Saturday, March 04, 2006

Hall of Fame Still Has Time to Honor Buck O'Neil

March 2, 2006
Sports of The Times
Courtesy of The New York Times

IT would have been a wonderful day for baseball if Buck O'Neil had been elected to the Hall of Fame on Monday. The grand old man of his sport, O'Neil could have been inducted into the Hall on July 30, the living symbol of deprivation turned into victory.

O'Neil plans to be there this summer, despite the firestorm over his exclusion in a special election. Keith Olbermann is blasting the vote on MSNBC and bloggers are whacking away on the Web, demanding a recount that is not going to happen. Meanwhile, O'Neil is reacting with the grace that has marked his entire 94 years.

"That committee, I know they were voting just like they felt it should be," O'Neil said in the first disappointing hours Monday.

O'Neil and Minnie Minoso were turned down by a special committee that voted 17 — count 'em, 17 — new members to represent black and Latino figures of the past.

Anybody considering the good of the game would have recognized the fiesta that would have been touched off by the election of two living icons — O'Neil, the star of the epic Ken Burns baseball documentary, and Minoso, the hero of the South Side of Chicago. What a no-brainer.

When at least 4 of the 12 voters chose to exclude O'Neil and Minoso, I called the decision lamentable. Lately my mood swings have gone from thinking the voters were mean-spirited and shortsighted to thinking they were intellectually faithful to their instructions.

You know the saying about no good deed going unpunished. The Hall, which is separate from Major League Baseball, was holding the one-time vote in response to the slow trickle of Negro league people into the Hall. Here was a chance to get it right.

The Hall certainly chose the perfect person to lead the group. Fay Vincent, as commissioner, apologized in 1991 for the many decades of segregation in the major leagues that finally ended in 1947. Vincent has a keen mind and a thriving conscience, and he has been involved with many corporate boards. Yesterday, before heading out for a day at Dodgertown in Florida, Vincent spoke on the phone, explaining the role of this highly controversial panel.

"It wasn't our job to address American history," said Vincent, who is not a voting member. "It was our job to address performance. People were hard-edged about it."

Vincent said he never told the 12 voters to consider the feel-good energy that living inductees would surely generate. He said he challenged the panel to include only Negro leaguers that might have been better than some superb players still not in the Hall — Cecil Travis, Marty Marion, Tommy Henrich, who was known as Old Reliable, Joe Gordon, Allie Reynolds, Dominic DiMaggio.

Given the vagueness of records and the lack of public exposure for Negro and Latino players in those days, all comparisons are difficult. Ultimately, the voters chose 12 players and 5 officials, but not O'Neil, a good player and a successful manager in the Negro leagues and a scout and the first black coach in the major leagues, and not Minoso, the first dark-skinned Latino player in the majors as well as a career .298 hitter.

Vincent defended the decision that the 12 voters would not discuss their ballots, but he praised O'Neil and Minoso. "You'd have to put a lot of weight on Citizen Buck," Vincent said, adding, "I was surprised Buck didn't make it."

So were a lot of people. Charles Margulis, an ecology activist in Oakland, Calif., was moved to set up a blog ( comparing O'Neil favorably to members of the Hall.

Olbermann, who has a long sports background, complained that two men of color were excluded while two white officials, J. L. Wilkinson of Kansas City and Effa Manley of Newark, were voted in. This argument is inappropriate because Wilkinson held Negro baseball together for a long time, and Manley was a lifelong member of black society as well as a prominent team operator.

Last night, in an interview with Olbermann on MSNBC, O'Neil said: "Don't weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful."

O'Neil said he was grateful for the chance to be voted into the Hall.

"As a human being, I love Buck O'Neil," Dale A. Petroskey, the president of the Hall, said yesterday. "I knew he would be disappointed. But as president of the Hall of Fame, I had faith in the process."

O'Neil will have a role at the Hall on July 30, Petroskey promised. "We're looking at the best way to sort it out," he said.

At the very least, the Hall could create a Buck O'Neil lifetime achievement award — and give him the first one, to honor all the others who had to wait, and wait.

For that matter, the board could find a way to include O'Neil, straight in the front door. Much more rigid rules have been broken down in Buck O'Neil's long and honorable life.


Courtesy of The New York Times

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