O’Neill on Paige and the National Pastime

Topeka Daily Capital
May 14, 1958

Jackie Robinson’s recent uproar over when and how Negroes reached the major leagues brings to mind again the great number of Negro stars who came along too early to take advantage of the memorable day when Branch Rickey erased the color line.

One of those is John (Buck) O’Neill, who played with and saw the biggest names in baseball for 18 years. He was a star first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs for 17 of those years, and managed them for seven years. He now is a scout for the Chicago Cubs.

John (Buck) O’Neil

He had a lifetime batting average of .300 in the Negro major league and twice led the league in hitting with a mark of .350. He once was telling Sec Taylor of the Des Moines Register about life in the league, and the conversation went like this:

Is Satchel Paige the best pitcher Buck has seen? “I haven’t seen anyone better than old Satch,” O’Neill declared. “He was a competitor when he got in that ballpark. The trouble was to get him in it.

“Time meant nothing to him. He might go fishing just before an important game or he might get to the park gate, see you or anybody else and stand there and talk till after the game had started.

“It wasn’t because he disliked pitching–he loved it, but he never wanted to hurry–never wanted to meet a deadline, never gave either a thought.”

Buck told about an exhibition game in Omaha several years ago between Bob Feller’s All Stars and the Monarchs.

“Paige and Feller were pitching three innings each night or each day. They were the advertised attractions.

“Feller had Johnny Sain, Bob Lemon, Raleigh Hemsley, Phil Rizzuto, Ken Keltner, Mickey Vernon, Mickey Heath, Ben Chapman, King Kong Keller, Dutch Leonard, Spud Chandler and other stars with him on the tour.

Leroy “Satchel” Paige and Bob Feller in Cleveland July 7, 1948. (AP Photo)

“Came time for the game at Omaha and Paige didn’t show until the middle of the game. He just rolled up his pants, took off his coat, put his uniform on over his shirt and pants and blew the ball by them.” We won, 2-1, but the pitching was so good that only one ball was hit into the crowd.”

How old is Satchel, who is pitching for the Miami International League club this season?”

“He can’t be more than 52–yes, he’s 52,” O’Neill declared after pondering over the question.

“I get more thrills out of watching good ballplayers than from anything I did, especially old Satch, Josh Gibson, Hilton Smith and others in our League.” Buck continued.

“The first time I saw Willie Mays they brought him out of high school to play at Selma, Okla., with the Birmingham Black Barons. He made two remarkable plays.

“With a runner on third a ball was hit so deep that no one figured Willie would try to make a play at the plate after catching the fly, but he did and got the runner.

“The next inning he did it again. That was baseball talent and we all recognized it period.”

Buck told of the time Gage and Gibson, who were great friends, we’re kidding each other, Satchel on the mound and Josh in the batter circle.

“The first batter up had tripled, so old Satch, talking to Gibson all the time, walked the next two batters.

“’I’m going to fan you and the next two batters, too,’ Satch said to Gibson.

“He did, too. He had the outfield go to the bench, struck out Gibson and the next two, never threw a curve, and never let them hit a foul. It was the greatest show I ever saw.

“Paige never had a manager. He was his own manager. There was nothing he couldn’t do. He was as natural as rain.”

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