John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil, Jr. was born on November 13, 1911 in Carrabelle, Florida. He grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where he worked in the celery fields while his father ran a pool hall in Newtown. O’Neil later moved to Jacksonville with relatives, where he attended Edward Waters College to complete high school and two years of college courses. He was nicknamed “Buck” after the co-owner of the Miami Giants, Buck O’Neal. His father, John Jordan O’Neil, Sr., played on a local team, thus exposing Buck to baseball at an early age.
O’Neil left Florida in 1934 to play semi-professional baseball, collecting several years of barnstorming experience. His efforts were rewarded when he signed with the Memphis Red Sox in 1937 and then joined the Kansas City Monarchs in 1938. O’Neil had a career batting average of .288 (based on statistics from 1937 to 1950), which included four seasons above .300, and he also played in three East-West All-Star Games and two Negro World Series.
Buck O’Neil served in the United States Navy in 1944 and 1945 during World War II. He served in a naval construction battalion in New Jersey during this time, and then returned to the Monarchs at the start of the 1946 season.
O’Neil was named manager for the Monarchs in 1948, continuing to play first base full time through the 1951 season. He continued to manage the Monarchs through 1955, serving as a reserve player and pinch-hitter during these later years, winning pennants in 1953 and 1955. Following the 1955 season, O’Neil resigned as manager of the Monarchs and became a scout for the Chicago Cubs. He was named the first black coach in the major leagues by the Cubs in 1962, though he was not assigned in-game base coaching duties. In 1988, O’Neil joined the Kansas City Royals as a scout, and in 1998 was named “Midwest Scout of the Year.”
In 1990, O’Neil played a major role in the establishment of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and served as its honorary board chairman until his death. In 1996, O’Neil became the recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Business Administration degree from the University of Missouri – Kansas City, and in 2006 he received an honorary doctorate in education from Missouri Western State University, where he also gave the commencement speech.
Also in 2006, O’Neil was nominated to a special Hall of Fame ballot for Negro League players, managers, and executives in 2006, but received fewer than the necessary nine votes (out of twelve) to gain admission. Nevertheless, the always good-natured O’Neil spoke at the induction ceremony for the seventeen Negro League players who did get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame that year.
After several weeks in the hospital, Buck O’Neil died on October 6, 2006 in Kansas City, Missouri due to heart failure and bone marrow cancer.
On December 7, 2006, O’Neil was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush due to his “excellence and determination both on and off the baseball field.” On Opening Day of 2007, the Kansas City Royals announced they would honor O’Neil by placing a fan in the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat in Kauffman Stadium each game who best exemplifies O’Neil’s spirit. The seat itself has been replaced by a red seat amidst the all-blue seats behind home plate.
In 2021, the Early Baseball Era Committee elected Buck O’Neil to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 81.3% of the vote. He was formally inducted on July 24, 2022.