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November 7, 2011 at 7:40 pm ET
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Celebrating Buck: A B&C Interview with Bob Kendrick — Part I

The legend goes that when asked why he always played with such effort, Joe DiMaggio remarked that “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or the last time, I owe him my best.”

The same could be applied to Buck O’Neil’s propensity for spinning good yarns.

Bugs & Cranks recently had the privilege of speaking with Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, about O’Neil’s legacy and the museum’s planned festivities to commemorate the coming of what would have been the 100th birthday of, as Kendrick stated, “baseball’s grand ambassador” on November 13.

In the first of a two-part interview, Mr. Kendrick shared thoughts on what Buck meant to the museum, the game as a whole and to him personally, and much of the conversation involved the incredible stories told by an even more incredible man about whom Ken Burns once wrote “Listen, and hear, and cherish the wisdom of this holy man who is a gift to us all.”

To you, the loyal and learned B&C reader, we are honored to bring you Bob Kendrick:

First of all, thank you for speaking with us this morning.

Oh man, my pleasure! Thanks for having me.

Can you even begin to describe what Buck O’Neil meant, not only as an ambassador for the Negro Leagues Museum, but for former Negro Leagues players and the game as a whole?

(Chuckles) You know what, I don’t even really know where to begin. Obviously he was the heart and soul, not only for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum but for the history of the Negro Leagues in general in terms of being the principle voice of the Negro Leagues for so long, but the fact that he was such a great promoter of the game of baseball in general, I think really made him an important figure in baseball in general. Buck O’Neil tirelessly promoted our sport, whether it was sandlot, or college baseball or Negro Leagues baseball, or major league baseball or Japanese baseball, it really didn’t matter, if it was baseball, Buck O’Neil was talking about it and loving it. He really earned that reputation as baseball’s grand ambassador.

Does it seem as though it’s been five years since Buck passed?

No. It really doesn’t, because almost everywhere that I turn, someone talks about Buck, and it’s always in such a positive manner, so in many ways it almost feels like he’s still with us, his presence still looms very large. It really has been a whirlwind five years since the time of his death, and we just recently at the museum, acknowledged the fifth anniversary of his death and commemorated it with the opening of the Buck O’Neil exhibition here in Kansas City. It’s a wonderful exhibition, and as people walk through that exhibition, I’ve heard a great many of them say you can almost feel his presence there. But everywhere that I turn, someone has a Buck O’Neil story that they want to share, and the Congressman, Emanuel Cleaver II, who is also a minister, said it probably more poignantly “As long as we remember Buck, he’ll live forever.” And I think that is what the goal of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is, that we never forget Buck O’Neil, that his legacy will always live on and play on at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

What did Buck mean to you, personally?

Oh man, he was such a tremendous inspiration. First of all, I was always amazed by this bundle of energy this man exuded. He was in his nineties and he was bouncing up the stairs, and doing all these things, running all over the country, and I had the great fortune of just tagging along. And the smartest thing I ever did was I kept my mouth closed, but what I saw in Buck O’Neil was someone who really embodied a spirit, a very passionate spirit for life, living, for educating those about the history of the Negro Leagues, it was infectious. Once you were bitten by the Buck O’Neil bug, you were hooked. And I was no different.

When I met him in the early ’90s, from that point in time on, you just wanted to be around Buck and you wanted to celebrate what he wanted to celebrate, which was this rich history of the Negro Leagues, and so to get involved with his projects at the Negro Leagues Museum and to have the opportunity to travel the country with him, as he was out there preaching the gospel of the Negro Leagues and trying to raise money for the museum, was truly a blessing for me.

So he was certainly one of the most inspirational figures in my life, and there’s certainly a part of me that wants to make sure that we carry on that great spirit and for me to keep the great stories alive that he shared with generations past, and to now be able to give those stories a voice and reach a new generation with those same stories, obviously I can’t tell them the way he did, with that same zest and zeal that only Buck O’Neil could, but to keep those stories alive for future generations is really important to me. And it’s a way that I think he still lives inside all of us.

I had the good fortune of speaking with Buck in the summer of 2005, and as you just spoke about, what struck me so much was the passion and energy with which he told his stories with, as many thousands upon thousands of times he had shared these stories, (Kendrick laughing) it was like the first time he was every telling it, and I thought that was amazing.

As my good friend Joe Posnanski, who was obviously the author of a great book on Buck called The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America, whenever we were with Buck, we knew inevitably someone was going to ask him to tell the Nancy story, and we were both like “Oh no, not the Nancy story again!” But what we found was that Buck would not shirk the people who asked about these stories, like you said, man, I must have heard him tell that story at least a thousand times, but every time he told that story he told it with the same passion, the same zest, the same zeal as if he were telling it for the very first time. And guess what, when he got to the punch line, I was laughing for the one thousandth time. Even though I knew what was coming, the way he gave it to people, it took you there, and he was never going to cheat that person who had not heard that story, so I admired that. I don’t think that there was a greater baseball story-teller ever, than Buck O’Neil.

That actually leads into my next question. It’s probably impossible to pick, but is there a story that stood out to you? Was it the Nancy story or maybe something else?

(Laughing) Well, obviously the Nancy story was very popular, the story he told about Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige and their great duel in the Negro Leagues World Series stands out, the wonderful story about Jackie Robinson going into Muskogee, Oklahoma for the first time, and them going to the gas station and Robinson getting off the bus to go use the restroom and being told he can’t, and Jackie’s response was then take the hose out of the tank, those were all great stories. But believe it or not, one of my favorite stories that he didn’t tell as often, but he would talk about him and Satchel fishing in Florida, they were going to have fish and grits for breakfast, but the catch was, they had to go catch the fish.

So Buck, Satchel and I think William “Dizzy” Dismukes went with a guy on an outboard motor boat that was taking them through the trails there in Florida, and Satchel always thought he was the greatest fisherman in the world, and he was an avid fisherman and hunter, and Buck said that they were all fishing and each of them had caught a fish, but Satchel hadn’t caught one yet. So Buck is razzin’ him pretty good, “Satchel, I thought you said you were the greatest fisherman in the world?” And Buck says about that time, Satchel is fishing with a line that has three hooks, and wouldn’t you know, three fish would hit it at the same time, Satchel pulls them out, he’s dancing on the boat “I told you I’m the greatest fisherman in the world!” Buck said “Satch, you’re gonna turn the boat over!” At that point in time, Satchel takes his fish off, and throws the other two back, and Buck says “Satchel, what in the world are you doin’?!” Satchel said, “We already have enough to eat, we don’t need the others so I threw ‘em back.”

Buck said as they were leaving to go back to the hotel, they ran into an area that had a nest of snakes, and Buck said he had an old single, repeating 22 rifle, he picks it up and he’s getting ready to shoot the snakes, and said that Satchel knocked the gun out of his hand, and you know he called Buck Nancy, so Satchel said “Nancy, don’t shoot the snake. If the snake were at the Sir John Hotel, then you shoot him, but we are the intruders here. This is their domain.” What Buck was trying to infer about Satchel was that he was a lot deeper than people probably gave him credit for being, but that was one of my favorite stories.

*****

Part two of B&C’s interview with Bob Kendrick will be posted on Thursday, focusing on why Mr. O’Neil is not enshrined at Cooperstown, as well as the upcoming celebrations and aspirations of the museum as Buck’s 100th birthday grows closer.

Between now and then, however, if you would like to donate to the Negro Leagues Museum’s $100 for 100 campaign, or to learn more about the upcoming festivities, follow the links provided, or simply follow Mr. Kendrick on Twitter to be part of something very special.

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