When Buck O'Neil Called a Home Run
It's not what you think...
My son and I once witnessed the great Buck O’Neil call a home run. And it was glorious.
More on that in a moment. First, I need to talk a bit about autographs.
I’ve never been big on collecting autographs. They’re fine, I have nothing against them. But actually accumulating them just doesn’t interest me that much.
The few exceptions are baseball players that I have a particular soft spot for, and there aren’t many of them. When I was a kid in the Boston suburbs, Carl Yastrzemski was the most famous player on the Red Sox, and I would have been happy to have his autograph. Ted Williams was my dad’s favorite player and remained a local legend, so his would have been great, too.
But the one I wanted was Jim Rice. He and Fred Lynn became full-time players for the Red Sox when I was just seven years old, and I gravitated to Rice immediately. I really don’t know why, because I’m a white lefty and so is Lynn, so you’d think there would have been a natural fit with him, but there just wasn’t. Jim Ed was my guy instead.
I didn’t get the chance to get his autograph while I lived there, and then we moved away from the area just a couple of years after he arrived. Not being a big autograph guy, for nearly 30 years I never made a point of doing anything about that missing bit of memorabilia.
(*At this point you’re probably wondering what this has to do with Buck O’Neil calling a home run. Be patient, I’m getting there.)
Fast forward to October 17, 2004. The Red Sox trailed the Yankees three games-to-none in the American League Championship Series, and I was not happy. Plus, I’d lost money in a poker game the night before, while the Red Sox pitching staff surrendered 19 runs on a TV screen in the background, so my mood was pretty foul.
But there was a memorabilia show going on in Kansas City that weekend, and one of the former players who was scheduled to be there signing autographs on that Sunday was none other than Jim Rice.
I’d seen it advertised a few days earlier and had decided that I was going to go ask for an autograph for the first time in my life. I didn’t know at the time I bought my ticket that the Red Sox would be down 3-0 to the Yankees in the ALCS on that date, but I went ahead anyway, foul mood be damned.
I’m glad I did. Not only did I get his autograph and shake his hand, but I got to chat with him a bit (he was delightful), and wish him good luck in his ongoing quest to get elected to the Hall of Fame (which happened for him 5 years later). And all of this apparently changed the karma for the Red Sox, because they promptly beat the Yankees a few hours later, and never lost again that postseason on the way to their first World Series title in 86 years. You’re welcome, Red Sox Nation.
Anyway, here’s that ball:
Usually it sits on my desk, right next to the Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski autographed balls that I eventually acquired as well.
Since autographs weren’t a big deal to me growing up, and weren’t for most of my adult life either, my son, Sam, didn’t understand why I’d gone out of my way to get Jim Rice’s autograph. I explained it to him as best I could, but I had the feeling I hadn’t done it very well.
Okay, so here’s what all of this has to do with Buck O’Neil calling a home run.
The next summer, the Kansas City Royals had their annual Salute to the Negro Leagues game. It’s a cool promotion that properly gives recognition to the players from the Negro Leagues, and is particularly appropriate to have here in Kansas City, the place where the Negro National League was founded in 1920, and the home of the spectacular Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
As part of those promotions, the Royals used to have actual former Negro Leagues players come out to the ballpark, and frequently they were available before the game to meet fans and sign autographs. That year, one of the former players who was scheduled to be there was Buck O’Neil, and I decided that I was going to take my son to get Buck’s autograph. I thought it was a great chance to teach him a bit about baseball history, but also let him experience getting an autograph himself.
What I hadn’t anticipated was that it would be approximately eleventy billion degrees that day.
I should have, because that’s the general rule of thumb on July days in Kansas City, but that day just felt worse than most. It started muggy, there were hardly any clouds, no real breeze, and we were standing on the concrete outside the stadium for quite a while. There were a lot of sunburned folks, and a few with umbrellas to shade themselves. Vendors were going up and down the line selling bottles of water, which sold out quickly.
Sam’s cheeks were getting red, and he was looking, well, less than happy to be there.
I bought him some water, and tried to keep his mind off the heat by talking to him about the players we’d see, and what the Negro Leagues were. He was shocked that a whole separate league (actually several) were created for players who weren’t allowed to play in the major leagues because of the color of their skin. He seemed offended by the thought of it, at least as much as a nine-year old can be.
Eventually, the various Negro Leaguers were brought out, and were seated on folding chairs under some of those pop-up tent/awning things. There were about ten or twelve of them, and they already looked tired. That was no surprise since they were all elderly and it was already at least 85 degrees. They had shade, and water, but it didn’t appear to be helping them much.
Each player had his own table, and individual lines were formed for each. The longest, of course, was for Buck O’Neil, and it became clear pretty quickly that we may not get to the front of that line before the one-hour autograph period ended or the heat forced them to end it early. I steered us into the line for Buck to hold a place, each of us with a baseball for him to sign, but I quickly huddled with Sam to explain the situation.
“Here’s the deal. If we stay in this line, Buck’s is almost certainly the only autograph we’ll get, and we may not get to the front before the time ends. If we go to the other guys, we’ll probably get quite a few autographs, but we won’t get Buck’s. What do you want to do?”
No hesitation from Sam at all. “Let’s stay here in Buck’s line.”
“You understand that means we may not get any autographs at all, even Buck’s, right?”
“I know. Let’s stay here anyway.”
And so we did. And it was the slowest-moving line of my life. That is not a complaint, it’s just an observation. Buck was doing his best, as were the folks from the Royals, to keep people moving, but it was a struggle. The closer we got, the better we could see exactly how drained Buck looked. He was nearly 94 years old, it was approaching 90 degrees, and he was under an awning and surrounded by people, which pretty well blocked any breeze that might have cooled him off. There weren’t any fans set up either, so the air was just stifling.
I checked in with Sam again, because I was really starting to think Buck would have to leave early. He just showed less and less energy with each person, not looking up at them, not engaging with them, which just wasn’t his personality at all. He’d just take the ball, or photo, or hat, or whatever it was they wanted signed, write his name and hand it back, all in slow motion.
Sam could see this, and I explained again what our chances were, but he wanted to stay and try to see Buck.
The line kept creeping forward. I started timing things and doing a bit of math in my head. Each person was taking so many seconds, and there were so many people in line, and there were so many minutes left in the allotted time. And every time I did that calculation, we were right on the edge of where the cutoff point would be, and that’s if Buck managed to stay the entire time, which looked less and less likely.
But we kept creeping forward, and we got lucky a time or two. Sometimes a group of two or three people only had one item between them to get signed. Most people didn’t ask to take a photo with him either, which we also didn’t plan to do. The poor guy was dripping in sweat and in no mood to pose for pictures.
Just as the hour was about to expire, we reached the front of the line. As the man in front of us was getting his item signed, I reminded Sam to call him Mr. O’Neil, and to say please and thank you, and he nodded, never taking his eyes off Buck.
Then it was his turn.
To that point, almost all of the folks in front of us had been adults. There were a few kids, but not many, and there hadn’t been any for the last 20 minutes or so. Buck hadn’t even been looking up at them. So when Sam stepped up to the table, and stretch out his hand with his ball, and said “Can you please sign this, Mr. O’Neil?”, Buck’s posture changed. He saw a child’s hand, and heard a child’s voice, and suddenly he looked up.
“I sure can,” he said, with that famous, smooth voice. He reach up and took the ball, and asked, “How are you doing, Home Run?”
“I’m fine, Mr. O’Neil.”
“You look like a ballplayer to me. Do you play baseball, Home Run?”
“I do,” Sam replied, seemingly unable to say anything else.
“Well that’s fine,” Buck said, smiling. He began to sign the ball, slowly, and said, “Now do me a favor. The next time you play, you hit a home run for Ol’ Buck, okay Home Run?”
He handed the ball back to Sam, who took it and replied, “I will. Thank you, Mr. O’Neil.”
And I believe it was his pleasure to have that exchange with Sam. He signed my ball, too, but I honestly don’t remember saying anything to him, except maybe thanking him again for signing Sam’s. Here’s mine, which proudly sits on my desk, lined up with three other Hall of Famers, where he belongs.
Sam and I slid the baseballs into their protective plastic containers, put them back in the car for safekeeping, then went into the stadium to watch the game. He was beaming the entire time, and talking about how cool Buck was. Before the game, the Negro Leaguers were marched out onto the field as they showed video of the autograph session up on the big screen.
And of all those people who stood in line for Buck’s autograph, who do you suppose the Royals chose to show?
That’s right, it was Sam, as Buck chatted with him at his charming best, making a child feel welcome, and calling him Home Run.
And it always will be.
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