Friday, March 30, 2018

Off The Shelf: I Was Right On Time, by Buck O'Neil

Shortly after the debut of the seminal documentary Baseball by Ken Burns, Buck O'Neil found himself getting more and more requests to speak and travel and share the stories of his life and the Negro Leagues. With the assistance of Steve Wulf and David Conrads, O'Neil put many of those anecdotes in print as a memoir. I Was Right On Time is a straightforward re-telling of O'Neil's life from birth through his playing, coaching, and scouting days. The book contains many of the stories shared in the documentary, though he is about to fill in the stories with greater detail.  

The Negro Leagues had been long overdue for discussion and recognition by the rest of the sporting world for decades. At the time this book was published there was finally a more keen interest in the men and women that shaped the game. O'Neil's book is greatly overshadowed by his magnetic presence- it seems like a more sterile and silted version of the enthusiastic and passionate man many of us got to know through his interviews.

He names his all-time team from the Negro Leagues in the book, starting with the prodigiously powerful catcher Josh Gibson. Gibson's story of incredible talent and eventual tragedy is worthy of many deeper re-tellings.

Buck Leonard was compared to Lou Gehrig offensively, and Hal Chase defensively. Buck O describes Buck L as the most studious ballplayer he ever knew, and would often be seen in the hotel lobbies working on crosswords or buried in a book before games or travel. As Gibson's teammate, they led a formidable offensive attack in Pittsburgh and captured 9 consecutive pennants. 

At second base, Buck selected the diminutive Newt Allen, a 22 year veteran in Kansas City and Saint Louis. Newt was known for his strong throwing arm and impressive speed.

At Short, Buck chose Willie Wells. He compares Wells to Ozzie Smith in the field, with excellent range and powerful throws from the hole. Wells was also a great hitter - statistical records of course for the league are still being disputed and collected, but he's credited with a .320 lifetime average over 22 seasons in the Negro Leagues. He hit .420 in 1930 for the Saint Louis Stars, and was known to aggressively take the extra base, stretching singles into doubles and doubles into triples.

At the Hot Corner, Buck named the great Ray Dandridge, who was never given a chance in the majors but did see some time in the Giants' farm system towards the end of his playing days. The photo above is from his time in Minneapolis with the Millers.

Buck's anecdote about Ray's bowlegs - "On the field, they said a train would have a better chance going through Ray's legs than a baseball, and I do believe they were right."

Turkey Stearnes is Buck's selection in Left Field. He was six time HR leader, and was known to talk to his bats. He would carry the bats around in a special case, not unlike Ichiro today.

While Buck talks at length about Cool Papa Bell (There's even a great story about the legend that Cool Papa was "so fast, he could turn off the lights and jump into bed before the room got dark"), the fact is that Oscar Charleston was going to be the Centerfielder on Buck's team. The truth is we'll never know how great he was, but names like Cobb, Ruth, Mays, etc. are a good start. Charleston was a complete player in every sense of the word. He was said to be able to "cover more ground than grass," hit for power and average, and in his later years was a respected mentor to young players. As Buck put it "This man not only encompassed the Negro Leagues, he symbolized the Negro Leagues, with his heart and his spirit and his talent." 

From a Turkey in Left to a Mule in Right. Mule Suttles rivaled Josh Gibson in terms of raw power. He swung a 50 ounce bat! Suttles was a coal miner like Honus Wagner, and his roughness was on display with every moon shot he blasted into the stands. His numbers are Ruthian, with astronomical slugging and on base figures. 

Buck's best friend during their playing days was also one of the greatest pitchers of all time. There are many great stories about Satchel in the book, including the story about why he called Buck "Nancy" for most of his life. Paige of course was finally given the opportunity to pitch in the majors when he well past his pitching prime, but his ability and knowledge were still impressive enough to help lead Cleveland to their most recent World Series victory.

This book was a quick read, and a fun read. I'd also recommend Joe Posnanski's travelogue with Buck O'Neil, The Soul of Baseball. There are some great stories in I Was Right On Time, it's definitely worth your time.


  1. Great post; I will plan to add at least one of the books to my reading list. I just acquired a small Negro League set that I'll be posting (in a few installments) in the next couple of weeks.

  2. Great stuff. I gotta admit, I know very little about the Negro League and only have a handful of trading cards. Love that Bazooka card of Josh Gibson. Makes me want to bust a box of 2006 Bazooka.

  3. I've been looking for a good Negro Leagues book for my reading list, and I think this one'll be the one I start looking for during my regular bookstore rounds.

  4. good god ken burns proved he didn't know anything about the National Game.. the most disappointing documentary ever made ..what a lazy squandering of a real chance to make something immortal

  5. Great post! Thanks for the heads up. Looks like you can get a used HC for 5 or 6 bucks on Amazon. Nice collection of cards as well.