Buck O’Neil and Old Friends

Late last week, I spent a morning at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at 18th and Vine in Kansas City.

I was there for work, but it didn’t feel like it. I was there to interview Bob Kendrick*, the president of the NLBM and an old friend of Buck O’Neil. And I knew this would be a morning about Buck and baseball and raw, authentic emotions. 

*If you know anything about the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum — or simply Kansas City, for that matter — you know Bob Kendrick.

You probably know that the museum has been through all sorts of turmoil during the past couple years: financial troubles, politicking, infighting, it’s all been aired out publicly.

And now Kendrick has returned to take over the role of president at the Museum.

For years, Kendrick served as the vice president of marketing at the museum. But mostly, you probably know him as Buck’s trusty sidekick, confidant and friend.

Buck O’Neil would have been 100 years old on Sunday.

So I pulled up a chair in a conference room at the museum office, and we began to talk about his old friend.

Mostly, it went like this: I would ask a question.

And Bob would tell a great story.

So many stories. Like the one about a young Buck watching Babe Ruth hit a homerun during a spring game in Florida; or the one about a young Buck sitting in a sweltering celery field in Sarasota, Fla., sweating as a box boy for $1.25 a day, offering up those now-famous words.

“Damn, there has got to be something better than this…”

There’s a great story about Buck being off in the Philippines, serving his country while the world was at war. One day, he heard his name over the loudspeaker. His superiors needed to talk to him.

Jackie Robinson had just signed with the Dodgers. American would never be the same. And all the military men stayed up all night, toasting to the future.

So many stories.

And this is how our conversation went. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Twenty Minutes.

More stories.

Eventually, we walked downstairs, past the entrance to the museum, and into a still and quiet exhibit hall. There was Buck-inspired art and sculptures and artifacts from 95 years of life.

Bob wanted me to see the keys.

The keys, as it turned out, were the keys Buck had earned from various cities during his life. And now they were lying here, inside a glass case.

The funny thing, Kendrick said, is that there was a time when some of these cities didn’t even want Buck in their city.

I paused for a second and looked at Bob. He was quiet.

And I couldn’t stop thinking about a moment from our conversation, just a few minutes earlier.

Kendrick was telling another story, this one about Buck’s playing career. It was a story Buck used to tell all the time.

And when it was over, Bob began to laugh. It was a  full laugh, a belly laugh, a laugh that makes your side ache and your eyes well with tears. It went on for 7… 8 … 9… seconds.

“There’s no greater example,” Kendrick would say of his friend. “If you believe in yourself, and you dare to dream, you can do and be anything that you want to be.”

You know, sometimes it can be really nice to talk and laugh about old friends.

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