A Word from Your Crossroads Team: You’re reading the fifth post in a series of blogs we are writing on the topic of Celebrating Black History Month. During our series in February, you’ll enjoy posts from Dr. Park, Dr. Ware, Dr. Badal, Dr. Kellemen, Professor Baxter, Dean Schrader, and our Registrar—Dountonia Batts. This series, like everything we do at Crossroads Bible College is designed to glorify God by training Christian leaders to reach a multiethnic urban world for Christ.
For our first post, by Dr. Park, visit The God-Created Worth of All People. For our second post, by President Ware, visit Color Me Love. For our third post by VP Kellemen, visit 4 Portraits of Gospel-Centered Black Church History. For our fourth post by Professor Baxter, visit Black History as American History.
An African American Hero
I recently finished reading the book by Joe Posnanski (2007), The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip through Buck O’Neil’s America. The book is fascinating because I enjoy the game of baseball, history, and the Chicago Cubs. There’s something about those three combinations that makes for a good read.
I personally enjoyed watching the Cubs make an attempt for the World Series this last year. I also was saddened to see the team fall short of the World Series. My boys and I watched all of the playoff games to my wife’s sigh. And maybe this year, the Cubs might just pull off this dream for the rest of Chicago and their loyal fans.
Each sport creates an excitement for its fans, and baseball is no different. I remember as a boy, my friends would get together to play neighborhood baseball. Each of us would select our favorite player. It was sort of surreal. We each desired to be that star in an imaginary life of neighborhood baseball.
I suppose it’s natural for athletes to take up the mantle of leadership in some capacity, especially if they are an outstanding player. Both skill and fanfare promote such a rise to influence. And when an athlete fails to live honorably on and off the field, their fans are quickly saddened, sometimes disillusioned. One such African American hero, who often goes unnoticed among our pro players, is John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil.
A Developing Leader-Player
Buck O’Neil was born on November 13, 1911, in Florida. He loved baseball as a little boy. His skill improved over time with his father sharing the same love for the game and helping him to grow as a player. However, during the 1930’s and into the late 1950’s, the United States was a segregated nation at multiple levels. There was no difference in professional sports as well in the national working class of people. Baseball, a national past time activity, was deeply divided by color.
O’Neil departed from baseball for a few years to serve in the Army. This call to service forced him to take time off playing the game he loved. However, he gained new leadership skills on another team—the Army. And I suppose his departure from the game provided him a unique experience of collegial sacrifice and working with others of diverse experiences and background in protecting our national’s interest in foreign affairs (Posnanski, 2007, p. 3).
Breaking the Barriers of Segregation
Leaders are often born during tumultuous seasons. O’Neil rose to great prominence for his athletic skill, humility, and heart for the game. He gained notable influence when the Cubs selected him to be one of the coaches. He encouraged the team to add Ernie Banks and Lou Brock, two African American players who would go on to change the game I love.
Segregation forced African Americans to form a separated league called the Negro Leagues. O’Neil would not be allowed to play professional baseball, but his influence, leadership, and skill as a baseball player caught the nation’s attention during 1938 to 1955. O’Neil would be one of the first player-managers in the league with a hitting average of .288.
In 1962, Buck O’Neil would eventually be hired by the Chicago Cubs, a notable change in U.S. sports. Although segregation was still very deep, Buck was not allowed to coach first or third base, but had to remain in the dugout. The Cubs’ decision to bring Buck as a coach was a positive step toward breaking segregation.
Honoring Our Heroes
One of the unsung recognitions for O’Neil is his co-founding of the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. I remember in college driving 8 hours to Kansas City with a few friends to visit the museum some seven years after it was founded. We each shared a special interest in baseball’s history. The museum is a wonderful place to visit if you are near the area.
O’Neil recognized the need to honor past Negro players, and his speaking platform some sixty years later gained notoriety by the United States Senate. His off the field leadership provided the fertile ground for past players to be recognized in 2001. By 2006, Major Leagues finally recognized 17 Negro league players in Cooperstown.
Unfortunately, the man who played well on the field and off the field did not share in this honor of being recognized both in skill and in leadership. About 2 months later in October 2006, Buck O’Neil passed away on his 95th birthday. After his death, President George W. Bush would recognize O’Neil’s efforts by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the highest honors a citizen can receive (DOI: https://www.nlbm.com/100for100/bio.cfm, last accessed on January 13, 2016).
How the Gospel Unites Ethnicities
Much can be learned from those unsung heroes who tirelessly advocate change in society. Segregation in the United States was sinful. However, people like Buck O’Neil quietly displayed their leadership often in quiet efforts. I can’t help but draw some parallel between Buck O’Neil’s monograph, “The House that Buck Built,” and Christ’s statement of building His Church (Matthew 16:18). Christ’s sacrifice on the cross makes available God’s offer of salvation to all the peoples on the earth. The Gospel unites and should never divide people into groups when rightly interpreted and applied (Acts 17:26; Romans 1:15).
Christ built His church for His glory by uniting all people together (Ephesians 2:15-16). The Gospel is trans-ethnic, available to all and applied to all (Ephesians 4:13). Given ethnicities may be distinguished by color and language—this is true. However, the uniting piece of the Gospel is that color and language should bring people together (1 Corinthians 10:17). I still have brothers and sisters in Christ for whom Christ died, and this theological truth should change my faulty worldview to a biblical one of unity among God’s varied family.
The “House that Buck Built” is a modern statement of reconciliation. The house that Christ built is founded on a sure foundation (Isaiah 28:16). Its truth is the unchanging Word of God (Psalm 119:89). Its motto is, “For whom Christ purchased from every tribe, language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9; Acts 20:28).