KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Buck O'Neil, the former player-manager who became a beloved spokesman for the Negro Leagues, was remembered Saturday for his capacity "to love even in the face of hatred."
"Buck O'Neil always had a smile for you," said the Rev. Spencer Francis Barrett, pastor of the Bethel A.M.E. church that O'Neil faithfully attended since 1947. "It didn't matter what you said about him. It didn't matter how you treated him."
More than 600 friends and family members, including several Hall of Famers and prominent business and civic leaders, gathered for the private funeral service near the Negro Leagues Museum that O'Neil helped found in 1990. Later Saturday, several thousand people attended a public memorial service emceed by Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.
At that event, Julia Irene Kauffman, daughter of the founder of the Kansas City Royals, announced a gift of $1 million toward construction of the Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center. The money will come from a donor-advised fund established after the Kauffman family's sale of the Royals.
The center, expected to cost around $15 million, will be located in the historic Paseo YMCA Building where the Negro Leagues were founded in 1920.
"This dream of Buck's, the Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center, it is not a dream. It will be a reality," Kauffman said. "We will put Buck's dream into reality. Thank God for Buck."
On Friday, one week after he died just a few weeks short of his 95th birthday, more than 10,000 people filed past his open casket at the museum.
"Ninety-four years is a long time," O'Neil's close friend Mark Bryant told the congregation. "He enjoyed the adoration of a nation."
John "Buck" O'Neil enjoyed a distinguished career as a Negro Leagues batting champion and player-manager and was a trailblazing major league coach and scout. When filmmaker Ken Burns featured him in a documentary on the history of baseball, O'Neil became a national celebrity.
In February, he fell one vote short of making the Hall of Fame.
Lou Brock, one of several Hall of Famers whom O'Neil discovered and signed as a scout, recalled their first meeting. Brock was a teenager at the time.
"He got me started on a journey that became a 19-year major league baseball career," Brock said. "It's no wonder that baseball is considered America's pastime. Buck was one of its architects. He helped shape the game.
"But even greater, he shaped the character of young black men. He touched the heart of everyone who loved the game. He gave us all a voice that could be heard on and off the field. We who were close to him will forever seek to walk in the shade of his shadow."
Brett, a three-time batting champion with the Royals, wiped tears from his eyes during the service. About 15 graying Negro Leagues players also attended. Many, stooped with age, had to be assisted up and down the church steps.
O'Neil's niece, Angela Terry, recalled that "Uncle John's" philosophy was "give without remembering and take without forgetting."
"I remember Uncle John was the tallest uncle we had," she said with a smile. "And he was the only uncle who could throw you high, high into the air and actually catch you."
Brock noted that O'Neil, as a member of the veterans' committee, had succeeded in getting many Negro Leagues players into the Hall of Fame even though he had been shut out.
"Buck's illustrious season of life has now come to an end," he said. "We were honored and give God's glory for sending Buck O'Neil to lead us. We will miss him. We'll miss his laugh, his advice, his joy for life.
"Rest in peace, Buck, my father-figure, friend, motivator and mentor."
Morgan told the crowd how much the Negro Leagues had meant to him and his father as he was growing up, and that he actually felt guilty when he made it to the major league with the Cincinnati Reds.
By then, the major leagues had been integrated and the Negro Leagues had faded into history.
"I would meet some of the players who played in the Negro Leagues, and I felt guilty because I had an opportunity to play and they did not," Morgan said.
"One day I was talking to Buck and he said, `Don't feel sorry for us, Joe. We played the game with a group of guys who had a passion for the game. They had a passion for life. And were a very special group. The only reason we wanted to play in the other league was to prove to them we were as good or better than they were. Other than that, don't feel sorry for us.'
"I have to tell you, that took a big load off me," Morgan said. "Now every time I saw a Negro Leagues player I felt good about myself and I felt good about the fact he enjoyed his time in black baseball."
Banks, who played for O'Neil on the Kansas City Monarchs before O'Neil signed him to a contract with the Chicago Cubs, told the crowd he had always tried to be like his old friend.
"I patterned my life after Buck O'Neil," Banks said. "He was a marvelous man. Buck had so much love for everybody, in my life I became the same way. Hey, let's play two. Buck was a role model for my life."
"He was the greatest ambassador for the game, the greatest."