In an era when 70-year-olds are managing World Series champions and turning NBA doormats into playoff contenders, how much of a stretch would it be if Major League Baseball considered former Negro Leagues star Buck O'Neil, a commanding but congenial 92 years of age, to succeed Bud Selig as commissioner?
O'Neil has plenty of credentials. He's a former star player with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues who has extensive Major League Baseball experience, becoming the first black man to coach in the majors when the Chicago Cubs hired him in 1962. He's credited with signing Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock. He's been a scout with the Kansas City Royals since 1988.
His detailed storytelling made O'Neil a star of Ken Burns' acclaimed PBS baseball documentary, and a guest on "Late Night with David Letterman" as well as a host of other talk shows.
O'Neil was a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee until 2001. Today, he's the Board Chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, the world's only museum primarily dedicated to preserving Negro Leagues history.
During O'Neil's President's Day tour of the ESPN campus, Sheldon Spencer had a chance to ask him a few questions. O'Neil reflects upon the big news of the day and yesterday, including the Alex Rodriguez trade, the steroid scandal, common misconceptions about Negro Leagues baseball, the best player he's ever seen, and whether Pete Rose will be inducted into Cooperstown.
1. What's your reaction to Alex Rodriguez going to the Yankees?
One thing about it is, (Yankees owner George) Steinbrenner is a friend of mine, so I'm glad he got what he wanted. And A-Rod is a friend of mine, so I'm glad he got what he wanted. It just made the Yankees better, that's all.
Are you surprised, given that he supposedly was going to stay in Texas after two months of flirting with Boston -- and then the Yankees got him?
No. If I had a chance to go to Boston or New York City, I'd choose New York City.
It's the greatest city on Earth. What do you mean, why? A-Rod doesn't need the money, he's making enough money. But in Boston, he wouldn't have gotten the print, he wouldn't have gotten anything that he's getting in New York. Now, if he'd gone to Boston, you guys would have run it all right, but now this thing -- (whispers) he knocked Janet Jackson off the TV! (laughs)
Does A-Rod rank as the best ballplayer playing today?
Yep, the best ballplayer playing right now is A-Rod. He has all the tools -- hit, run, field, throw, and hit for power. And he's got a good head on his shoulders.
Who would be his equivalent from your era?
From my era? That would be Willie Wells, who played for the Newark Eagles. That's the same team Monte Irvin played with, the same team Larry Doby, Leon Day and Don Newcombe played with. Oh, man, this is great.
How tough a transition will it be for A-Rod to play third base?
It's going to be easy. You don't have as much territory to cover. Mostly, what you see at third base, you're mostly throwing here (making an across-the-body motion with his right arm). The shortstop, you're mostly throwing from back here (another motion with his arm). You're going toward first base in the first place. And you don't have to compete with that sucker sliding into second on the double play.
2. What's your reaction to the news that Barry Bonds' trainer was among those arrested in the federal government's probe regarding steroid use? Do you think this will taint Bonds' image if he's connected in even the most remote way?
If he's connected with it. But if you're going at somebody for these steroids, you would go after the top guy. That's who you would go for. That's what they want to do. But I don't think he is (using steroids). I hope he's not.
See, steroids. That's different. When we came along, some guys had to have some gin. That's true. A guy would be at his best when he had a shot of gin in him. That's what would build him up. Another guy, scotch was his choice. For all athletes, it's always been something. For another guy, it was iced tea.
Now, you've gotten sophisticated. You've come up with a drug.
What worked for you?
My wife. She sure did. She could build me up. But before I got married -- see, I was 35 before I married. So, then it was some girls in Harlem.
3. You've had a second career since your role in Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary. Everybody is amazed by your memory. Give us some memory-building tricks.
Actually, I've been fortunate. I've had good genes. All the men in my family always have lived long lives and all of them died of old age, not with cancer or different things like that. All of them, their memories were still good. God's been good to me, man.
4. In "Baseball", you talked about having to cram nine people into a seven-passenger car for $150, and two people had to ride on the bumper?
That wasn't the Negro Leagues, now. That was semi-pro ball. In the Negro Leagues, we rode in the best buses money could buy. We stayed in the best hotels -- they just happened to be black-owned. We ate in the best restaurants -- they just happened to be black-owned. First class.
We played in Yankee Stadium, and we'd fill up Yankee Stadium. That night, we'd come down to Harlem. We'd go into the different places. During that era, all of the nightspots had live music. We'd hear these guys: Duke Ellington playing in New York City after the ballgames. Then we'd go from there to Philadelphia, the Earl Theatre in Philadelphia, and it could be Count Basie playing there. We'd go down to Washington and the Howard Theatre, and we might see Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley. It wasn't like "The Soul Of The Game." THAT wasn't Negro League baseball. No. First class.
But people wanted you to believe that anything black had to be secondary. And another thing about it at that time: In the major leagues, at that time, maybe five percent of major leaguers were college men. Forty percent of Negro Leaguers were college men, man. Why was this so? We always trained in a black-college town. In spring training, that's where we played, the black colleges. When the college season was over, they would come, play baseball in the summer, and go back to school in the winter. Or, they'd go back to teaching. That was Negro League baseball.
Going back to your semi-pro days, when you're riding on the bumper of a car for 50 miles, how close did you come to dying?
No! See, at the time, they had big fenders on the car. So I'd be sitting on the right side and I'd put my left hand out, and the other guy would be sitting on the other side. We'd hold each other on. We'd ride about 100 miles that way. Then we'd get off, and two other kids would get on the bumpers and ride.
Fear from what?
You're going 100 miles ...
Wait a minute. We're 18 years old, 19 years old. What you mean, fear? You've got to start getting scared when you get a little older.
5. Today's major leaguer gets $76 per diem. What would the per diem be in your era?
When I went to the Monarchs, I made $100 a month, and $1-a-day meal money. But don't play that $1-a-day cheap. I stayed at the Streets Hotel. I'd come down to breakfast at the Streets Hotel and I'd get ham and eggs and a cup of coffee for 25 cents. I only ate two meals a day. I'd get a Kansas City strip, with baked potato, some string beans and a dessert for 35 cents. I smoked Camel cigarettes at the time. A pack of Camel cigarettes at the time cost me 15 cents. Went to the Gym Theatre, the Lincoln Theatre for 10 cents. If I didn't smoke or go to the movies, I spent just 85 cents. I had 15 cents out of that dollar to play with, man. Out of the $100, I sent $50 home to momma.
In Negro League baseball, we never went to dinner without a jacket on. A kid would come to Kansas City to play, and he'd usually come from Arkansas, Louisiana or somewhere. He might have overalls on or something like that. We'd send him down to Miles the tailor on 18th Street, and have Miles make him two suits. Because he had to look good -- he was a Negro League baseball player.
6. Oscar Charleston was the best player you've ever seen?
The best player I've ever seen. He had it all. Willie Mays was the best major league player I've ever seen. But Oscar Charleston would hit you 50 home runs, steal you 100 bases. And the old-timers would say that the closest thing to Oscar Charleston was Willie Mays.
And not only that, Oscar was tough. You'd say "Oscar Charleston" and you'd say "Ty Cobb" as far as meaness. I remember once, we're playing in Havana. A ball was hit in the infield and he was on third base. So he's scoring and he hit the catcher and knocked the shin guards off, knocked the chest protector off (the catcher). Then they jumped up. This (catcher) wanted to fight. And Oscar knocked him down.
The security in the ballpark in Cuba were soldiers. The soldiers rushed out on the field and they were going to get Oscar and take him down. Every time one of the soldiers comes up -- Boom! (slaps fist into his palm) Oscar would knock him down. After he knocked down about five of them, they wanted to gang-rush him and take him to jail.
The general was in the stands and he said, "Uh-uh. Any man that can do that, don't you touch him." That was Oscar Charleston.
7. Is there some player out there that you still think has not received his due?
There are quite a few guys that should be in the Hall of Fame. But the main thing for us is, we want the publicity for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. And when you say Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, that's not Oscar Charleston. That's not Josh Gibson. That's everybody that played in the Negro Leagues. All the ballplayers that played in the Negro Leagues. Not just one or two guys, the guys that are in the Hall of Fame.
We could have started a Negro Leagues Hall of Fame, but we didn't want a Negro Leagues Hall of Fame. We think the guys that are qualified to go into the Hall of Fame should go to Cooperstown.
Who's at the top of your list of people you think should get their due?
I've got so many, I don't want to get into trouble. Some of these guys are still living. Like (Ted) Double Duty Radcliff. He's still living. Double Duty Radcliff is 102 years old. Double Duty threw out the first pitch in Kansas City last summer and I caught it. He was 101 and I was 92, the oldest battery in baseball history.
He could still bring it?
No, he rolled it. (laughs) Of course, I'd like to see him in the Hall of Fame. Biz Mackie should be in the Hall of Fame. Biz Mackie taught Roy Campanella how to catch.
8. What did you think of that movie, "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings"?
It was a farce. That wasn't Negro League baseball at all. Actually, Jackie Robinson didn't know Josh Gibson. He knew Satchel Paige, because he played with him on the Monarchs. But he didn't know Josh Gibson. When (Robinson) went into the major leagues that spring in '47, Josh Gibson died. Josh Gibson was sick when (Robinson) played in 1945 with the Monarchs, Josh Gibson was dying then.
It was a farce. Somebody one day's going to write the Negro Leagues (screenplay) like it's supposed to be. It might be Spike Lee.
That's my next question. Several years ago Spike Lee brought renewed attention to the theory that Babe Ruth was black. Did you hear talk about that when you were coming up, and do you think there's any truth to it?
I don't think there was any truth to it. Ruth wasn't black. But Ruth had kind of a flat nose. The people who put that out there were ballplayers that didn't like Ruth. This was more or less Southern ballplayers, because Ruth didn't have a prejudiced bone in his body. Some of these other guys, see, would say, "He ain't nothing but a (slur)."
Did you ever get a chance to meet Ruth?
Yeah. Played against him. He was a very likable guy. Babe Ruth was a ballplayers' ballplayer. Everybody liked Babe Ruth because Babe Ruth liked everybody. It was just the opposite for Ty Cobb. Ty Cobb liked no one, and no one liked Ty Cobb.
9. You're named commissioner of baseball. What are the three things you'd do to improve the game?
I think Major League Baseball should only pay half the commissioner's salary. I think the Players' Association should pay the other half. Right now, the commissioner works for the owners. But if both were paying, now the commissioner would be working for baseball.
How do you think that idea would go over with the Players' Association?
(The head of) the Players' Association, you know the guy's going to fight it. You know he would fight it, because actually he has so much control now. You could win that argument if the baseball people would come together and say, "Now you got to pay half of this money and I'll pay half of it." Then you would get a commissioner that could be boss.
What else would you do to improve the game?
I like the game. There's some parts of the DH I don't like. But I'd rather see, say, a Barry Bonds, who might have to stop playing regularly, I'd rather see him at the bat than a pitcher. But the thing about it, it changes the game. The DH changes the game. Now, you don't have to manage anymore. You don't have to make the changes you do in the National League.
Would you keep baseball in Montreal?
Montreal's not a baseball town. Montreal is the "other sport." Hockey. It's true. That's Montreal. Montreal is up in Canada. Whereas the other team (in Toronto) is so (geographically) close to the States, it's like the States. This is why the (Blue Jays) can be successful down there, but Montreal will never be successful as a major league town.
Would you move the team to Puerto Rico?
I don't think I would move it out of the States. A spot that would be good for this team would be in the D.C. area, or down in Virginia. But the thing about that is, the man over there in Baltimore (Orioles owner Peter Angelos) don't want that to happen.
Do you think you'll ever see young people in America embrace baseball with the passion they might have 40 or so years ago?
You know what? We've got 400 kids now in Kansas City playing baseball in the inner city, where once we didn't have any. We've got the same thing now in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles. Those programs are working.
10. How much would it mean for you to be inducted into Cooperstown?
It would be all right. One reason it would be all right is that it would be the epitome. Anybody who's played baseball would like to be in the Hall of Fame. But, for me, I would get more kick out of seeing the guys that have been passed over (for election). If I could be of any assistance, like I was when I was on the committee, to putting these guys in the Hall of Fame, that's the main thing for me.
Does Pete Rose belong in the Hall Of Fame?
As far as his playing ability is concerned, Pete Rose would be in the Hall of Fame. Pete Rose made a mistake. Pete Rose gambled on baseball and he said he didn't. Pete should have said, "Mr. Giamatti, yes, I was wrong." What would have happened to Pete, maybe (the commissioner) suspends him for five years, maybe 10 years. But Pete Rose would have been in the Hall of Fame by now.
But Pete was going to be bigger than baseball. That's what he was going to be, and that didn't work. And right now, the commissioner could make him eligible. But right now, he's got to get 75 percent of the votes from the Hall of Famers to get into the Hall of Fame. I don't think Pete's ever going to make it.
Sheldon Spencer is an editor at ESPN.com.
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