Almost lost amongst the Hall of Fame festivities in Cooperstown over the weekend when a glittering class was inducted, was the inclusion of Joe Garagiola as one of the honorees.
Hall of Fame in Cooperstown
Not because he was a great player (he wasn’t) and not because he was a great manager (he wasn’t), but because he has added something unique to the game over a period of more than 65 years. Garagiola became the third recipient of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award.
Garagiola, who grew up in St. Louis as best friends with a real Hall of Fame player in Yogi Berra, was not the star attraction of the event with players Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine, and managers Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox being enshrined. But he was in his own category.
One thing that is either unknown or almost completely misunderstood by baseball fans is that the Hall of Fame is an independent entity, not an arm of Major League Baseball. The Hall of Fame is always careful not to pick a fight with MLB in a public and embarrassing manner when the board officials disagree over an issue.
Instead, the Hall of Fame goes about its business in a way that makes it clear that such a disagreement exists, but it answers in either a discreet or mature manner, providing an alternative resolution by flexing its own muscle.
The O'Neil Award
During Hall of Fame week the institution announced that in the future candidates would only stay on the ballot for 10 years instead of 15. That got some attention, but really the entire existence of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award says a lot more about justice.
O’Neil was a terrific player who had a long career in the Negro Leagues. He was the first African-American coach in the majors. He spent decades promoting the memory of the long-gone Negro Leagues that were the only alternative for African-American players while the majors were boycotting black players.
In 2006, a committee was formed to address previous wrongs and held a Negro Leagues-only election to the Hall. The single most no-brainer candidate was O’Neil. But when the results were announced 17 additional Negro Leagues figures were accepted into the Hall – but O’Neil was not among them. It seemed to be the final indignity for a black man who had endured so much discrimination in baseball during his playing days.
Amidst the anger and protests, the Hall said nothing, but took over. In 2008 a statue of O’Neil was unveiled at the Hall of Fame building and the creation of the award was announced. The winner of the first Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award (to be presented once every three years) was Buck O’Neil. Take that baseball establishment. In 2011, long-time executive Roland Hemond received the honor and last Sunday it was Garagiola’s turn.
The award recognizes O’Neil’s impact on the sport and honors those who show the same integrity and character and whose actions enhanced baseball’s image in society.
Garagiola, like O’Neil, has been an indefatigable promoter of the sport in a number of different forums.
He was first a player for the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs, between 1946 and 1954, became an active public speaker, and a best-sellling author of baseball books anchored by humorous anecdotes.
He became best known as a national game-of-the week broadcaster, and then a broadcaster who seemed to handle so many World Series it was as if they couldn’t hold the baseball championships unless Garagiola was present to comment.
Garagiola, 88, was not well enough to travel to Cooperstown to accept the O’Neil Award, but provided a gracious statement. The title of Garagiola’s first book was "Baseball Is A Funny Game." At home, he had to be reflecting on the praise accorded a .257 lifetime-hitting catcher and the title of that initial work.
O’Neil passed away in 2006, just shy of his 95th birthday. Snubbed by Hall of Fame voters, yet given greater glory by Hall of Fame officials of sounder judgement, somewhere O’Neil was probably agreeing with Garagiola that baseball is a funny game.
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