, he seemed to inspire those he met with his charisma and positive outlook. Many said, like producer Ken Burns did, that they left Buck O'Neil feeling better for having known him.
For NPR News, I'm Laura Ziegler in Kansas City.
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