Saturday, November 13, 2010

Buck O'Neil played in Cuban League's greatest season

Nov. 13: On this day in 1911, former Negro leagues star Buck O'Neil was born in Carabelle, Fla.

Before O'Neil became in household name thanks to Ken Burns' epic 1994 documentary Baseball, he was a star first baseman and later manager for the Kansas City Monarchs and played one season with Almendares -- one very significant season.

O'Neil (shown above in his Almanaque Deportivo Cuban baseball card) was the starting first baseman on the 1946-47 Almendares team that swept Habana in the teams' final three games to capture the Cuban League pennant in what is still considered the greatest climax in league history.

O'Neil only batted a forgettable .214 with 11 RBI that season, but he remembered the celebration of Almendares' pennant-victory on the streets of Havana when I interviewed him in 1999.

“Whew, they turned it out. Everybody was excited. They had people riding all over the streets in cars, hanging onto streetcars, blowing horns, with ribbons and banners and everything. Oh, Havana was outstanding, really.”

In the photo to the left, my wife, Karen, and I met O'Neil at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, where he served as the museum's chairman for many years. O'Neil was gracious enough to sign the Almendares jersey I'm holding in the photo.

As a player in the Negro leagues, he named to the East-West All-Star Classic in 1942, 1943 and 1949. As a manager, O'Neil led the Monarchs to league titles in 1948, 1950, 1951 and 1953. In 1962, when he became the first African-American coach in the Major Leagues with the Chicago Cubs.

O'Neil died Oct. 6, 2006 at age 94 -- eight months after he, surprisingly, was not among the 17 Negro leaguers elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in a special vote by a 12-member committee.

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