On this date seven years ago, in a private White House ceremony, President Obama hosted a reception for Negro League players. The event was not open to the press or the public, partly out of deference to the advanced ages of the former athletes. A friend told me this week that only eight of the original 1,195 crewmen from the USS Indianapolis are still with us. That was the warship torpedoed on July 30, 1945, by a Japanese submarine while en route from Guam to the Philippines. Due to a series of errors by the Navy -- not by anyone on the Indianapolis -- no rescue mission was mounted. Those who made it into the water faced sharks, dehydration, and drowning for the next three-and-a-half days. When help finally arrived, only 316 men were still alive.
Like the heroes of the Greatest Generation, the gladiators of America's segregated baseball diamonds are mostly gone now, too. The youngest of those who played in the Negro Leagues before Jackie Robinson broke MLB's color line would be in their 90s now. Mostly of the stars have been gone for a while. The great Satchel Paige departed this vale in 1982. Judy Johnson passed away in 1989. James "Cool Papa" Bell died in 1991; Ray Dandridge in 1994; Willard "Home Run" Brown in 1996; and Buck Leonard in 1997.
It was particularly apt for our first African American president to honor those men and their memories on this date in 2013. It was exactly seven years earlier that Negro League star and black baseball historian Buck O'Neil was admitted to a Kansas City hospital. Although he seemed immortal, two months later he was gone. He was eulogized in Congress and honored by presidents.
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Besides Buck O'Neil taking ill on Aug. 5, 2006, there's another reason that it was fitting for President Obama to honor the living veterans of the Negro Leagues in this month of the year. In August 1935, a sportswriter and promoter from Kansas brought a little known -- and racially integrated -- sandlot baseball team to Wichita for a tournament. The promoter's name was Raymond Harry Dumont, but everyone called him, "Hap." In a wonderful baseball book titled "Color Blind," author Tom Dunkel introduced Dumont this way: "His manner was so relentlessly sunny-side up that by the time he was six, friends were calling him ‘Happy,' soon shortened to ‘Hap,' a name he would never shake."
In August 1935, he had no reason to shake it. The integrated team Dumont sought to bring to Kansas was based in Bismarck, N.D., and it was more or less run by its ace pitcher, one Satchel Paige. Hap offered Paige $1,000 to bring his barnstorming Bismarck crew to Wichita. It was a sum satisfactory to Paige; it was also money Hap didn't have, and couldn't raise unless the event drew big crowds. It did exactly that, with Paige as the main draw, and in the championship game he struck out 14 to lead his team to victory.
Satchel Paige is often portrayed as a happy-go-lucky type -- a kind of black Yogi Berra. Actually, both men were very serious on the baseball diamond. And in the case of Paige, he was also savvy about improving racial relations. For one thing, he knew that by besting teams comprised of white stars, he was advancing the cause of African Americans. "He saw himself as a contributor to the civil rights struggle and knew he made a difference," Paige biographer Donald Spivey observed. "On the mound, he knew he was making a statement."
Describing his own dominating performance in Wichita in 1935, Paige put it this way: "I'd cracked another little chink in Jim Crow."
Buck O'Neil also possessed a "sunny-side up" nature, but he, too, was a determined player -- and a demanding baseball manager. An immensely talented performer, O'Neil proved himself major league-worthy as the Kansas City Monarchs' slugging first baseman in the 1930s and 1940s. The shortstop on the 1945 Monarchs was a gifted multi-sport athlete named Jack Roosevelt Robinson, but he was seven years younger than Buck, and that was the right age to be. In 1935, while Paige was besting white major leaguers in an exhibition game, young Jackie Robinson enrolled at John Muir High in Pasadena, Calif., where he would star in baseball, football, and track. By 1946, while O'Neil was leading the Negro American League with a .346 batting average -- and guiding the Monarchs to one of their pennants -- Robinson was working his way through the Brooklyn Dodgers' farm system getting ready for his date with destiny.
Buck O'Neil's lack of bitterness about this injustice was one of the man's many impressive traits. Friends thought it was one of the reasons he lived so long. And, he loved baseball with a transcendent purity. "There is nothing like getting your body to do all it has to do on a baseball field," he once said. "It is as good as sex. It is as good as music. It fills you up. Waste no tears on me. I didn't come along too early. I was right on time."
In the mid-1990s, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns introduced a new generation of Americans to Buck O'Neil. And when the old Kansas City Monarch died, Burns spoke of him touchingly. "Buck changed my life," he said. "When you are with someone who is a better human being than the rest of us, it gives you the opportunity to aim higher."
As is often the case, the baseball establishment booted the ball it when it came to honoring O'Neil. In 2006, presumably because he was about to be voted into the baseball Hall of Fame, Buck was invited to the induction ceremonies in Cooperstown -- but inexplicably did not muster enough votes. He was gracious in his remarks anyway, as anyone who'd ever met him knew he would be. Later that year George W. Bush rose to the occasion by posthumously awarding O'Neil the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"Buck O'Neil lived long enough to see baseball and America change for the better," America's 43rd U.S. president said at the ceremony. "He's one of the people we can thank for that. Buck O'Neil was a legend and a beautiful human being."
Buck's son Warren, accepting the honor, said his father "would have lit up the room" had he been at the White House. There's little doubt about that.
"I've done a lot of things I like to do," Buck said at age 83 when a baseball complex was named after him in Sarasota, Fla. "I shook hands with President Truman. I shook hands with President Clinton. I hugged Hillary. But I would rather be right here, right now, talking to you than anyplace I've ever been."
He'd become at the end of his life a role model to whites as well as blacks, baseball players and non-baseball players, liberals and conservatives. He was eulogized on the Senate floor by Republican Sen. James Talent. Yesterday in this space, I wrote about fallen war hero and former major leaguer Eddie Grant. I didn't mention that Grant was extolled in verse by the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice. But I thought of it this morning while recalling Sen. Talent's words about Buck O'Neil. That day, the Missouri senator choked up momentarily while reading into the congressional record a Grantland Rice poem titled "Game Called."
Probably too corny for today's sensibilities, it fit Buck O'Neil perfectly. It begins this way:
Game Called by darkness -- let the curtain fall.
No more remembered thunder sweeps the field.
No more the ancient echoes hear the call
To one who wore so well both sword and shield:
The Big Guy's left us with the night to face
And there is no one who can take his place.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.