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Buck O’Neil hails Robinson at LIU conference

April 5, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Buck O’Neil’s memory has an uncanny way of storing significant moments, and at age 85 he’s had more than his share of them to tuck away.

O’Neil recalled at Long Island University’s Jackie Robinson conference Friday that perhaps the most significant one came in 1947, when he was in the Navy with an all-black unit serving at Subic Bay in the Philippines.

He was summoned by his commanding officer.

``I was thinking, `Oh boy, what did I do now?‴ O’Neil remembered.

Then came the news. Jackie Robinson had signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. A black player was going into organized baseball.

``I thought, `Thank God, it’s finally happening.′ Then I got on loudspeaker,″ O’Neil said. ``I said, `Now hear this! Now hear this! The Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson.′

``We didn’t sleep much that night.″

O’Neil calls Robinson’s start with the Dodgers the first civil rights movement.

``This was before Brown vs. the Board of Education,″ he said. ``Martin Luther King was a sophomore at Morehouse. This started the civil rights movement.″

It was accompanied, however, by a significant negative impact on black industry. When organized baseball admitted black players, it marked the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues, where O’Neil starred for two decades.

``It wrecked the third largest black business in the country,″ he said. ``All you needed was a bus and a couple of pairs of uniforms.″

The bus reference reminded O’Neil of a favorite Robinson story from his days with the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs. The team pulled into an Oklahoma filling station, the same one it used for 20 years.

As gas was being pumped, Robinson hopped off the bus and headed for a rest room that was clearly marked ``For Whites Only.″

``The man said, `Where are you going, boy?‴ O’Neil said. ``Jackie said `To the rest room.′

``The man said, `You know you can’t go in there.′

``Jackie said, `Take the hose out of the tank.‴

The economic impact of two 50-gallon tanks waiting to be filled convinced the station owner to let the Monarchs use the rest room.

``He said, `Just don’t stay long,‴ O’Neil recalled.

O’Neil said Branch Rickey had displayed ``nerve and audacity,″ in signing Robinson. He also displayed some good economic sense.

Negro League games often attracted 35,000 fans to Yankee Stadium, across New York City from Ebbets Field, where Rickey’s Dodgers drew considerably less.

``Ninety-nine percent of those fans were black,″ O’Neil said. ``Rickey saw this as a brand new clientele.″

If Rickey’s agenda was economic as well as righteous, O’Neil had no complaint.

``Segregation was a horrible thing to have done to a people,″ he said. ``Jackie changed our way of thinking. We had become accustomed to segregation. That was not Jackie.″

O’Neil said Robinson combined elements of three giants of Negro League baseball.

``He had the intestinal fortitude of Rube Foster, the quickness of Cool Papa Bell and the eye-hand coordination of Josh Gibson,″ he said. ``With that combination, he couldn’t miss.

``A lot of folks said Jackie shouldn’t have been the first. But he was the right man. It changed a lot of things in this country.

``I don’t know if I could have done what Jackie Robinson did. Jackie was intelligent enough to realize what it meant. Jackie was the right man.″

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