Buck O’Neil: Optimism and Selflessness

My favorite baseball book (and I’ve read a lot of baseball books) and one of my favorite books of all time is The Soul of Baseball in which Joe Posnanski, my favorite sports writer, followed Negro League player Buck O’Neil around the country as a very elderly Buck did appearances at major and minor league parks and wherever else he was invited to share stories of the Negro League and the great ballplayers who played in it.
This is one part of a post Posnanski wrote as he was leaving Kansas City, Buck’s home
Buck’s optimism was inspiring, but his selflessnes and his willingness even as a 90-year-old man to travel the country to share the story of his brothers in the Negro leagues is amazing.  Most amazing was his loyalty to them to the end.  Even when the Hall of Fame didn’t recognize Buck, but asked to go so he may tell the stories of those who were inducted.
We all have our pride. But Buck put his pride to the side in order to support and acknowledge the men who baseball history forgot — because that was who he was, and he never let pride or weariness or injustice diminish his optimism.
Buck’s life was a life of injustice.  He wasn’t allowed to play in the Major Leagues. He was not allowed to manage in the Major Leagues.  He was finally allowed to coach, but not even in a position that would put him on the field during a game.  But he never stopped loving the game even if he didn’t have the same access to it other men did.
No where in the Bible are we promised justice but we are instructed to love.  Buck loved the game, he loved people, he always focused on his blessings, not the injustices he suffered.
In his Hall of Fame speech Buck said,
And I tell you what, they always said to me Buck, “I know you hate people for what they did to you or what they did to your folks.” I said, “No, man, I — I never learned to hate.” I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. My wife died 10 years ago of cancer. (I’m single, ladies.) A good friend of mine — I hate AIDS. A good friend of mine died of AIDS three months ago. I hate AIDS. But I can’t hate a human being because my God never made anything ugly. Now, you can be ugly if you wanna, boy, but God didn’t make you that way. Uh, uh.
So, I want you to light this valley up this afternoon. Martin [Luther King] said “Agape” is understanding, creative — a redemptive good will toward all men. Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. And when you reach love on this level, you love all men, not because you like ’em, not because their ways appeal to you, but you love them because God loved them. And I love Jehovah my God with all my heart, with all my soul, and I love every one of you — as I love myself.
And finally if you’d like to read a few more stories about Buck (without committing to The Soul of Baseball), here is Joe Posnanski’s obituary for the man he said influenced his life more than any man but his father.
What can baseball teach us about Agape?  About Love?  About forgiveness?

5 thoughts on “Buck O’Neil: Optimism and Selflessness

  1. Wow! What a role model. This made me think about a reading from Philippians, 2:1-11 that I had the privilege of sharing last year. Sorry, it’s a bit long:

    If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
    who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
    but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
    And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
    Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
    so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
    and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

    Buck O’Neil sure lived like he understood this message. What an inspiration for the rest of us.


  2. * Heads-up: I’m still struggling to find an easy way to reply. I seem only to be able to figure this out after someone else has replied. Now, my response:

    I’m with Michael. Wow!! I read each one of these thoughtful articles because I had an extra window of time this morning — and I found myself so moved by each one.

    Buck’s refusal to be bitter … his “unchained optimism” as Posnanski described it … his never giving up on life or love … In the face of all he endured, his witness inspires me.

    I also loved the line from his obituary where he stated at the opening of the Negro League museum, approximated here: “We spend so much time honoring those who have crossed the bridge [of racial or other boundaries]. Today we honor those who built the bridge.”

    Truly Buck O’Neil was a bridge builder and amazing human being. I wish I’d been able to know him as a friend. I continue to learn from his life in these stories and in the excellent book The Soul of Baseball, which Jason first recommended to me.


    • I appreciate him sharing what he had to share about agape. If we only could live like that. I never let go of that HOPE. I like how he shared we honor those who built the bridge. That phrase gives me something to think about when I’m mentoring the children. I’m putting this book on my list. Imagine if we all could be bridge builders. It starts with each and everyone of us. We can do it!
      As a little girl growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. if I I remember correctly the day the Dodgers won the world series. It was a big day on our block.


  3. Buck O’Neil truly practiced Christ’s command that if someone strikes you on one cheek turn the other one and let him strike it also. He was an amazing individual that truly looked for the good in his fellow man.


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