O’Neil and Banks together again in Cooperstown

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It is too late for John “Buck” O’Neil to deliver his Hall of Fame Induction Speech.

But O’Neil’s recent Hall of Fame election by the Early Baseball Era Committee drew attention to a speech he gave at Cooperstown in 2006, just months before his death, at the ceremony for enthronement of 17 personalities of the Black League, a group which unfortunately did not include it.

The Hall of Fame was just one of many must-sees for O’Neil, who could have played or managed in the big leagues.

Tom Baird, who owned the Kansas City Monarchs, O’Neil’s team for most of his playing and managerial career, said in 1962, “He was the best first baseman we’ve ever had. He was a great fielder and one of the best clutch hitters. in the league. “

Baird said the players respected O’Neil as a manager. “He gave them great advice and rarely raised his voice when a player made a mistake.”

During his 2006 speech, O’Neil was courteous, saying, “I did a lot of things that I really enjoyed doing,” including knocking for the cycle and shaking hands with President Truman. “But I’d rather be here, right now, representing those people who have helped bridge the chasm of prejudice.”

It was a speech full of optimism, topped off when he urged the audience to hold hands as he led the crowd in a song with the words: “The greatest thing in my life is to you. to like.”

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 vision of “.

That positive worldview, Banks said, came from O’Neil, who told him, “Son, you have to love this game to play it.”

Over the years, with both the Monarchs and the Cubs, O’Neil and Banks’ baseball destinies have unfolded on parallel tracks and often intersected.

It was Banks’ great fortune in 1950 to join a Monarchs team which, 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 partner on the North Side.

“Major League scouts stay on the trail of the Monarchs because owner Tom Baird and manager Buck O’Neil always seem to have a treasure trove of gear,” the Pittsburgh Courier wrote in 1954, crediting a Monarchs scouting system. who reached Canada, Cuba and Mexico, and a manager at O’Neil who “has a knack for giving kids the proper tutoring to take them forward in baseball.”

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

“Ernie was just a crude youngster, but he wanted to play. He quickly became one of the best infielders we’ve ever had. Ernie’s big hands allowed him to play short and quickly. his swift 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 hired O’Neil as a scout, giving him free rein to roam in his quest for big-league talent.

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

The location of O’Neil would give rise to great discoveries, including Lou Brock.

In 1962, the Cubs made O’Neil the first black coach in the majors. Newspapers across the country ran 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 way, hitting three home runs in an 11-9 loss to the Milwaukee Braves.

O’Neil helped Banks through a difficult time in his career. In 1963, his batting average fell to 0.227, while his home run total dropped from 37 to 18 and his RBI from 104 to 64. He only played 130 games and was absent in the league. over the past three weeks. That year he suffered from subclinical mumps, as well as pain in his right knee and a bruise on his heel.

During the offseason, he reviewed films 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 and arms together.”

Training with O’Neil using a souvenir bat, Banks developed a wider stance with his arms wider apart. Banks regained his offensive form in 1964 and 1965.

Former O’Neil shortstop Baker, who became the second black major league coach – with the Pirates in 1963 – suggested O’Neil as the first black majors coach, saying: “He’s ready. For years”.

O’Neil never got the call, but his screening successes continued. Of one of his discoveries, Oscar Gamble, he said, “This kid is the biggest prospect I’ve signed since Ernie Banks.”

O’Neil was fortunate enough to see Banks inducted into the Hall in 1977, and Ernie called 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 great player 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 big wrists.”

He was also “a great low ball hitter.” Anyone who can hit the ball low like that can play in the big leagues.

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

O’Neil’s consecration ensures that his fate and that of Banks remain linked. He’s completing a trip that started in Kansas City, has passed through Chicago, and ends where it belongs, in Cooperstown.

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