Friday, October 06, 2006

Buck O'Neil, Negro Leagues Pioneer, Is Dead at 94

By Lonnie White Los Angeles Times Buck O'Neil, an All-Star first baseman and manager with the Kansas City Monarchs -- one of the storied franchises of black baseball -- who in his later years became a tireless ambassador for the Negro leagues, died Friday at a hospital in Kansas City, Mo. He was 94.

O'Neil had been hospitalized in August and again last month for fatigue. No cause of death was given.

In his 16-year career, he twice led the Negro American League in batting and eventually became the first black coach in major league baseball. But he was best-known for his accomplishments after his career with the Monarchs ended.

For many Americans, the gracious O'Neil became the face of the Negro leagues after the broadcast of Ken Burns' PBS documentary ``Baseball'' in 1994. And O'Neil, who had tirelessly promoted the sport he loved, used the increased exposure to continue that effort until his death.

O'Neil helped create the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. -- he considered it the crowning achievement of his life -- and always made time to talk about his life in baseball and the legacy of many of those who played in an era when baseball was racially segregated.

``He brought the attention of a lot of people in this country to the Negro leagues,'' former Washington Manager Frank Robinson said. ``He told us all how good they were and that they deserved to be recognized for what they did and their contributions and the injustice that a lot of them had to endure because of the color of their skin.''

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., this summer inducted 17 individuals involved with the Negro leagues era, but O'Neil, despite his high profile, was not among those selected by the special committee. O'Neil, who had failed to get enough votes in several previous elections, fell one vote short.

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig told the Los Angeles Times in July that O'Neil belonged in the Hall. ``He is a charismatic figure who, throughout his life, has been a wonderful promoter of our great game. He is a true baseball legend,'' Selig said. ``He should be in the Hall of Fame. As far as I'm concerned, he is a Hall of Famer.''

O'Neil, who won batting titles in 1940 and 1946 around a two-year stint in the Navy during World War II, led the Kansas City Monarchs to a Negro World Series championship. He was named player-manager in 1948 and remained with the team until 1955. During that time, he managed Kansas City to four league titles and coached legendary players Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Ernie Banks before they eventually got the opportunity to do something he never did: Play in the major leagues.

After his playing career, O'Neil was hired by the Chicago Cubs as a scout in 1956. Six years later, the Cubs made him the first black coach in major league baseball. In 1988, O'Neil left after 33 years working with the Cubs to scout for the Kansas City Royals.

O'Neil played an important role in obtaining pensions for former Negro leagues players and was a primary reason the Negro leagues museum has been such a success. He had proposed its creation for years before its founding in 1990 and collected merchandise, drew attention to the cause and raised funds.

O'Neil was married 51 years to Ora Lee Owens, who died Nov. 2, 1997. They had no children. He is survived by a brother, Warren O'Neil.