[Ed: back to our regularly scheduled programming.]
On this ninth anniversary of 9/11, there will be politicians offering their thoughts, as well as more than a few preachers. My thoughts, though, turned to the late Buck O’Neil.
Buck was one of the last great Negro Leagues players and managers, co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and a powerful voice in Kansas City long before Ken Burns’ miniseries Baseball made him famous around the country.
In that YouTube to the right, you’ll see Buck as an elf to Kansas City’s “Secret Santa,” bringing joy and $100 bills to folks in need, with no background checks and no application forms, just people struggling to make it and having a very tough time. Bringing joy: that was Buck O’Neil.
In his 1996 autobiography, I Was Right On Time, he recounts the origin of that title phrase:
Back in 1981, at a reunion of us Negro league players in Ashland, Kentucky, a young fellow from Sports Illustrated asked me if I had any regrets, coming along as I did before Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues. And this is what I told him then, and what I’m telling you now:
There is nothing greater for a human being than to get his body to react to all the things one does on a baseball field. It’s as good as sex; it’s as good as music. It fills you up. Waste no tears for me. I didn’t come along too early — I was right on time.
You see, I don’t have a bitter story. I truly believe I have been blessed. Growing up as I did in Sarasota, Florida, I saw men like John McGraw and Babe Ruth and Connie Mack during spring training. As a first baseman for the great Kansas City Monarchs, I played with and against men like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. As the manager of the Monarchs and later as a scout and a coach — the first African-American coach in the majors — for the Chicago Cubs, I got to see the young Ernie Banks, the young Lou Brock, the young Bo Jackson.
Those weren’t just words to Buck. That’s who he was and how he lived — full of joy and without bitterness.
Fast forward to Buck O’Neil on September 8, 2002, just before the first 9/11 anniversary:
When I was a young man, I used to see the way hate ripped this country apart. A man would hate me just for the color of my skin. I didn’t feel angry. I felt sorry for that man. I wanted to say to him “Don’t you know how great America would be if we could all get along?”
That’s what I saw after September 11. We all got along.
I wish we could hold on to that feeling.
I don’t really believe in an eye for an eye. But I do believe that we have to wipe out these organizations that teach hate. We must bring the murderers to justice. Otherwise, they will kill again. Murder is in their souls.
Listen: They claim to kill in the name of God.
That’s not Christianity. That’s not Judaism. That’s not Islam. That’s a religion of desperate, hungry and angry people. They figure they have nothing. So, they have nothing to lose.
Hate kills, and hatefilled evangelical pastors who burn (or threaten to burn) the holy books of those with whom they disagree are the theological cousins of those who flew into the World Trade Center.
In 2006, a special committee of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame voted to induct a group of 17 Negro Leagues figures into the hall, and to the shock of many, Buck was not among them (prompting much speculation as to why). None of the 17 were still alive, and MLB found itself in the awkward position of having to ask Buck to speak at the induction ceremony at Cooperstown, as the living voice of the Negro Leagues. Buck didn’t disappoint, and MLB had nothing to fear:
And I tell you what, they always said to me Buck, “I know you hate people for what they did to you or what they did to your folks.” [ed: referring to segregation, not the snub by Cooperstown] I said, “No, man, I — I never learned to hate.” I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. My wife died 10 years ago of cancer. (I’m single, ladies.) A good friend of mine — I hate AIDS. A good friend of mine died of AIDS three months ago. I hate AIDS. But I can’t hate a human being because my God never made anything ugly. Now, you can be ugly if you wanna, boy, but God didn’t make you that way. Uh, uh.
So, I want you to light this valley up this afternoon. Martin [Luther King] said “Agape” is understanding, creative — a redemptive good will toward all men. Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. And when you reach love on this level, you love all men, not because you like ‘em, not because their ways appeal to you, but you love them because God loved them. And I love Jehovah my God with all my heart, with all my soul, and I love every one of you — as I love myself.
Amen, brother Buck. (To its credit, in 2008 MLB honored Buck by naming a special award in his honor and putting a statue — not a plaque — of Buck at Cooperstown.)
There were Muslims in the Twin Towers — Muslims who worked and prayed there, and who died there. There were Christians who died there, and Jews who died there. There were people of all kinds of religious beliefs who died there, and people of no religious beliefs at all who died there.
Those who flew the planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania left a lasting monument to their hate. How we reacted — and continue to react — to the events of 9/11 speaks volumes about who we are.
For myself, when I preach tomorrow morning, I can only hope to be as eloquent and powerful and inspiring as Preacher Buck.
Thank God I lived to hear him — I must have been right on time, too.