KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Buck O’Neil, the former player-manager who became a beloved spokesman for the Negro Leagues, was remembered Saturday for his capacity “to love even in the face of hatred.”
“Buck O’Neil always had a smile for you,” said the Rev. Spencer Francis Barrett, pastor of the Bethel A.M.E. church that O’Neil faithfully attended since 1947. “It didn’t matter what you said about him. It didn’t matter how you treated him.”
More than 600 friends and family members, including several Hall of Famers and prominent business and civic leaders, gathered for the private funeral service near the Negro Leagues Museum that O’Neil helped to found in 1990. Later, several thousand people attended a public memorial service emceed by Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.
At that event, Julia Irene Kauffman, daughter of the founder of the Kansas City Royals, announced a gift of $1 million toward construction of the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center. The money will come from a donor-advised fund established after the Kauffman family’s sale of the Royals.
The center, expected to cost around $15 million, will be located in the historic Paseo YMCA Building where the Negro Leagues were founded in 1920.
“This dream of Buck’s, the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center, it is not a dream. It will be a reality,” Kauffman said. “We will put Buck’s dream into reality. Thank God for Buck.”
On Friday, one week after he died just a few weeks short of his 95th birthday, more than 10,000 people filed past his open casket at the museum.
“Ninety-four years is a long time,” O’Neil’s close friend Mark Bryant told the congregation. “He enjoyed the adoration of a nation.”
John “Buck” O’Neil enjoyed a distinguished career as a Negro Leagues batting champion and player-manager and was a trailblazing major league coach and scout. When filmmaker Ken Burns featured him in a documentary about the history of baseball, O’Neil became a national celebrity.
In February, he fell one vote short of making the Hall of Fame.
Lou Brock, one of several Hall of Famers whom O’Neil discovered and signed as a scout, recalled their first meeting. Brock was a teenager at the time.
“He got me started on a journey that became a 19-year major league baseball career,” Brock said. “It’s no wonder that baseball is considered America’s pastime. Buck was one of its architects. He helped shape the game.
“But even greater, he shaped the character of young black men. He touched the heart of everyone who loved the game.”
Joining Brock in the congregation were fellow Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and George Brett, as well as Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz and Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo.
Brett, a three-time batting champion with the Kansas City Royals, wiped tears from his eyes during the service. About 15 graying Negro Leagues players also attended. Many, stooped with age, had to be assisted up and down the church steps.