Buck O'Neil, other Negro Leaguers up for Hall of Fame Posted: Wednesday Feb 8, 2006 1:50 PM KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Buck O'Neil's lean, sinewy frame is stooped just a bit, his grudging concession to 94 years. A captivating storyteller, he delights audiences with tales of Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell and his days as a player and manager in the Negro Leagues. He was 75 when he first shot his age in golf. He's still shooting his age, too, though now, he says, "it's not a good score anymore.'' Since 1990, he's been a tireless fundraiser and goodwill ambassador for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City's historic jazz district, traveling the country to keep the legacy of black baseball alive. Now, say hopeful friends and fans, the crowning achievement of a long and well lived life could be at hand. Buck O'Neil may soon join ol' Satch and Cool Papa and 16 other Negro League stars in the Baseball Hall of Fame. A special 12-person panel will meet in Tampa, Fla., this month to review 39 Negro League and pre-Negro League figures who were drawn up by a special committee. They'll vote Feb. 27. Everybody who gets at least nine votes is in. O'Neil and Minnie Minoso, who played in the Negro Leagues from 1945-48 and also spent 14 seasons in the majors, are the only living candidates. But in these parts, O'Neil is clearly everyone's sentimental favorite. "Between now and Feb. 27, we're all on pins and needles,'' said Bob Kendrick, a museum executive. There are baseball purists, even in Kansas City, who say O'Neil does not deserve induction. Among that small but vocal group is sportstalk radio show host Soren Petro, who says O'Neil's lifetime average of .288 is insufficient. "Buck has a broad list of unique and memorable accomplishments. But we're talking about the best of the best,'' said Petro. "And why are we just now talking about Buck O'Neil and the Hall of Fame? There was no talk of Buck in the Hall of Fame in the `60s, `70s, `80s or early `90s. If Ken Burns hadn't featured him in his documentary about the history of baseball, hardly anybody outside of Kansas City would know who he is.'' Nevertheless, Petro admits to being as touched as everyone else by O'Neil's warmth and charisma. "The vote should not be based on what's best for our city, our pocketbook or our heartstrings,'' he said. "But if Buck does go into the hall, I will be thrilled for him.'' Judge him by his entire body of work, say supporters. A two-time Negro Leagues batting champion, O'Neil was a star first baseman and later player/manager who led the Kansas City Monarchs to four Negro League titles between 1948 and 1953. For many years he has been a scout for the Royals. While Jackie Robinson was the first black player in the majors, O'Neil was the first black coach, with the Cubs, and was also one of the first African-American scouts. His many finds included hall of famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock. "You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who's done more for the game of baseball than Buck O'Neil,'' said Kendrick. "By all accounts, he was a great defensive first baseman, a great manager, a great scout, had a groundbreaking role as the game's first black coach. "Plus, there is his work as an ambassador of the game in itself, his work keeping the legacy of the Negro Leagues alive. If you put all that together, there's no question his career is Hall of Fame worthy.'' As he approaches what could be the biggest day of his life, O'Neil is keeping calm. "If I make it, it's going to make me one of the happiest men in the world,'' he said. "And if I don't make it, it's not going to make me one of the saddest.'' Without question, this man is a walking repository of baseball lore. He can describe the sound of a Babe Ruth home run. "Like a small stick of dynamite going off.'' But the entire breathtaking sweep of history that his eventful life has encompassed stretches far beyond the game. As the grandson of a man who spoke to him of being kidnapped in West Africa as a youth and brought to the Carolinas in a fetid slave ship, Buck O'Neil is a living link to the ancestral heritage shared by every black American. "Roots'' author Alex Haley had to painstakingly research several generations of his family's oral history in order to get in touch with Kunta Kinte, their African ancestor. But O'Neil actually saw and touched and talked to his. And this, ironically, raises one of the prospective hall of famer's few regrets. "We would sit around the fire and the old man would be talking and I'm afraid that a lot of times I was just half listening,'' he said. "I was maybe eight or nine. I wish I had paid more attention.'' Julius O'Neil lived almost to 100. And longevity was not all he passed along. "What I remember most about him was that he was not bitter,'' O'Neil said. "He said his owner was different from most slave owners. He never sold a woman away from her husband or a child away from its mother. My grandfather loved Mr. O'Neil. "I used to wonder how it was possible that he didn't feel bitter.'' Almost 90 years later, that is exactly what they're saying about Julius O'Neil's grandson. Buck O'Neil's defining characteristic, even more than his personal magnetism, is a remarkable absence of bitterness or regret. He was denied the opportunity to give full expression to his talent. He was excluded from fair financial reward, turned away at hotels and lunch counters by the same white people who would cheer his home runs. Yet, he talks constantly about how lucky he was to play at all. It's a good example, say his fans, for everyone to follow. What he loves more than anything is spinning yarns for youngsters about all the special people and places he's known. When he appears at schools, the way kids are instantly drawn by his spellbinding allure is actually quite remarkable. "When I go out to talk to the kids, they say, `Look, there's Buck O'Neil - he played in the Negro Leagues.''' he said. "But if I make it, you know what they'll say? `There's Buck O'Neil. He's a hall of famer.'''