Every right to be bitter

BOB ELLIOTT -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:24 AM ET

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Baseball inducted the Negro League greats of old yesterday afternoon.

And the smartest man on the hillside, the man with the most passion in his voice, was Buck O'Neil.

O'Neil was not allowed to play in the majors because he was black.

He did make the list of 39 finalists for Cooperstown, but was was not among the 17 Negro League and pre-Negro League era inductees honoured yesterday.

Yet, there he was, 94 years young, stealing the show and showing current Hall of Famers about love for the game.

O'Neil could have opened with a broadside at the 12-person selection committee and how members had written books on those elected.

"I've hit home runs, I've hit a grand slam, I've hit for the cycle," O'Neil enthusiastically told the crowd of 11,000. "I've shaken hands with President Harry Truman, hugged Hillary Clinton ... done a lot of things, but there is nowhere I'd rather be than here today."

"People ask me: 'Buck, do you hate people?' And I say no. I hate cancer,' " O'Neil said. "Cancer killed my mother and cancer killed my wife 10 years ago ... so ladies, I'm single.

"I hate AIDS, but I can't hate people. You can be ugly if you choose to be, but my God didn't make any ugly people."

The official "colour line" in baseball forbid blacks and Latins from playing pro baseball in 1884. So, in 1920, the first Negro League began. And until 1948 -- which was one year after Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers -- sometimes two, sometimes three Negro leagues flourished.

The players inducted yesterday -- joining Bruce Sutter, a 300-save reliever from 1976-88 -- were pitchers Ray Brown, Andy Cooper and Jose Mendez, first basemen Mule Suttles and Ben Taylor, second baseman Frank Grant, third baseman Jud Wilson, catchers Biz Mackey and Louis Santop and outfielders Willard Brown, Pete Hill and Cristobal Torriente.

Five executives were inducted: Effa Manley, co-owner of the Newark Eagles and the only woman elected; historian Sol White; Homstead Grays owner Cumberland Posey; J.L. Wilkinson, Kansas City Monarchs owner; and Alex Pompez, Cuban Stars owner, who later scouted for the San Francisco Giants and signed Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal.

In all, 40 Hall of Famers were at the record induction class. Mays was in upstate New York until Saturday before leaving to attend a t-ball game at the White House yesterday morning.

Hank Aaron, the last player to be signed out of the Negro leagues, was not in attendance as a family member was getting married.

None of the Negro league inductees are living, so it was a grand niece here, a great grandson there, accepting the honours.

"There was a time when the Negro leagues was the third largest business in black America," O'Neil said. "The black insurance companies made millions selling 10-cent policies were No. 1. Madam C. J. Walker was second, she was a cosmologist, who made millions fixing hair and selling makeup. Madam C.J. Walker may have been the first female millionaire -- a lot a people married millionaires -- but she earned it. Next was Negro baseball."

Country singer Charlie Pride, a former Negro National League all-star with the Memphis Red Sox, sang the anthems yesterday.

Gene Elston, Ford Frick Award winner for broadcasting excellence with the Houston Astros, spoke on the subject. Elston quoted from Ted Williams' induction speech in 1966:

"The other day, Willie Mays hit his 522nd homer," Williams said. "He has gone past me and I say to him: 'Go get 'em Willie.'

"Baseball gives every kid a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as anybody else, but to be better. This is the nature of man, the name of the game. I hope some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren't given the chance."

Tracy Ringolsby, presented with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball writing, spoke from the podium about interviewing Colorado Rockies manager Don Baylor. Baylor grew up in Austin, Tex., and volunteered to desegregate a high school by himself.

"It's a shame that we had to have a first class of Negro leagues players (back in 1971). It shouldn't have taken this long," Ringolsby said. "What's worse is that we lived in a society that allowed it to happen."

The speech drew a standing ovation.

"It's a long time coming for the Negro leagues," said former Giant and Hall of Famer Monte Irvin. "There are a lot of happy people across the country, to see their great uncle, grandfather or whomever get inducted.

"Now, I hope someday it will be Buck O'Neil's turn."


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