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Fans, Congress Angry Over O’Neil Slight

March 2, 2006

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Buck O’Neil even has a few fans in Congress who want him in the Hall of Fame.

Angry calls and furious e-mails have poured into the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City the past couple of days from greats of the game and ordinary fans alike, all with the same question: Can’t anything be done about the exclusion of Buck O’Neil from the National Baseball Hall of Fame?

The answer is no, probably not.

Seventeen people from the Negro leagues and pre-Negro league era were voted into the hall Monday by secret ballot of a special 12-person committee, who were working off a list of 39 candidates.

The 17 voted in are all deceased. Each received at least nine votes. But O’Neil, the lovable, 94-year-old ambassador of the game who most everybody thought would be a lock, fell short.

Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who worked closely with the committee as a nonvoting member, thinks O’Neil probably had his last shot.

``I don’t know if anybody would be willing to go out on a limb and say other Negro leagues guys are going to be considered,″ Vincent told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

He declined to comment on reports that he lobbied on O’Neil’s behalf during the committee’s discussions.

``Nobody has more regard for Buck than I do. We’re old friends,″ Vincent said. ``So I’m disappointed he wasn’t elected. Yet, the ballots were secret. I have no idea who voted, and it’s impossible to know what their reasons were.″

Within hours of Monday’s announcement, the director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum had heard from Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Lou Brock.

``They were like the rest of us; they couldn’t believe what had just happened,″ Don Motley said. ``My e-mail bogged down from people all over the country raising hell. They’re as shocked as we are at the exclusion of Buck.″

Outrage over O’Neil’s exclusion was heard Wednesday in Congress. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, said the surprising vote had left ``a community in tears.″

``Buck O’Neil is a man who has done more than anyone to popularize and keep alive the history of the Negro leagues,″ Cleaver said in a prepared text of remarks made on the House floor. ``The fact that he was not voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame is a wrong that only Major League Baseball can make right.

``This humble man who has never slighted anyone has been slighted _ apparently by a single vote _ by a group who looked shortsightedly at his batting average, but not at what he has done for the game of baseball.″

Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., introduced a resolution Wednesday co-sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., honoring the 17 who were selected. Talent said he had planned to introduce the resolution Monday but was so disappointed at O’Neil’s exclusion he held off _ until O’Neil urged him to go forward.

``The injustice of the selection committee’s oversight is absolutely heartbreaking,″ Talent said.

``Buck O’Neil is one of baseball’s greatest ambassadors and I believe there is no one who meets the criteria for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame more than him,″ Talent said in a written statement. ``Without question, Buck O’Neil is in the American Hall of Fame for everything he has done in the United States to achieve freedom.″

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius brought up O’Neil without even being asked during a meeting with reporters.

``I’m just sort of stunned,″ she said.

O’Neil, who began his playing career in the 1930s and hit .288 lifetime, became the first black coach in the major leagues in 1962 with the Chicago Cubs. He also has been the face, voice and inspiration behind the Negro leagues museum.

All morning Monday, O’Neil sat in a small conference room at the museum with a few friends and reporters, wearing his old Kansas City Monarchs jacket and nervously awaiting what everyone expected to be the greatest honor of his life.

Then a museum official finally took the call everyone had been waiting for and said simply, with tears in his eyes, ``Buck, we didn’t get enough votes.″

O’Neil reacted with what his fans would call his typical grace and class.

``God’s been good to me,″ he told about 200 well-wishers who had gathered to celebrate but instead stood hushed and solemn.

``They didn’t think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That’s the way they thought about it and that’s the way it is, so we’re going to live with that,″ he said. ``Now, if I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck.″

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