Buck O’Neil Joins Baseball Hall Of Fame – What Are His Best Cards?

July 25, 2022

Sunday, July 24th was an historic day for baseball fans and card collectors. Six new members of baseball’s Hall of Fame will be inducted on that day including David Ortiz, Minnie Minosa and Tony Oliva, among others.

We’ll explore each of those players, including their Hall of Fame credentials, path to the Hall of Fame, and of course, their rookie and other baseball cards. 

Today we’ll take a look at Negro League great and baseball ambassador Buck O’Neil. 

Check out the latest listings of Buck O’Neil’s baseball cards on ebay.

Hall of Fame elections in a nutshell – The BBWAA ballot

A player becomes eligible for election into the Hall of Fame five years after their retirement. If a player had a 10-year career and is selected by the committee, they appear on the ballot to be voted on by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).

A player appears on the ballot until elected by appearing on 75% of ballots, dropping off the ballot by appearing on less than 5% of ballots, or appearing on the ballot for 10 years (until recently, the maximum years on the ballot was 15).

Buck O'Neil Fleer Greats of the Game 2021 autograph
The 2021 Fleer Greats of the Game Autograph of Buck O’Neil

Find a Buck O’Neil 2021 Fleer Greats of the Game card right now on ebay

Alternate paths to Cooperstown

Now, after a player drops off the ballot, induction into the Hall of Fame isn’t off the table. The Hall of Fame knows that with more time, some players’ careers can be re-examined and their Hall of Fame case becomes more convincing. The Hall has a series of committees that meet to examine these players and their hall of fame merits. 

These committees consist of 16 members that meet in person and vote. Just like the BBWAA ballot, 75% or more of the vote is required for induction, in this case, 12 out of 16 votes. 

Buck O’Neil’s Hall of Fame baseball credentials

O’Neil had an amazing life in baseball. He began his career in the Negro Leagues in 1937 and played into the 1950’s, mostly with the Kansas City Monarchs. He missed the 1944 and 1945 seasons while serving in the US Navy. His connection to Kansas City would be a theme of the rest of his life. 

While the statistics we have from the Negro Leagues are potentially incomplete, what we do know is that O’Neil played in three All-Star games (including two in 1942). His career is a mix of some very good seasons and some less good.

He was known as a good fielding first baseman. He played in two Negro League World Series helping the Monarchs win the 1942 championship. He managed the Monarchs from 1948-1955, winning two pennants and sharing another. 

He became a major league scout in 1956 for the Chicago Cubs, and is credited with signing Hall of Famer Lou Brock. In 1962, O’Neil joined the Cubs as the first black coach in major league history. He later scouted for the Kansas City Royals

O’Neil was a key contributor to the creation of the Negro League Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City, and served as its honorary board chairman for the rest of his life. 

In 1994, O’Neil become an overnight star for his work narrating the chapter on the Negro Leagues in Ken Burns’ epic documentary “Baseball”. He released his autobiography shortly thereafter, titled “I was right on time”. 

2004 Topps Certified Autograph card of Buck O'Neil
2004 Buck O’Neil Topps certified autograph card

Buck O’Neil’s Hall of Fame path was a long one

Starting in 1981, O’Neil worked with the Baseball Hall of Fame to recommend Negro League players worth of being honored. In 2006, the Hall commissioned a special election to honor players from the Negro Leagues. O’Neil appeared on the ballot this time. 

In what many consider one of the great slights in major league history, the 94-year-old O’Neil was not elected to the Hall of Fame that year. In one of the greatest acts of class in baseball history, O’Neil spoke at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 29, 2006, honoring the Negro League greats who were being inducted.

A few days later, he was admitted to the hospital, and was in and out of the hospital for the next few months. O’Neil passed away on October 6, 2006, a few weeks shy of his 95th birthday. 

On December 7th, 2006 O’Neil was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On March 31st, 2007, O’Neil was awarded Major League Baseball’s inaugural Beacon of Life Award. In October of 2007, the Hall of Fame, perhaps trying to correct their error in some small way, presented O’Neil with a Lifetime Achievement Award to be named in his honor. 

Finally, in 2021, the Early Baseball committee elected O’Neil to the Hall of Fame with 81.3% of the vote. It was a long overdue honor, and it is unfortunate that it could not come during O’Neil’s lifetime, as his Hall of Fame acceptance speech surely would have been one of the best in history. 

Limited selection of Buck O’Neil’s baseball cards

O’Neil never had a card during his playing, managerial, or coaching career. Other than a few Negro League players who appeared on Mexican or Cuban league cards while playing in those leagues during the off-season, this is sadly often the case. 

O’Neil’s first appearance on a card was in the 1984 and 1986 Decathlon/ Fritsch Negro League sets. The two sets both contain 119 cards, and are identical other than the copyright, although the 1984 version is much harder to come by.  You can often find 1986 cards on ebay.

After appearing on a Dixon’s postcard set in 1987, O’Neil didn’t appear on another card until 1994, when he appeared in both the Ted Williams set and an Upper Deck set released in conjuncture with the Ken Burns’ Baseball series. Both are inexpensive and not hard to find raw, with a low population of graded copies. 

1994 Ted Williams autograophed card of Buck O'Neil
1994 Ted Williams autographed card of Buck O’Neil

Grab one of the few Buck O’Neil autograph cards that are listed on ebay

Starting in the early 2000’s, O’Neil appeared on more cards, including some certified autograph offerings.  For example, O’Neil appeared in the 2001 Fleer Greats of the Game Autograph series. Recent sales for these cards ungraded are in the $75 range. He appeared in the 2004 Topps Archives autograph series with an on-card auto, and posthumously in a 2009 Razor cut autograph series. 

O’Neil even appears on a number of 2021 cards, including Topps Now and Topps Project70. 

As O’Neil had no cards released during his career, many of the later cards offer limited investment value. The exception is the autographed issues, which have seen a bit of a jump since his induction and may see continued interest after his induction. 

The final word on Buck O’Neil and his cards

Buck O’Neil overcame unspeakable racism during his lifetime, but dedicated his life to celebrating the Negro Leagues and its players. Despite the many challenges he faced, he had a positive and thankful view of life that we would all do well to emulate.

He had a deep love of the game of baseball that came across in his words. He’s finally getting his long-deserved day in the Hall of Fame, and if you can capture a little bit of Buck’s magic in his cards on that day, maybe it can help you celebrate him being right on time.