The year was 2000 and my dad got a couple of tickets to something called the “Legacy Awards.” “Hey, come with me.” We are both baseball nuts and it had something to do about baseball. It was also across the street from the new Negro League Baseball Museum.
The city was also in the middle of a decades-long drought for baseball success, so seeing a few old baseball players sounded pretty fun. We walk into this big ballroom and find our seats. Immediately, my dad’s eyes opened up. There’s Tommy Lasorda. There’s George Brett. There’s Hank Aaron. Some of the greatest names in baseball were there. We were handed a program that made it very clear that autographs were not allowed – ESPECIALLY for Hank Aaron. “Mr. Aaron will not be signing tonight.” I was never really an autograph hound anyway. I just had never seen him before outside of a baseball card.
The program was like a lot of banquet programs. The emcee was Bob Costas who was entertaining. Tommy Lasorda came up and cracked up the room. The event was the first one for the museum, so there really wasn’t much of a program other than old ballplayers coming up and telling the same tried baseball stories (fables? lies?). But they were still hilarious. The event marked the 10th anniversary of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the 80th year since the beginning of the Negro Leagues themselves. Facts I hadn’t known until that night. Embarrassingly, I hadn’t been to the museum before. That failure has been rectified multiple times over since then.
The final speaker walked slowly up to the stage. He was hunched over a little bit, and his jaw stuck out so he almost looked like a cartoon. He was wearing a beautiful suit with a red tie and a wide brimmed hat. When he reached the lectern, he straightened his back and opened his speech with, “well alright, now. Outstanding!” Of all of the speeches that night, his was indescribably marvelous. He talked about the Negro League. He talked about Satchel Paige (Ol Satch) and Josh Gibson and Jackie Robinson. He spun stories that if it were anyone else, you’d start looking at your watch. But you didn’t, because the entire crowd was pulled into every word this man said. He told a story like he was telling a six-year-old the fable of Jack and the Beanstalk. Every sentence ended with, “yeah.” Like he is saying, “that really happened.” But of course they happened, because you were talking to Jack and he was describing this beanstalk that he climbed himself.
The stories were of these large- than-life men, and not once did he touch on the fact that nobody had given them a rightful chance to play in the Major Leagues – full careers anyway. Rather, his stories were about joy and perseverance and heroes.
That’s not to say that he didn’t acknowledge the hate that made the Negro Leagues a thing in the first place. But he also famously said that he held no hate in his heart. “I hate cancer. Cancer took my wife. I hate AIDS. AIDS took a friend of mine just a few months ago.” But he can’t hate people because God never made a hateful person. “Now you can be ugly, but it’s not because God made you that way.”
He finished his speech talking about his wife, Ora, who had passed only a couple of years prior. They had been married over 50 years. He asked us all to hold hands and repeat a song. “The greatest thing… in all my life… is loving you…” The speech ended. Everyone rose for an extended ovation. Tissues dabbed at eyes. I had just witnessed one of the greatest speeches I’d ever seen.
I needed to shake this man’s hand. This man that I had only heard tale before tonight. And although there was a strict “no autograph” policy, he shook every hand in the building, signed every photograph, and hugged everyone who asked. All with a smile and a “well, alright. Yeah!”
It was the only time I’ve gotten to shake the hand of a Hall of Famer. Sure, it took 21 years until he would posthumously be named, but nobody in that room that night doubted Buck O’Neil was in a class of his own. And that signed photograph of Buck is one of my most prized possessions. Yeah.
(Get more from Chris Kamler on Twitter, where you’ll find him as @TheFakeNed. Yeah.)