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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

Baseball legend
Buck O'Neil talks about his days in the Negro Leagues
By Buck O'Neil as told to Bill Ladson

Buck O'Neil on Satchel Paige: 56k | 300k


Buck O'Neil is the chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.
What makes Buck O'Neil one of the most fascinating figures in the Baseball History? He's one of the greatest historians/storytellers of the Negro Leagues. He should know. O'Neil played with and managed the Kansas City Monarchs from 1938-55. He guided the team to five pennants and two Negro World Series titles. That's not all. He had the keen eye for talent. Guess who signed Ernie Banks and Lou Brock to their first minor-league contracts with the Cubs? That's right, a scout named Buck O'Neil.

O'Neil also broke barriers in the Major Leagues, becoming the first African-American coach (also with the Cubs) in the big leagues in 1962. O'Neil, 90, is currently the chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and MLB.com recently caught up with him and asked about his Negro League experiences.

The Negro Leagues mean so much to me. One of my greatest experiences was actually playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. Kansas City was a thriving place on 18th and Vine. ... Here I am, a country boy coming to Kansas City. Oh, that was exciting. ... I'm competing against some of the greatest athletes that ever lived. Outstanding.

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Feature Lineup
Schedule/ Archive
Award winners
Jimmy Rollins and Juan Pierre accepted Legacy Awards last week from the employees at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. More>>

The motives
Branch Rickey had several reasons for signing Jackie Robinson to a pro contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Historian Steve Goldman has the details. More>>

Segregated Baseball: A Kaleidoscopic review
While the very existence of the Negro Leagues was necessary because of the racial divides in the United States, black baseball not only survived -- it excelled. More>

Traveling show
Barnstorming was common place in the Negro Leagues. More>


To manage the Monarchs was actually easy for this simple reason: They had some the best athletes that ever lived. The Kansas City Monarchs were like the New York Yankees. Everybody wanted to play for the Kansas City Monarchs. We had no problem getting the best talent. All I had to do was make up the lineup and (let them play) -- and they could play. The players I managed with the Monarchs were Willard Brown, Hank Thompson, who later played with the (New York) Giants, Gene Baker, Ernie Banks -- the combination with the Cubs -- Elston Howard. (I knew they would be great Major Leaguers); all they needed was a chance. They had all the tools.

The majority of the time, we played in the Major League (ballparks) I'm telling you, (The movie,) The Soul of the Game and (other movies), that wasn't Negro League Baseball. We played all over the country. ... Every once in a while, we might (face) ... a little old local team and might play on a bad field, but the majority of the time, we played in the Major League ballparks. And if we weren't in the Major League ballparks, we were in organized ballparks. ... The Pittsburgh Crawfords had (their own ballpark) but (some of the) ballgames were in the Pirates' ballpark (Forbes Field). The (Homestead) Grays played in Griffith Stadium (in Washington D.C.) So, actually, it wasn't like The Soul of the Game and (all these other movies). This's what the writers want you to think.

I have no regrets about (my time) in baseball. My regrets would be that I couldn't attend Sarasota High School or I couldn't matriculate at the University of Florida. My Daddy was paying taxes to support the University and high School, but I couldn't attend (because of segregation). (I'm not bitter about baseball) because I played some of the best baseball in this country.

Satchel Paige was one of the greatest pitchers that ever lived. He had the greatest fastball. He threw it 100 miles an hour. He had great change of speeds. The greatest control pitcher I ever seen.

The best Major League Baseball player I've ever saw was Willie Mays, but the best baseball player was Oscar Charleston. Oscar could hit you 50 home runs, could steal 100 bases. This was Oscar Charleston. We old-timers say, "The closest thing to Oscar Charleston was Willie Mays."

(Even though pro baseball was segregated,) we still wanted to play (the game) because it was a good living. The Negro Leagues was the third largest black business in this country. During that time five thousand dollars was the minimum salary in the Major Leagues. A lot of us (in the Negro Leagues) made more than five thousand dollars. Now we had to play year-round to do it. After the (season, it was off to) Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, South America, somewhere else.

A lot of people don't know that 40 percent of Negro League ballplayers were college men. During that time, I imagine, five percent of Major Leaguers were college men. (The Major League signed most of) the ballplayers out of high school. We had so many college men. We always trained in a black college town, and we played the black colleges in Spring Training, so that's where we got a lot of our talent.

What a lot of people don't know is that we won a majority of those ballgames, (when the Negro Leagues All-Stars faced the Major League All-Stars). Now that didn't mean we were better players than the Major Leaguers. We won the majority of the ballgames because the Major Leaguers were just making a payday. We wanted to prove to the world that they weren't superior because they were Major Leaguers and we weren't inferior because we played in the Negro Leagues. We stretched that single into a double, that double into a triple. We stole home. The Major Leaguers couldn't afford to twist an ankle or break a finger in an exhibition ballgame, but, honey, we went all out.


Buck O'Neil stands for the National Anthem at Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. on June 23, 2001. O'Neil was being honored with other former Negro League players before a game between the Kansas City Royals and the Cleveland Indians.
(Jackie Robinson signing a minor-league contract with the Dodgers) was the death knell of the Negro Leagues. We weren't worried about that because if (the Dodgers) could sign Jackie they could sign (us). We had some guys, at that time, who were better than Jackie because Jackie had only one year of organized baseball. But the Major Leaguers -- at that time -- didn't want the guys that were 30. (The Indians) signed Satchel because (they knew what he could do as far) as the gate was concerned.

Jackie Robinson was the right guy (to integrate baseball). Jackie was one of the greatest competitors that I've ever seen. Jackie knew what it meant (to be the first black person in the big leagues). If he had failed, it might have been another 50 years before (another black person played in the big leagues). If the other guys -- that I knew that were better than Jackie -- had a black cat thrown at them, they would have picked up that cat and take it up to the stands and ram it down the sucker's throat. You know what the (critics) would have said? "I told you so."

What people don't understand, the people that booed Jackie weren't baseball fans. These people might not have come to another ballgame for the next 10 years. These were the haters, these were the Klan. These were the people that were doing that booing. The true baseball fan asked, "Can you play?"

Negro League Baseball changed a lot of things in this country because Jackie Robinson was in Negro League Baseball. When Branch Rickey signed him, honey, that was the beginning of the modern day civil rights movement.

Buck O'Neil, chairman of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, played with and managed the Kansas City Monarchs. Bill Ladson is an editor/producer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.