John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil, former first baseman with the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs, is working the room like a pro. Men get a firm handshake and a "lookin' good." But the ladies -- all the ladies -- are greeted with a huge smile and equally big hug.
And why not? How many people can claim his baseball credentials? Four seasons hitting .300-plus, a league-leading .353 average in 1946, followed by a career-best .358 the next season. The first black coach in the major leagues, leading the Chicago Cubs starting in 1962. Credited with signing Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock. A scout with the Kansas City Royals who was named Midwest Scout of the Year in 1998. Current chairman of the board of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and unofficial ambassador of the leagues' history.
O'Neil is excited to be in New York promoting a new line of Negro Leagues shoes and apparel by Nike, available this month. He's equally enthusiastic about playing golf back home in Kansas City, Mo., during a fluke 60-degree January day.
And one other thing -- he's 94.
Ask the energetic nonagenarian what the best memory of his long career in baseball is and he doesn't hesitate to answer.
"That's easy for me -- 1943, Memphis, Tenn., Easter Sunday," he said. "The first time up, I double. Next time, single. Next time, I hit the ball over the left-field fence. The next time I hit to left-center. It looked like it was going over. It hit the top of the fence and bounced back. I got to third base and the coach was calling me for an inside-the-park home run. But I stopped at third -- I wanted that triple. I hit the cycle."
At the hotel that night, he received a call to come downstairs. The wife of the man who ran the hotel's restaurant was a teacher. "They had invited some young schoolteachers over to meet the ballplayers," he said. "I walked straight up to a young lady and said: 'My name is Buck O'Neil.' We were married for 51 years. I hit for the cycle and met my future wife."
It's a big year for O'Neil and the Negro Leagues, the baseball league formed in 1920 by Andrew "Rube" Foster, a former player, manager and owner of the Chicago American Giants. With blacks barred from playing in the majors because of racism and segregation, the league thrived for decades as an alternative, with fast-paced, action-packed games full of squeeze plays, sliding and stolen bases.
Unlike in major league games at the time, where black fans and white fans were separated in the stands by chicken wire, fans of all races sat side-by-side at Negro Leagues games. The Negro Leagues' annual East-West All-Star game drew 50,000 fans, black and white.
About 40 percent of the 2,600-plus players and managers were college educated -- a higher percentage than in the majors at the time. In testimony before the Senate in November, O'Neil recalled how they "hustled, entertained and played for the love of the game."
"Negro Leaguers played the first night games under lights, five years before the major leagues," he said. "They dressed and drove in style and were admired for rising above the challenges of the day and their impoverished start."
In 2006, Congress is poised to designate the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City as the national museum for Negro Leagues history. A television movie about the leagues is also in the works.
Eighteen players are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame based solely on their Negro Leagues careers, including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. Now, 39 members are being considered for induction for their pre-Negro Leagues and Negro Leagues careers, with selections to be announced later this month.
Among those being considered is O'Neil, who was not eligible for 20 years because he served on the Veterans Hall of Fame Committee. The Monarchs' No. 22 thinks he just might be a shoo-in. "I've got a chance now," he said with a laugh.
Bob Kendrick, marketing director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, said that for any of the players and officials to make the Hall of Fame would be an honor, but: "If Buck gets in, it makes it even more magnificent for us."
Also under consideration is J.L. Wilkinson, who owned the Monarchs. "A strong possibility is a white man getting in for his work in the Negro Leagues," Kendrick said. "It has a little bit of irony attached to it. Certainly in my view, Wilkinson should have been in a long time ago."
Effa Manley, female owner of the Newark Eagles, is another candidate. "Again, I think it speaks to how inclusive the Negro Leagues were," Kendrick said. "It was a league born out of segregation, but it was very inclusive. It gave women an opportunity to do things that prior to this in this country they wouldn't have had."
Many Latin Americans also played in the leagues. "It was all, can you play?" he said. "Then you can come over here and play in this league."
'The Players of Hope'
In his Senate testimony, O'Neil described what life was like for the players in the Negro Leagues.
"Because we were black and because it was the early 1900s, we were not allowed to play organized baseball with the white players," he said in his remarks. "Newspaper accounts across the land verify that we played good ball, entertained crowds, fed our families, and proudly lived our separate lives."
But that did not mean they were treated fairly. "As traveling ballplayers," he said, "the Negro Leaguers were often denied food and accommodations after we had entertained thousands of fans, both black and white, with our extraordinary skills and showmanship on the field."
Kansas State University President Jon Wefald, whose essay about the leagues is the basis for the movie in the works by Warner Bros. television, said that although they endured discrimination and inequality, the players of the Negro Leagues were overwhelmingly positive.
"I call them the players of hope," Wefald said. "They knew someday America was going to get better. They knew that the average American was decent and of good will, and they were willing to be patient and they felt good about themselves."
Wefald noted that, despite the hardships, Negro Leaguers were dedicated to the game.
"These players never whined and complained," Wefald said. "These guys just wanted to play ball. And even though they couldn't go from, say, Kansas City to Tulsa [Okla.] and know where they were going to sleep or eat … they didn't play bitter, and they didn't die bitter. They were just great players and outstanding individuals."
O'Neil told ABC News that the Negro Leaguers knew they were playing with top competitors, even if they weren't allowed in the majors.
"I played with and against some of the greatest ballplayers that ever lived," he said. "Hall of Famer Satchel Paige was a teammate of mine. 'Bullet' Joe Rogan, Hilton Smith was my roommate. I played with some of the best and against some of the best. I played against Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell."
And they certainly were not bitter about their playing experiences.
"You know what we thought? We thought we were playing the best baseball that was played in this country," he said. "That didn't bother me. I was right on time. Oh, man, it didn't bother me. What bothered me, I'm from Florida -- Sarasota, Fla. -- and I couldn't attend Sarasota High School. I couldn't attend the University of Florida. Not playing in the major leagues, that didn't keep me down as much as not getting an education."
Barnstorming With Major Leaguers
Players like O'Neil also got to match skills with the major leaguers, barnstorming off-season from New York to Los Angeles. The Satchel Paige All-Stars played against the Babe Ruth All-Stars in more than 600 games, about two-thirds of which were won by the Negro Leaguers.
O'Neil said there was a mutual respect between the leagues' stars. "These are major league all-stars," he said. "These are good ballplayers. … They knew if we were to come in the leagues, it wouldn't bother them -- they were stars." The "borderline guys sitting on the bench" were the ones worried about integrating the major leagues.
It was the 12-time champion Monarchs -- a charter team and the longest-running Negro Leagues franchise -- that sent its No. 23, Jackie Robinson, to the major leagues in 1945 when Branch Rickey broke baseball's color line and signed him to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Satchel Paige, Ernie Banks, Elston Howard, Hank Thompson and Willard "Home Run" Brown soon followed him to the majors, and most Negro Leagues teams subsequently disbanded in the early 1960s as the big leagues recruited many of the best players.
"Everybody knew how talented and good these guys were," said Dick Robertson, president of domestic television distribution at Warner Bros., who became interested in making a movie about the leagues when a mutual friend passed along Wefald's essay.
Robertson is planning a four-hour, made-for-TV movie to air on consecutive nights with A-list actors playing the stars. He envisions a story of inspiration.
"They weren't treated well by society at that time, yet they saw their glass as half-full, not half-empty," he said of the players. "And they really, in so doing, they really taught us all a lesson about what it takes to be a man … in rising above this treatment and having a good life."
For current players like Dontrelle Willis -- the 24-year-old left-handed pitching phenomenon with the Florida Marlins who was runner-up in last season's voting for the National League Cy Young Award -- it's a story they may not know well.
Willis said he didn't know much about the Negro Leagues until he started playing professionally. But his grandmother told him years ago that his style of playing -- "slide and get dirty" -- was just like Satchel Paige.
He said he hoped to use baseball "as a tool" to teach other young people about the history of the period when the Negro Leagues existed. It's a valuable lesson, Wefald added.
"This story is not about America at its worst," he said. "It's really about America on its way to becoming a better country."