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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 May 2006, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
Baseball honours 'Negro' stars at last
By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Los Angeles

"Baseball. It's only a game, right?"

Buck O'Neil today
Buck O'Neil has fought for the principle of fairness
My question to 94-year-old John "Buck" O'Neil could hardly have been simpler - or more misguided.

You see, Buck has given his extended life to the game and to even hint at superficiality is to give great offence.

It was to misunderstand what part baseball had played in his world and that of so many others.

"It's simple," Buck explained. "The story of baseball is the story of America itself."

In other words, it is about struggle, segregation, racism, achievement.

And for African-Americans of Buck's generation, it is also largely an untold story. Until now.

Colour barrier

The grandson of a slave, Buck O'Neil joined the Kansas City Monarchs in 1938.

He was good - one of the best.

Buck O'Neil in his prime
Good as he was, O'Neil could not play in the Major Leagues
But like others of his colour, he was confined to Negro League Baseball.

The very name jars with the ear these days. Not back then.

Black players played other black players. That was the way it was.

Major League Baseball was pretty much a whites-only club, off limits to the likes of Buck O'Neil.

Not until 1947 did black players begin to make the leap across this man-made divide.

Jackie Robinson famously became the first. Songs were written to celebrate him.

But what he did was rare. Even rarer was for black players to make it to the top.

The very top meant a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in New York.

Uncovering the past

Eventually, in 1960, Negro League Baseball did disappear as integration took hold.

Black players were simply too good for Major League to ignore in large numbers.

And the game developed. But in the years that followed, a feeling emerged that the early black players had gone unrecognised, their talent unsaluted.

Gallery of people being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame
An unprecedented number of new inductees join the Hall of Fame
So five years ago, the baseball authorities set up a research programme to document their achievements.

A $250,000 grant was allocated. A team of experts was assembled to look back in history at the hundred years before integration.

It wasn't easy. The press often ignored Negro League Baseball, so records were meagre.

Newspaper archives were scoured. Microfiche films in libraries were scanned.

Oral evidence was taken from those who did their best to remember who had scored the most home runs, who had pitched the best.

Precision was difficult and some decades yielded more results than others.

In the end, a list of around 90 players deemed worthy was produced.

And a panel of judges narrowed that down to a shortlist of 17.

Those 17 people - players and executives - are now to be honoured with a place in the Hall of Fame.

There has never been an incoming Hall of Fame class on such a scale before. Usually, one or two names are added each year.

Justice done

Sadly, Buck O'Neil didn't make the 17 - he was one vote short.

He says he is not bitter.

It's the principle that matters for him.

Yet those who were chosen won't get to see their names added to the list, either - all 17 are now dead.

Their glory days 40, 50 even 60 years ago will be recognised posthumously and witnessed by their families at a special ceremony later this year.

They may not have survived to see their names where they should have been all along.

But an injustice is, finally, being corrected in a sport that is so much more than a game.

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