He's buried in the same plot as his wife, Ora Lee O'Neil, who died in 1997. His name appears above hers, simply as "O'Neil, John J." Between their names and the dates of their lives is the message "A life of learning and loving."
It's a modest tribute to a national celebrity. O'Neil was well-known as the unofficial spokesman for negro leagues baseball, for his inspirational speeches and as a pitchman in TV commercials. But after his death, something else became clear: Buck O'Neil didn't have much money.
After O'Neil's death on October 6, his will and other papers were filed in a routine probate case at the Jackson County Courthouse. The documents claim that the 94-year-old former negro leagues star had $5,000 in personal property. He also owned a home at 3049 East 32nd Street that the documents claim is worth $50,000, though that may be a generous estimate. (Citing confidentiality rules in probate cases, O'Neil's attorney declined to comment.)
Many who knew O'Neil were surprised to learn that he had little. Even the beneficiaries of the will he signed in 1998 were unaware of his financial status. O'Neil split his personal property three ways among his brother, his niece and his wife's niece. He gave his home to the church that he attended for 47 years, the Bethel AME at 23rd Street and Flora.
O'Neil's home at the corner of 32nd Street and Walrond is a two-story, shirtwaist-style house with green trim. It may take six months for the probate judge to award the home to the church; trustees of Bethel AME will then decide its fate. Bethel AME's pastor, the Rev. Spencer Barrett, wasn't sure whether the church would sell O'Neil's home or keep it for some other purpose.
O'Neil's friends and relatives say any money O'Neil made from the commercials and his speaking engagements likely ended up in a church collection plate or as donations to charities. As for memorabilia from his days in baseball items such as jerseys and bats that may have fetched thousands from collectors O'Neil donated most of it to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, where he had volunteered for 16 years as chairman of the board.
His niece, Sally Griffin of Daytona, Florida, says she talked regularly with O'Neil. She grew up with him in Sarasota, Florida, and was with him when he died. But he never discussed how he was doing financially. "I really don't know anything about how much money he had," says Griffin, a 79-year-old retired bookkeeper. "He didn't tell me about what he owned or anything about that, and I don't think he talked to anybody about it."
O'Neil was born poor, Griffin says. The grandson of a slave, he picked celery until he said, as Griffin recalls O'Neil telling his father: "Damn, I know there must be something better than this." O'Neil left home to attend high school and two years of college in Jacksonville, Florida. He joined the newly formed negro leagues in 1937.
O'Neil's career in baseball was illustrious. He made two appearances in the Negro League World Series and became the first African-American coach in Major League Baseball. He had fame but made little money. A big-name negro leagues player was paid about $400 a month, says local negro leagues historian Phil Dixon.
After the negro leagues folded in the 1960s, most players drifted into obscurity. About half of the 200 to 300 former negro leagues players Dixon has interviewed for his research were living in poverty. Only in the past decade or so have the leagues gained newfound respect, Dixon says. O'Neil didn't become well-known nationally until 1994, when he was featured in the Ken Burns documentary Baseball. "If Buck O'Neil had passed 20 years ago, he would've been just another ballplayer who passed," Dixon says.
Bob Kendrick, spokesman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, says O'Neil simply never wanted the wealth that comes with celebrity. O'Neil had given most of his memorabilia to the museum before it opened, and afterward, O'Neil insisted that his things not be displayed too prominently. "We finally made a display for his 90th birthday," Kendrick says. "That's the way Buck wanted it. He didn't want it to be a museum about him."
Kendrick recalls when a car dealership gave O'Neil the use of a new Mercedes for a week. O'Neil drove it for one day before returning it to the dealer. "Buck lived very modestly," Kendrick says. "He never adhered to this idea of being a celebrity."
Watch O'Neil sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" for the Ken Burns documentary Baseball. The film brought the former negro leagues star nationwide fame.
Kendrick says the museum has received several calls from people wishing to replace O'Neil's headstone with something more elaborate. But Kendrick says such a decision would have to come from O'Neil's family. His closest relative, his 90-year-old brother, Warren O'Neil, of Rochester, New York, recently suffered a stroke.
O'Neil was too modest to want some monument at his grave site, Barrett says. O'Neil's pastor says he could imagine O'Neil telling people to instead donate to the campaign to build the John Buck ONeil Education and Research Center. "Anyone concerned about memorializing Buck," Barrett says, "should give to that school."
O'Neil isn't the first negro leagues great to be remembered with a simple grave. Legendary pitcher Satchel Paige died in 1982, long before people began caring about the negro leagues again. Paige is also buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, not far from the grave where O'Neil now rests. Only a small plaque noted that Paige was buried there. When Dixon discovered the grave in 1989, he had the plaque replaced with a walkway, a pair of benches and a large headstone. The memorial sits on an island of grass in the center of the cemetery.
With O'Neil's modest grave site difficult to find, some have apparently begun to use the memorial to Paige as a place to remember O'Neil. Recently, someone placed two baseballs on Paige's tombstone. One of them was inscribed with a message in blue pen that read "WE LUV U BUCK." Buck O'Neil's last will shows that KC's ambassador didn't live like a celebrity.