O'Neil and Banks together again in Cooperstown

  • John "Buck" O'Neil, a former Negro League player and manager, talks about the Negro League in July 2006 at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

    John "Buck" O'Neil, a former Negro League player and manager, talks about the Negro League in July 2006 at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Associated Press

  • Cubs Hall of Fame slugger Ernie Banks in March 2014 in Chicago.

    Cubs Hall of Fame slugger Ernie Banks in March 2014 in Chicago. Associated Press

  • Ernie Banks greets fellow Hall of Famer Joe Morgan during a memorial service for Buck O'Neil Oct. 14, 2006, in Kansas City, Mo.

    Ernie Banks greets fellow Hall of Famer Joe Morgan during a memorial service for Buck O'Neil Oct. 14, 2006, in Kansas City, Mo. Associated Press

 
Updated 12/25/2021 5:30 PM

It is too late for John "Buck" O'Neil to deliver his Hall of Fame induction speech.

But O'Neil's recent election to the Hall of Fame by the Early Baseball Era Committee called attention to a speech he gave in Cooperstown in 2006, just months before his death, at the induction ceremony for 17 Negro League luminaries, a group that sadly did not include him.

 

Hall of Famer was just one of many should-have-beens for O'Neil, who could have played or managed in the major leagues.

Tom Baird, who owned the Kansas City Monarchs, O'Neil's team for virtually his entire playing and managing career, said in 1962, "He was the best first baseman we ever had. He was a fine fielder and one of the best clutch hitters in the league."

Baird said the players respected O'Neil as a manager. "He gave them sound advice and seldom raised his voice when a player made a mistake."

During his 2006 speech, O'Neil was gracious, saying, "I've done a lot of things that I really liked doing," including hitting for the cycle and shaking hands with President Truman. "But I'd rather be right here, right now, representing these people that helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice."

It was a speech brimming with optimism, capped when he urged the audience to hold hands as he led the crowd in a song with the words, "The greatest thing in all my life is loving you."

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As I watched, I couldn't help but think of a man O'Neil helped mentor, Ernie Banks, who faced life's challenges with a sunny "Let's play two" outlook.

That positive world view, Banks said, came from O'Neil, who told him, "Son, you've got to love this game to play it."

Over the years, both with the Monarchs and the Cubs, O'Neil's and Banks' baseball destinies ran on parallel tracks and often intersected.

It was Banks' great fortune in 1950 to join a Monarchs team that, thanks to Baird and O'Neil, became a pipeline to the major leagues.

That same year, the Cubs signed Monarchs shortstop Gene Baker, who would later become Banks' double-play partner on the North Side.

"Major League scouts stay right on the trail of the Monarchs because owner Tom Baird and Manager Buck O'Neil always seem to have a wealth of material," wrote the Pittsburgh Courier in 1954, crediting a Monarchs scouting system that reached into Canada, Cuba and Mexico, and a manager in O'Neil who "has the knack of giving the youngsters the proper tutoring to advance them in baseball."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In his first year, Banks shared the same infield with O'Neil, who played first base, while Ernie played shortstop -- future Yankees star Elston Howard was also on the club.

"Ernie was just a raw youngster, but he wanted to play. He soon blossomed into one of the finest infielders we ever had. Ernie's big hands enabled him to make the play quickly at short and his quick wrists made him a dangerous longball hitter," O'Neil told the Kansas City Times in 1960.

In December, 1955, the last year Baird owned the team, the Cubs signed O'Neil as a scout, giving him free reign to roam in his quest for big-league talent.

The Cubs not only signed Monarchs manager O'Neil, but two of his players, George Altman and Lou Johnson.

O'Neil's scouting would yield some big discoveries, including Lou Brock.

In 1962, the Cubs made O'Neil the first Black coach in the majors. Newspapers across the country carried a photo of Banks and O'Neil in uniform shaking hands at Wrigley Field on May 29, 1962, O'Neil's first game as a coach.

Banks celebrated in his own fashion, belting three homers in an 11-9 loss to the Milwaukee Braves.

O'Neil helped Banks during a difficult time in his career. In 1963, his batting average dropped to .227, while his home run total dipped from 37 to 18 and his RBI number from 104 to 64. He only played in 130 games and was sidelined for the last three weeks. That year, he suffered subclinical mumps, as well as a sore right knee and a heel bruise.

During the offseason, he reviewed film from his 1958 and 1959 MVP seasons in the basement of his home with O'Neil.

O'Neil, he said, "pointed out that I had unconsciously brought my feet closer together and my arms in."

Working out with O'Neil using a souvenir bat, Banks developed a wider stance with his arms spread farther apart. Banks regained his offensive form in 1964 and 1965.

O'Neil's former shortstop Baker, who became the second Black major league coach -- with the Pirates in 1963 -- suggested O'Neil as the majors' first Black manager, saying, "He's been ready for years."

O'Neil never received the call, but his scouting successes continued. Of one of his discoveries, Oscar Gamble, he said, "This kid is the greatest prospect I've signed since Ernie Banks."

O'Neil was blessed to see Banks inducted into the Hall in 1977, and Ernie phoned him when he heard the news.

O'Neil said, "He just wanted to thank me for all the patience, for the old times we had together."

Looking back, O'Neil said he could tell Banks would be a big-leaguer when he was his 18-year-old shortstop.

"Ernie could always play baseball. You could tell from the start. He had those good, soft hands and those great wrists."

He was also "a great low ball hitter. Anybody that can hit the low ball like that can play in the big leagues.

"To tell you the truth I learned more about hitting from him than he ever learned from me."

O'Neil's enshrinement ensures his and Banks' destinies remain bound. It completes a journey that began in Kansas City, passed through Chicago, and ends where it should, in Cooperstown.

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