The news of John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil's death in 2006 at the age of 94 was well covered by all major sports media. At the time, I was unfamiliar with the man who was a four-time Negro League All-Star and played in two Negro World Series'. The extensive news coverage informed me that he had been the first black man to coach in the Major Leagues and had dedicated his latter years petitioning for Negro Leaguers to be included in the baseball Hall of Fame. A few years after his passing, I happened upon his gem of a memoir, I Was Right On Time, in the bookstore. It turned out to be one of the best impulse buys of my life.
I Was Right On Time is an extremely endearing and informative read. It's like listening to your grandpa tell stories about the good old days, except your grandpa played with some of the best baseball players in history. O'Neil's tales about playing on the same team with the great Satchel Paige and playing against the almost mythical Josh Gibson in the Negro World Series will fill your mind with wonderment and make you hunger for a greater knowledge of the Negro Leagues. This is truly a unique first person account of a period in history that has mostly been forgotten.
Buck is, undoubtedly, a historian of the game but he doesn't bog you down with statistics and baseball jargon. This book is enjoyable for all whether you are a baseball fanatic or history enthusiast. His colorful commentary and passionate storytelling will entertain, as well as educate you on less obvious aspects of the Negro Leagues such as its connection to Jazz culture and co-ed sports.
Although O'Neil never made it to the Majors, as a player, in telling his story there is not one ounce of bitterness. He recounts being shot at by a racist police officer, having to hobo across the country to play baseball in Jim Crow America, and mistakenly arriving to a baseball field full of Klansmen in full KKK regalia. He doesn't sulk about the discrimination and hatred which he and his fellow Negro Leaguers faced. He doesn't dwell on the racism, but tells a triumphant story of the Negro Leagues and the obstacles they were able to overcome before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues. O'Neill uses I Was Right On Time to honor those baseball heroes that will probably never get the recognition they deserve simply because of their skin color.
"The thing is, white kids even today know about Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Black kids should know about Cool Papa Bell and Turkey Stearnes. African-American heroes didn't start with Willie Mays. This is their history, and I hope I've helped give it life." Well done, Mr. O'Neil. Well done.
Published January 1996