A foul ball
We were in Houston, at a ballgame, and I saw a man steal a foul ball from a boy. It was flagrant – the man just took the ball right away from the boy, and he held it up high like it was the head of Medusa, and I said: “Would you look at this jerk?”
“What’s that?” Buck said.
“That guy down there, he just took that ball away from that kid.”
Buck considered the situation. He said: “Don’t be so hard on him. He might have a kid of his own at home.”
Yes, that was Buck O’Neil – he just saw the best in people, even people who took foul balls away from little kids. Maybe he’s got a kid at home. That was a good one; I had to give Buck credit, only then something occurred to me.
“Wait a minute,” I said to Buck. “If he’s got a kid, why didn’t he bring him to ballgame?”
I smiled triumphantly. But Buck did not hesitate.
“Maybe,” he said, “the kid is sick.”
“I was a kid in Florida, in Sarasota, and the New York Giants trained in Sarasota. When teams would come, we’d stand outside the ballpark, and we would get the balls they hit over the fence during batting practice. We’d sell them to the tourists. And we made a stepladder so we could climb a pine tree out there. That way we could look into the ballpark.
“The Yanks were in town. I’m out there behind the fence, and I hear this sound. I’d never heard THAT sound off the bat before. Instead of me running to get the ball, I ran up the ladder to see who was hitting it. Well, it was a barrel chested sucker, with skinny legs, with the best swing I’d ever seen. That was Babe Ruth hitting that ball. Yeah.
“I don’t hear that sound again until 1938, I’m with the Monarchs, we’re at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C. We’re upstairs, changing clothes, and the Grays are taking batting practice. I’ve got nothing on but my jock. And I hear that sound. I ran down the runway, ran out on the field, and there’s a pretty black sucker with a big chest and about 34 in the waist, prettiest man I’d ever seen. That was Josh Gibson hitting that ball.
“And I don’t hear the sound again until I’m a scout with the Cubs. I’m scouting the Royals. When I opened the door to go downstairs, I heard that sound again. I rushed down on the field, and here’s another pretty black sucker hitting that ball. That was Bo Jackson. That’s three times I heard the sound. Three times. But I want to hear it a fourth. I go to the ballpark every day. I want to hear that sound again.”
The fourth statue, though, stands apart. It is in an entryway, and it is of a man in a suit, looking sharp. He holds a baseball cap in his right hand, and his left hand crosses over. The man has a big smile, a welcoming smile, and it looks like he’s about to break into song, which is right, because Buck O’Neil always was about to break into a song.
The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.
Yes, Buck O’Neil is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He lives on. I see that statue, and I see him. More, I hear him. Every day, I hear him.