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O’Neil Hits Grand Slam With Coney Island Faithful


By Patrick Hickey Jr

Since its doors first opened in 2001, Keyspan Park has been a place where young ballplayers have begun their hopeful journeys to eventual baseball greatness; however, on July 25, 2006, a little greatness managed to find it’s way to the Cyclones, as 94-year-old Negro League legend Buck O’Neil visited the Brooklyn Baseball Gallery alongside Keyspan Park before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the Cyclones game against the Mahoning Valley Scrappers.


“I think it’s an honor,” said Cyclones Director of Media Relations Dave Campanaro. “He’s such a legendary figure in baseball, not only the Negro Leagues, but all of baseball. He’s somebody that’s represented the game with class and dignity for years and years and years. To have someone of that stature join us at the ballpark and at the museum that honors so much of Brooklyn baseball history is fantastic. ”


O’Neil was equally as jovial regarding his appearance at Keyspan.


“It feels good,” said O’Neil, who was a lifetime .288 career hitter with four .300 seasons under his belt. “This is where I belong. This means everything to me, I made my living in baseball for 70 years; this is my life.”


Recently playing in the Northern League All-Star game on July 18, O’Neil became the oldest player to play in a pro game since 96-year-old Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe played for the Northern League’s Schaumburg Flyers in 1999. While he was intentionally walked in both times he appeared at the plate, O’Neil was more than happy to play in his first game since 1955.


“Oh man, the bats have got so heavy,”said O’Neil. “I took a swing and they told me, ‘We’re going to put you on [base] old man, you’re going to hurt yourself swinging like that.’ After that, they traded me to the other team and I led off the next inning.”


Aside from his achievements on the basepaths, O’Neil remained a fixture in baseball after his retirement, becoming a scout for the Chicago Cubs in 1956 and was responsible  for discovering Hall of Famer Lou Brock. O’Neil was also the first black coach in Chicago Cubs history in 1962 and also served on the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee from 1981 to 2000.

The smile on Buck O'Neil's face lit up all of Keyspan

Despite his numerous achievements in a variety of different aspects of the game, O’Neil failed to get the 75% of the votes necessary for admission to the Hall of Fame in 2006 when he was nominated to a special Hall ballot for Negro League players, managers, and executives. Nevertheless, O’Neil still feels satisfied with the mark he’s left on the game, especially as far as his involvement in the Negro League Baseball Musuem is concerned.


“My crowning achievment for me right now is the Negro League Baseball Musuem,”said O’Neil. “It tells the story of the Negro Leagues; it tells the story of this country during that era. The only reason why we had the Negro Leagues is because we couldn’t play in the Major Leagues. It was a good league.”


As for the young Cyclones players that managed to share a baseball diamond with the baseball legend for a short time, it was something they’ll never forget.


“It was pretty sweet,” said Cyclones infielder Jake Eigsti, who caught the ceremonial pitch O’Neil threw. “He’s probably going to be a Hall of Famer, so it was good to be able to shake hands with him.”

All Photographs for this article were taken by Conroy Walker

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