Let’s wind the clocks back to the summer of 2005. I was hosting a weekly baseball radio show and doing my best to wrangle interviews with baseball legends to spice up the back-end, but about to embark on a two-hour drive to the airport to catch a flight.
I’m at the door, bags in hand, when the phone rings. I sighed and turned to glare at it, debating whether to let the machine get it or drop everything and see who was calling and what the hell they wanted.
On the other line was the soft voice of a woman who politely informed me that she was with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, and wondered whether I was still interested in speaking with Buck O’Neil.
For what seemed like minutes, I stood there staring open-mouthed and wide-eyed as my wheels spun out of control, before I realized a response would be good, and offered a firm “Abso-lutely.”
When I inquired about a date and time, she quickly and excitedly shot back “How ’bout right now?”
My stomach churned a bit, knowing that not only was I not in the studio with any of the recording equipment, I also had not written an interview as yet because I try not to devote too much time researching and writing for an uncertain payoff, and still had to get moving if I was going to make that plane.
All the while, I’m petrified that this may be my only chance to speak to a baseball icon and I’m throwing it away to down sesame sticks on a United flight that was sure to provide a nauseous landing at Pearson International.
But she was flexible and we worked out a time for the following week.
Though I was running short on time, I knew what I had to do. I rushed to my car, threw everything in the back seat and sped over to the library to pick up Buck’s book, I Was Right on Time.
I got through a couple of chapters while waiting to board, devoured several more whileÂ 30-something-feet above ground, furiously jotting notes, and had the book finished by the following morning. The pace with which I finished it was two-fold: I was ecstatic to speak with Buck, but it was also just that damn good.
Fast forward to the following week, I am sitting in the studio, notes and questions restingÂ in front of me, Buck O’Neil’s home number in hand. I’m as nervous as I had ever been prior to an interview, a feeling that has yet to be surpassed. I’ve come to terms with the fact that will be as nervous as I’ll ever be, because no baseball conversation could ever occur that would equal, let aloneÂ surpass the one I had with John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil.
After I had dialed the number and nervously listened to a few rings, I soon recognized that gentle, charming voice on the other end, and it was exhilarating. It took a few minutes for me to calm and settle into the discussion, but that was not as difficult as it may seem, all I had to do was pose a few questions and let Buck do the rest.
The stories were incredible. At a certain point, I was no longer hosting so much as sittingÂ comfortably in a living room, taking it all in. The energy and passion with which Buck shared tales about Satchel Paige’s reasoning for calling him Nancy, the night he was told Jackie Robinson had been signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers and even a story about Lou Brock that blew me away.
Buck had told and re-told those stories innumerable times, yet on the phone with some kid from Winona, Minnesota, Buck told them with them with the same vivaciousness and verve as if he were on stage in Cooperstown.
That story about Brock had O’Neil pulled over by a police officer while he attempted to find the home of a player,Â but whenÂ O’NeilÂ shared Brock’s name and that he was with the Cubs, the tone of that encounter changed completely. My most savored part of the tale, though, wasÂ as Buck described being pulled over, because he actually made the sound of the siren in his rear view. Beyond beautiful.
Before we parted ways, I asked Buck about what he referred to as the three most distinct bat cracks he’d ever heard, produced by the likes of Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson and Bo Jackson. I wondered if he’d yet to hear a fourth, to which he energetically replied “No, I haven’t, but I’m headin’ to the ballpark tonight, hopin’ to hear that sound again!”
I thanked Mr. O’Neil for his time and shared a thought on behalf of all baseball fans when I called him the greatest ambassador baseball had. BuckÂ humbly let out an “Ohhhhhh, no, sir, but thank you.”
After I hung up and stopped the recording, I must have smiled for an hour. It was my mountaintop. The single greatest baseball conversation I had ever had. A sentiment that holds true today.
For all the great Negro Leagues players and executives that Buck helped attain Cooperstown, it persists as a tragedy that he was not similarly honored.
Buck is gone now, and though his plaque has yet to be hung at the Hall, as Emanuel Cleaver II once said “As long as we remember Buck, he’ll live forever.”
To the most influential Monarch: Long live the king.
Part two of B&Câ€™s interview with Bob Kendrick will be posted on Thursday, focusing on why Mr. Oâ€™Neil is not enshrined at Cooperstown, as well as the upcoming celebrations and aspirations of the museum as Buckâ€™s 100th birthday grows closer.
Between now and then, however, if you would like to donate to the Negro Leagues Museumâ€™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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