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Buck O'Neil is finally getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

A baseball pioneer is getting some overdue recognition. Buck O'Neil played in the Negro Leagues and later became one of its greatest ambassadors. He's now been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame class of 2022. Here's reporter Greg Echlin in Kansas City.

GREG ECHLIN, BYLINE: Before John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil died in 2006 at the age of 94, he had spent almost 70 years of his life connected with professional baseball. For his last 16 years, he was chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum that he co-founded in Kansas City. But in 2006, when 17 players and owners from the Negro Leagues era were elected, O'Neil wasn't among them. Raymond Doswell was on the committee making the decision. As curator of the Negro Leagues Museum, he pushed for O'Neil.

RAYMOND DOSWELL: Well, for me, it was his complete body of work - player, manager and ambassador.

ECHLIN: Buck O'Neil grew up in Florida watching Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees during spring training. His Negro Leagues career began in 1937 as a first baseman. He was observant while playing the game and developed an eye for talent at the same time. In his later years with the Kansas City Monarchs, he was a player and manager. In 2003, before the late Ernie Banks started his hall-of-fame career with the Chicago Cubs, he told me about a shy kid from Dallas whose career took off with the Monarchs - under O'Neil.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERNIE BANKS: He'd bring me out to the field early and hit ground balls and batting practice. And I only weighed 140-some pounds. And I just thought it was just wonderful to see and be around a man who had that much interest and confidence in me and felt that I could play baseball.

ECHLIN: In his own heyday as a player, O'Neil was a three-time Negro Leagues all-star first baseman, but he conceded that wasn't enough to sway voters toward electing him to the hall of fame in 2006.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUCK O'NEIL: I believe the ones that voted against, didn't put that vote for me, was the people - strict baseball people, strictly baseball. What did you do on the baseball field?

ECHLIN: O'Neil spoke that day from the museum that salutes those who played segregated baseball before Jackie Robinson broke the Major League's color line in 1947. Robinson and a handful of others had already entered baseball's hall, but O'Neil became the voice of the largely forgotten other great Negro League players.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

O'NEIL: If I hadn't got in and they didn't put but two guys in, now I'd have been sad. You know what I mean? But to put this many guys in, man - make me feel good.

ECHLIN: After his days with the Monarchs, O'Neil became a scout for the Chicago Cubs before being named by them in 1962 as the first Black coach in the Major Leagues. As a scout, he mentored players like hall-of-famers Lou Brock and Billy Williams. One of Buck O'Neil's last public appearances was among those hall of famers, as speaker in 2006 on behalf of the 17 Negro Leaguers elected into Cooperstown. He died three months later. But next summer, O'Neil will reach true baseball immortality when he's officially inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

For NPR News, I'm Greg Echlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIL BLADES' "RED LANTERNS ARE BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.