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Fielding the Dream

Kansas City’s beloved Buck O’Neil finally gets his day in Cooperstown

When you enter the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, pay for your ticket and pass through the turnstile, a docent will be standing nearby to answer questions.

He or she will tell you to start your tour on the second floor, then third and work your way down to the first floor to the actual Hall of Fame gallery.

Don’t do that just yet.

Tell the person you’re from Kansas City and you came to see Buck. Then turn immediately to your right, and there in a brightly lit corner is the larger-than-life bronze Buck O’Neil.

This is the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, established in 2008, an honor bestowed every three years on an individual whose extraordinary efforts have enhanced baseball’s positive impact on society, broadened the game’s appeal and whose character, integrity and character are of high regard.

It’s nice. It’s great even, but it’s not the Hall of Fame honor that Buck craved.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for Kansas Citians in 2006 when Buck, then 94, was not inducted into the Hall of Fame. He died in October that year.

Despite an exceptional career as a player in the Negro Leagues and a championship career as a manager, Buck did not meet the HOF criteria that were in place in 2006. So, the Baseball Writers Association of America reviewed and revised its criteria. Buck was such an exceptional human being, dedicating nearly eight decades to the game, that such a review and re-write was warranted.

Buck O’Neil is in the Hall of Fame class of 2022 and will be inducted posthumously on July 24. It’s probably too late to get tickets for the event. Maybe it’s even too late to get a hotel room, but that shouldn’t stop you from planning a trip to Cooperstown soon to see Buck, George Brett and this charming community.

Why Cooperstown?

Cooperstown, NY is a village of fewer than 2,000 people on the shores of beautiful Lake Otsego. To be quite honest, it’s out in the middle of nowhere.

From Kansas City, I flew to Baltimore, then to Albany, then rented a car. The first 45 minutes was on I-88, then I turned on a state road, which dwindled to a county road wriggling around past farms and cows. I was determined that Siri was lost, but suddenly, there was Cooperstown.

Named for the family of author James Fenimore Cooper, the entire village is on the National Register and is as perfect an example of Americana as any Norman Rockwell painting. An impressive folk art museum bears the Fenimore name. Susan B. Anthony spoke at the Presbyterian Church. There’s an opera festival each summer.

So why the Baseball Hall of Fame way out here? It’s a largely debunked myth that baseball was invented in Cooperstown. The story goes that in 1839, Abner Doubleday gathered some kids in a horse pasture and made up the game of baseball.

The fact is humans have been hitting balls with sticks since the beginning of time, but a visit to Doubleday Field is still a joyous experience. Jeff Katz, president of Friends of Doubleday Field, leads the morning tours and remembers Buck O’Neil.

“He would sit right there with a smile on his face and talk with everyone who came by,”; said Katz, pointing to a spot near the dugouts. “He was a warm, humble human being and a gift to this game.”

They remember Buck at the Otesaga Resort Hotel as well. It’s the historic property that sits right on the lake where all Hall of Famers, their guests and other VIPs stay during induction week.

“Oh, I remember his storytelling,” said my waiter at the Hawkeye Bar & Grill at the Otsego. “He always had a crowd around him. Everyone loved Buck’s stories.

Main Street Cooperstown is part small-town shopping and part touristy souvenir shops. Shoeless Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth and Carl Yastrzemski have shops; however, if you buy a Cooperstown bat, remember to place it in your checked luggage. TSA will confiscate it otherwise.

The Hall of Fame and Museum sit on the west end of Main Street, slightly back from the street so that some people miss it when they first drive by.

But it’s like candy land for baseball fans, with history, facts and trivia galore. Before you reach Buck O’Neil’s, statue, you’ll first encounter the trio of Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente called “Character & Courage,” reminding us that becoming a Hall of Famer is about more than skill on the field.

And that’s why Buck O’Neil is in the Hall of Fame, because he brought more to the game (and Kansas City) than any statistic could ever measure.

For trip planning assistance, visit http://www.thisiscooperstown.com/. 

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