Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Buck stops at first base

Proving that 90 is the new 70 — or something to that effect — baseball's elder statesman Buck O'Neil set a record last evening by being the oldest man ever to take an official at-bat in a sanctioned professional baseball contest.

In the first inning of the Northern League All-Star Game in Kansas City, Kansas, O'Neil took an intentional walk to lead off the lineup for the West All-Stars. A mid-inning trade to the East All-Stars enabled O'Neil to lead off again in the bottom of the frame, when he again was walked intentionally.

Buck O'Neil is 94.

On general principle, I'm usually not favorably disposed to sideshow gimmicks like this, for the exclusive purpose of setting an otherwise unattainable record. For instance, it rubbed my purist sensibilities the wrong way when the Chicago White Sox trotted out an ancient (in baseball terms, anyway) Minnie Minoso for a handful of games in 1976 and again in 1980, when Minoso was 53 and 57 years old, respectively, just so that Minnie could boast about being a five-decade major leaguer. (Minoso broke in with the Cleveland Indians in 1949 and retired from the White Sox in 1964. He therefore played in the majors in the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s.) Minoso was a pretty fair ballplayer in his day, but not so great a figure that he deserved that kind of special consideration.

Buck O'Neil, on the other hand, has been one of baseball's grand sages for decades now. A two-time batting champion in the Negro Leagues during baseball's segregated past, O'Neil has led the charge to ensure that his former Negro League colleagues receive the recognition that history unjustly denied them. As a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee, Buck helped select numerous Negro League greats for enshrinement, despite the fact that he himself came up short for Hall election as recently as this year.

If you've ever seen Baseball, the seminal 1994 PBS documentary series by filmmaker Ken Burns, you'll remember Buck O'Neil as the wise, witty star of the show. If you haven't seen Baseball, and you care anything at all for either the sport itself or American cultural history or both, you owe it to yourself to get hold of the DVD set and be enlightened.

And if Commissioner Bud Selig and the Hall of Fame trustees wanted to break with tradition and install Buck O'Neil in the Hall just because they thought it was a good idea — or even because he took two free passes in a minor league all-star game at the age of 94 — that would be all right by me.


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