Double Duty and Buck
While headline seekers like Terrell Owens continue to make a mockery of the term "professional athlete," the baseball world lost a true sportsman on Thursday. Longtime Negro Leagues legend Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe lost his battle with cancer at the age of 103, bringing to an end a long line of colorful storytelling that helped younger generations of fans learn about the days of "black ball." As with many retired stars, Radcliffe’s death is sure to stir the debate about his Hall of Fame worthiness. Does he deserve to be enshrined in Cooperstown, joining the likes of Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, and Josh Gibson, other great players who were denied entry into the major leagues because of the color of their skin? Or was he simply a good player whose reputation was embellished because of his colorful sense of humor and wonderful storytelling abilities?
Based on the consensus of Negro Leagues experts like Baseball Primer’s Eric Enders, Radcliffe was a very good, durable, and versatile player for a long period of time, but his playing career ranks him somewhere short of Cooperstown induction. With the ability to both catch and pitch–sometimes on the same day–Radcliffe pulled off the kind of "double duty" that is noteworthy (especially given the current age of specialization), but was not the kind of dangerous hitter or pitcher that we would associate with greatness. In some ways, Radcliffe seems quite comparable to another former Negro Leagues standout, Buck O’Neil. Like Radcliffe, O’Neil was a solid player in the Negro Leagues–the frequent comparison of the first base-playing O’Neil to Mark Grace seems like an apt one–but was not a dominant or intimidating hitter. Given that assessment, it seems like O’Neil should rate as no more than an "honorable mention" when it comes to the issue of election to the Hall of Fame.
Yet, the comparisons between O’Neil and Radcliffe involve only their careers as players. Beyond their playing days, O’Neil and Radcliffe took very different paths. Unlike Radcliffe, O’Neil became a very successful manager after his retirement. O’Neil won four Negro Leagues pennants and guided his teams to a perfect record of 4-and-0 in the East West Game, the Negro Leagues’ celebrated and highly regarded all-star game. Even more impressively, O’Neil’s work in baseball did not end with the death of the Negro Leagues. While most Negro Leaguers like Radcliffe settled into other careers or outright retirement, O’Neil seamlessly moved on to a prominent non-playing career in the major leagues. Joining the Chicago Cubs as a scout, O’Neil played crucial roles in signing future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock, and quality major leaguers like Oscar Gamble. O’Neil also became the first African-American coach in major league history, joining the Cubs’ unusual "College of Coaches" in the early 1960s.
O’Neil’s contributions to baseball didn’t stop there, either. After leaving behind scouting and coaching, O’Neil has probably done more than any Negro Leagues alumnus (including even the engaging Radcliffe) to promote the legacy of the Negro Leagues. Whether making himself a star on Ken Burns’ "Baseball," or appearing on late night television talk shows, or though his efforts with the Negro Leagues Museum, O’Neil has always done his best to praise the abilities of other Negro Leagues stars, while remaining modest about his own ballplaying abilities. O’Neil’s storytelling has only enhanced our knowledge and familiarity with the Negro Leagues, a topic of baseball conversation that was largely bypassed until the 1990s. Without question, O’Neil’s service as an unofficial ambassador to the sport has done wonders in exposing younger generations to the greatness of the Negro Leagues.
In considering someone’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame, it’s not enough merely to focus on what one did as a player. Rather, the accomplishments of an entire career must be taken into consideration. In the case of O’Neil, his efforts as a manager, scout, coach, and historian elevate his status, making his resume one of the most diversified of any figure in baseball history. And it’s the entirety of that resume that should one day earn Buck O’Neil what he deserves–election and induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame.