A League of His Own

updated 09/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ONE DAY IN 1946, WHEN BUCK O'Neil was serving in an all-black naval unit in the Philippines, the base's white commander summoned him to his office over the loudspeaker. When O'Neil arrived, the officer informed him that O'Neil's former Kansas City Monarchs teammate Jackie Robinson had just been signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers to play for the minor league Montreal Royals.

O'Neil, an eight-year veteran of baseball's Negro leagues, knew full well what this meant: Robinson soon would become the first black to play major league baseball. "Thank God!" he cried, then grabbed the microphone to share the news with his shipmates. "They whooped and hollered," he recalls, "and they shot their guns off that night." He adds, "It was something we'd wanted since Rube Foster's time."

In the early part of the century, Foster was the principal founder of the Negro National League. There, a generation later, O'Neil made his own mark as a hard-hitting first baseman, playing on hardscrabble diamonds in backwater towns—and often dining at the back door of white-owned restaurants. Today, at 82, nearly 40 years after he took his last cut at the plate, O'Neil and other black ballplayers born too soon for the big leagues are getting their due in Baseball, Ken Burns's 18 ½-hour paean to the American pastime, which aired the first of its nine "innings" on Sept. 18 and continues through Sept. 28 on PBS. As with The Civil War, Burns's epic 1990 documentary, the narrative is fleshed out by on-camera commentators. The revelation among them is O'Neil, whose thoughtful observations about the role of blacks in baseball become a sort of diamond-dusted oral essay on race relations in post-Civil War America. "He's the conscience of the program," says Burns. "Because of his dignity, his lack of bitterness and his sense of humor, Buck makes a wonderful ambassador for the game."

That's quite a testament to O'Neil's resilience, considering the paradox of stardom and servitude that informed his Negro league days. "We would play to everyone's delight, and afterwards they'd want to shake our hands," O'Neil recalls of the white fans who turned out to see the Monarchs. "Then later we wouldn't be allowed into the restaurants, and we couldn't use the rest-rooms. That would burn you up!"

But O'Neil saved his heat for the game. "Baseball is his whole life," says his wife, Ora, a retired schoolteacher. He was born John Jordan O'Neil Jr. in Carrabelle, Fla., the second of three children of John Sr., a sawmill worker, and Luella, a restaurant manager. When he was 12, Buck moved with his family to Sarasota. At 14, after graduating from elementary school—there was no high school for blacks in town—O'Neil shined shoes, worked on a celery farm and began playing first base for the black Sarasota Tigers.

He won an athletic scholarship at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, where he completed high school work and two years of college before turning pro in 1934. But to this day, O'Neil confides, "My greatest regret is that I couldn't attend Sarasota High School or the University of Florida."

He skittered around in the black semipro leagues until 1938, when he was signed by the Monarchs of the Negro National League. "For me," he recalls, "playing with the Kansas City Monarchs was like a white kid playing with the New York Yankees." The life was one long bus ride, a mixture of league games and exhibitions, the latter often against major league stars. "We beat 'em most of the time," says O'Neil. "They respected us, and we respected them." But the black players also earned a pittance compared to their white counterparts. In 1946, O'Neil's peak year, he pulled in $5,000. "If I had been a player in the majors, I'd have made $30,000," he estimates.

On tour he and his teammates stayed in black-only hotels in most cities and, in small towns, with local black families—often, "either the preacher or the undertaker," he says. In 1942, while playing in Memphis, O'Neil met Ora. Her parents were not enthralled. "They had the impression that ballplayers and men who traveled were not good prospects," she says. But when O'Neil was discharged from the Navy, they married in 1946.

Soon thereafter, O'Neil was named player-manager of the Monarchs. His career average over 12 years was a solid .288, and as a first baseman, says Monarchs pitcher Clifford "Connie" Johnson, 72, "Buck could catch anything." But it was as a field boss that O'Neil won the most esteem. "He knew what it took to win a ball game, and he gave you confidence in yourself," says outfielder Alfred "Slick" Surratt, 72. "After every game, when we got on the bus, he'd go over the game with us, whether we'd won or lost."

By the late '40s, the major leagues were beginning to integrate, and the era of the Negro leagues was on the wane. In 1956, O'Neil became a scout for the Chicago Cubs—uncovering, among others, a swift outfielder and future Hall of Earner named Lou Brock. In 1962 the Cubs made O'Neil the first black coach in the majors. When he retired in 1988, the Kansas City Royals hired him as a part-time scout.

Aside from his scouting duties, O'Neil serves as board chairman of the Negro League Baseball Museum, located in a lower-income neighborhood near his home in Kansas City, Mo. He plays golf twice a week and breakfasts every Wednesday with Johnson and Surratt. The big money earned by today's ballplayers—black and white—doesn't faze O'Neil. As he once told LIFE editor and author Dan Okrent, one of Baseball's commentators, "There is nothing in life like getting your body to do all the things it has to do on a baseball field. It's as good as music, it's as good as sex, it fills you up. Waste no tears on me. I didn't come along too early—I was right on time."

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