Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Keith Olbermann Sees Red Over Buck O'Neil

I love Keith Olbermann, truly--he's the TV personality I'd miss more than any other if he were thrown off the air, not excluding Jon Stewart. But he's going a bit off the deep end about Black baseball star Buck O'Neil. He has now devoted two segments to the failure of the special Negro Leagues committee to elect O'Neil to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and promises at least one more, with O'Neil himself as guest. For Keith, this appears to be an outrage equalled only by Bush's lying to get us into Iraq.

On tonight's Countdown, Olbermann said he is tempted to resign from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) on the ground that several of its members were part of the committee that declined to elect O'Neil. He even put guest Ernie Banks on the spot by asking him whether he'd consider resigning from the Hall of Fame itself over the snub. (Banks said, "I've thought about it, definitely." What else could he say under the circumstances? He was on the show to praise his old friend and mentor O'Neil and support Olbermann's campaign.)

I have nothing against Buck O'Neil. He's a delightful personality and a great ambassador for the game, as anyone knows who has seen the Ken Burns documentary about baseball or any of O'Neil's many other appearances as one of the last surviving heroes of the Negro Leagues. But that doesn't make him a Hall of Famer, although writers like this one are joining Olbermann in claiming it does. If we're voting for guys who are beloved ambassadors of the game, then let's put Mookie Wilson in the Hall of Fame.

When I turn to experts who know much more about baseball history than I do, I don't find O'Neil treated as an all-time superstar. In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranks O'Neil fourth among Negro League first basemen and compares him to big leaguers Mark Grace and Mickey Vernon--good ballplayers, but no Hall of Famers. (Don't think that James is shy about praising Negro Leaguers; in the same discussion, he likens Buck Leonard to Henry Aaron, Pop Lloyd to Honus Wagner, and Turkey Steares to Ted Williams.)

In his classic Negro League history Only the Ball Was White, scholar Robert Peterson barely mentions O'Neil (he doesn't appear in the book's index) and omits him from his list of three all-time Negro League first basemen. And when we scan the rosters for the annual Negro League all-star games (which were held every year of O'Neil's career), we see that he played in the game just twice. By contrast, Biz Mackey and Willard Brown, both elected by the special committee, played in four and six games, respectively, while true superstars like Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Willie Wells (already Hall of Famers) played in eight or ten.

As a comparison, Kevin Mitchell and Ozzie Virgil, for example, also played in two all-star games (in the major leagues, of course). Are they Hall of Famers?

I'm not saying there's no Hall of Fame case to be made for Buck O'Neil. He was also a successful manager in the Negro Leagues and a fine scout who helped to recruit some of the great Black stars for the majors. But there's no way you can consider him a shoo-in whose exclusion is a gross miscarriage of justice--"the worst mistake in the history of the Hall of Fame," as Keith would have it.

I love Keith's passion. But he should save it for the mistakes that really deserve it, like the ones he (thankfully) covers in most of the rest of his show. Funny how this refugee from ESPN seems to be on more solid ground when he rants about Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Bill O'Reilly than when he turns back to sports.

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