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This Buck Should Stop at the Hall

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Apparently I’ve entered the second stage of grieving for Buck O’Neil, because I’m angry.

I’m not angry that he passed away last Friday. Anyone who makes it to 94, still singing and dancing in his final year, received the deck’s best cards.

I’m angry that he died without the prefix “Hall of Famer” attached to his name. It’s enough to make you question the point of having a Baseball Hall of Fame.

I keep hearing that integrity and character are vital qualities for induction. That’s what has kept Pete Rose out. That’s what looms as a serious roadblock for Barry Bonds when he becomes eligible.

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No one had more integrity and stronger character than Buck O’Neil. No one made more contributions to the game, which is another of the voting criteria spelled out to the Veterans’ Committee that denied O’Neil once again this year.

For decades O’Neil was the voice for Negro Leagues players who were denied access to the major leagues during their career and were no longer alive to tell their stories. He would travel anywhere and talk about the old days. O’Neil was a living website.

He harbored a boundless love for baseball even though the most prestigious level of the sport was closed to him as a player. He made history as the major leagues’ first African American bench coach with the Chicago Cubs in 1962, helping to pave the way for Frank Robinson to become the first African American manager in 1975.

Apparently that wasn’t enough to outweigh O’Neil’s .288 lifetime batting average in the Negro Leagues. Numbers, huh? Then why does Rose’s gambling count more than his 4,256 hits? And why are the mere accusations of steroid use enough for some voting members to say they’ll overlook Bonds’ seven most valuable player awards?

They all should be in. But if you’re going to force me to choose one, I’d pick O’Neil.

One of the subjective Hall of Fame criteria I’ve heard cited is: can you tell the history of the sport without them? We wouldn’t be telling the great tales of the Negro Leagues without O’Neil, who gave us his personal insight to the feats of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and others.

O’Neil helped found the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, where he played for the Monarchs. He was always on the move, educating people about baseball and raising funds for the museum. One itinerary earlier this year took him to Houston, Minneapolis, then San Diego in one week.

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What O’Neil understood is that the best way to honor people is to remember them when they’re gone. O’Neil deserves to be included in Cooperstown where we remember all the game’s legends.

But he also deserved to be there when baseball repaid him for all of his donations.

“I think some way, shape, form or fashion, we’ve always felt that eventually Buck will be in the Hall of Fame,” said Bob Kendrick, O’Neil’s friend and colleague at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “My concern was whether it would happen in his lifetime. That’s the occasion that was missed.”

The first Hall of Fame class was inducted in 1939. Negro Leaguers weren’t admitted until the 1970s, starting with Paige. When the Veterans’ Committee decided to honor another group from the Negro Leagues era, everyone thought O’Neil would be included.

“It was something that he wanted,” Kendrick said. “Yes, he was disappointed. But he handled that disappointment so selflessly. It was just a tremendous lesson.”

He even agreed to speak at the induction ceremony in Cooperstown. Could you give imagine giving a wedding toast while the woman of your dreams married another man? But O’Neil believed a platform to talk about the Negro Leagues and a chance to honor those who did make it outweighed his own feelings of being snubbed.

So on the last weekend in July he stood there in his gray suit and praised those who tried to “build a bridge across a chasm of prejudice.”

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He wasn’t bitter about any of the injustices he faced because, “I never learned to hate.”

Not people, at least. He hated things like cancer and AIDS. “But I can’t hate a human being,” he said.

He got the crowd to join hands and sing, “The greatest thing/in all my life/is loving you.”

That was O’Neil’s final national appearance. To those who knew him, he hadn’t been his same energetic self. They would find out later that he had bone marrow cancer.

“Really, he was sick when he went to the Hall of Fame,” Kendrick said. “But the adrenaline and the occasion kept him going.”

You could say baseball kept him going, all the way into his 90s. His last project was to raise money for the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center, a $15-million expansion of the Negro Leagues museum.

You can help continue O’Neil’s legacy at https://nlbm.com/buck/buck.htm.

His Hall of Fame eligibility window for election by the media has long passed, and there’s no provision for write-in candidates. But the Hall did make an exception for Roberto Clemente by waiving the usual five-year waiting period for eligibility after he died in a plane crash in 1972. They should make a similar break from protocol for O’Neil.

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No one deserves an exception more than this exceptional man.

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read more by Adande, go to latimes.com/adandeblog.

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