Hall names lifetime award after O'Neil
A statue to be unveiled in honor of great baseball ambassador
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- A corner area near the stairwell lobby in the main entrance of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum that is vacant today will, the week before the 2008 Induction Ceremony on July 25-28, become the permanent home of a sculpture depicting the image of one of baseball's greatest ambassadors.
The legacy of Buck O'Neil, the late first baseman and manager of the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs and first African-American coach in the Major Leagues, has been stamped by the Hall with the Lifetime Achievement Award bearing his name. The sculpture by Will Behrends, currently being finalized at his studio in Tryon, N.C., is expected to arrive here the week of the inductions and take its place in front of an edge-lit glass display depicting the life and career of a truly treasured figure in baseball history.
Ted Spencer, vice president and chief curator of the Hall, visited Behrends' studio recently, and was delighted with what he saw of the not-yet-completed life-size bronze statue of O'Neil, who died in October 2006, at the age of 94.
"It depicts Buck at a time when he was about 70," Spencer said, "smiling that great Buck smile and holding that Kansas City cap that he always wore. Its place near the stairwell lobby is going to connect the art gallery and the Hall of Fame gallery and bring that whole space alive."
And so in death, O'Neil will continue to put a positive face on the game as he did in life as a player, manager, coach and scout. He became something of a human logo of the Negro Leagues that folded not long after the Major Leagues integrated through his appearance in Ken Burns' 1994 PBS documentary, "Baseball," and as a representative of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City.
"It was always a joy to see him come to inductions," Spencer said. "He would always remember you, which is a special quality. What you saw on TV was so much him. There was no [falseness] about him. Buck's greatest achievement was that he presented baseball with so much affection, so much feeling. We just flat out love the guy."
The Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award will be bestowed by the Hall's board of directors to individuals whose extraordinary efforts to enhance baseball's positive impact on society has broadened the game's appeal and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to O'Neil's. It will be bestowed by the Hall of Fame's board of directors at its discretion although, not more frequently than once every three years.
Spencer disputed the perception that the award was created as compensation perhaps for O'Neil not being voted into the Hall in 2006 when a committee of historians studying the Negro Leagues elected 17 people.
"I think that's unfair," Spencer said. "You've got these wags out there who are only half-informed. This is an idea that has been under discussion, on and off, for 20 years. We just felt that this was a good match. You take someone who was highly thought of, who was recognized throughout the game -- and even outside the game -- as a wonderful face of baseball. It allowed us to marry our respect for the guy to something we have wanted to do for a long time."
Spencer said the idea was originally floated in the 1980s by Bill Guilfoile, the Hall's former public relations director who retired in 1994.
"This is not an internal baseball award," Spencer said. "I expect 10 or 15 recipients down the road, [and] to be surprised if half of them come from inside the baseball world. You will have people well-known in other areas but, due to their love of the game, that the work in their own particular endeavor revealed their feeling and appreciation of baseball. It just so happens that Buck is from the internal world of baseball."
Anyone may submit nominations at any time by writing to Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, 25 Main Street, Cooperstown, NY 13326. Only submissions received by mail will be considered.
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.