NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, February 10th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD Radio History Book.
One hundred years ago this week, the beginning of the Negro National Baseball League. In honor of that anniversary, and Black History Month, Paul Butler brings us this profile of one of the league’s gentle giants.
PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: Before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the 1940s, major league baseball was segregated. Now black baseball teams had been around since the 1880’s, but the most successful played primarily in exhibition games—known as “barnstormers.” Audiences treated them more as an oddity than a professional sports team. Over the years, many players and owners tried to organize black leagues, but they rarely lasted more than a season or two.
All that changed on February 13th, 1920, when Rube Foster started the Negro National League. Over the next 11 years, it grew from eight teams to more than 20. While it didn’t survive the Great Depression, it opened the doors for other successful African-American leagues, including the longest lasting: the Negro American League. It operated from 1937 to 1960.
One of the league’s greatest promoters was a tall first-baseman named John “Buck” O’Neil. Twenty years ago during presentation at a Pikes Peak Library District event, he remembered how as a boy, the Negro League changed the way African Americans looked at baseball.
JOHN BUCK O’NEIL: We would always get the Tampa Tribune—great sports section. The kids would come to my house before we’d go out to practice. I’d spread it out in the backyard on the grass and, and I would read about what happened in the major leagues.
O’Neil described how the neighborhood kids would pretend to be outfielder Babe Ruth, or catcher Connie Mack, or second baseman Miller Huggins.
O’NEIL: When we’d go out to practice, we would emulate those ballplayers.
John O’Neil lived in Sarasota, Florida. Many Major League baseball teams hosted Spring Training nearby. He watched some of baseball’s greatest stars in person.
O’NEIL: My uncle came to town, my uncle was a railroad man. He lived in New York City. And he came and I was telling him about the great baseball players that I’ve ever seen, the greatest baseball players in the world.
And he’d say, how do you know they’re the greatest baseball players in the world? I ‘d say “they’re in the major league!” He said, “Well, I tell you what, I’m coming down here and this fall, I’m gonna take you and your daddy down to West Palm beach. I want you to see some other ball players.
Buck’s uncle kept his word, and later that season, he took his nephew to West Palm Beach for a Negro League game.
O’NEIL: I tell you what, Major League baseball, you’d go to the ballgame. You might go get some peanuts or popcorn or something until Ruth come up or Jimmy Fox or one of those big hitters come up.
But down there when I saw this ball club, Rube Foster had eight guys on his ball club and C.I Taylor had eight on his ball club could steal a hundred bases. Could hit you 20, 30 home runs. Hmm, hmm. Could hit you 350 or 400 yeah, and actually you couldn’t go out to get nothing. You just had to stay there because they might show you something you’d never seen before. You’d walk the guy, he’d steal second, steal third, steal home, yet you just couldn’t go. You’d see some catches you’d never seen in your life.
When Buck O’Neil returned home, his father subscribed to the Pittsburgh Courier, and Chicago Defender newspapers—so that Buck could follow the Negro League games.
O’NEIL: And now the kids would come to my house, and I’d spread these papers out and now maybe I would be Rube Foster. Another would be C.I. Taylor. Another kid would be Boojum Wilson. Another kid would be Satchel Paige or another kid would be Cool Papa Bell. You understand what I mean? It gave me hope that I’d never had before because these men were making their living playing baseball. Here it was. Now I can do it. Then I really started. I really put my heart into it then.
Not many years later, Buck O’Neal joined the American Negro League as a first-baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs. Not a superstar, but a consistent player. He left baseball in 1944 to join the Navy during World War II. After the war, he returned to the Monarchs—becoming the team’s manager in 1948, and still played off and on till 1955.
O’Neil left the Negro League to become a scout for the Chicago Cubs. Seven years later he joined the coaching staff, becoming the first African-American coach in the major leagues.
John O’Neil died at age 94 in 2006. A couple months later, President George W. Bush posthumously awarded O’Neil the Presidential Award of Freedom:
BUSH: He was a driving force behind the Negro League’s Baseball Museum. He was proud to be its chairman. But he once said there never should have been a Negro League. Buck O’Neil lived long enough to see the game of baseball in America change for the better. He’s one of the people we can thank for that. Buck O’Neil was a legend. And he was a beautiful human being. And we honor the memory of Buck O’Neil. (APPLAUSE)
That’s this week’s WORLD Radio History Book, I’m Paul Butler.