The Conversation that Changed Buck O’Neil’s Life

Buck O'NeilBuck O’Neil is an inspirational baseball legend. A star player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, O’Neil would eventually become Major League Baseball’s first African-American coach.

Despite growing up in the era of segregation and having to fight ugly racism and unfair oppression throughout his life, O’Neil always exuded optimism and hopefulness. His determination to follow his passion and make a career in baseball never wavered.

One of my favorite stories about Buck O’Neil was one I included in my book, Think Like a Warrior.

The story takes place when O’Neil was just a teenager. He was living in the segregated South in a town where African-Americans were not allowed to attend high school. For three years, the young Buck O’Neil worked alongside his father doing hot, grueling work in a celery farm where he earned just $1.25 a day.  Eventually, O’Neil had seen enough and a conversation with his father would change his life forever.

Here’s how Buck O’Neil tells the story…

I (worked in that celery farm) for three seasons. One day in the third year, toward the end of the harvest, the foreman blew the whistle for lunch. I had been doing nothing but carrying boxes for weeks, and it was hotter than usual and so humid it felt like we were working in a steam bath.

There was this big stack of boxes on the ground. On one side of the boxes sat my father, who was a foreman on the farm, eating lunch with some of the older men. On the other side sat seventeen-year-old J.J. (Buck) O’Neil, tired and probably a little delirious from the heat.

The thought of working on the celery harvest every autumn for the rest of my life was more than I could stand. So I said to myself—out loud, mind you—“Damn, there has got to be something better than this.”

That night, after the truck that took us from the fields to the town dropped us off, my father and I were walking home when he said, “Jay, I heard what you said today at lunch.”

I thought he was going to reprimand me for swearing. But what he said was, “You’re right. There is something better than this. But you can’t find it here. You’re going to have to go out and get it.”

— Buck O’Neil, from his book I Was Right on Time

From that moment on, Buck O’Neil realized he had to do whatever it took to follow his dream and pursue his passion in baseball.

This was far from easy. In the era of segregation, O’Neil had to endure the type of adversity and unfairness most people can never imagine going through. But he never stopped pursuing his dream. He was determined to do make it happen. The thought of working in that miserable celery farm motivated O’Neil to keep fighting for a better life.

This story is a reminder that if you don’t like where you are or what you’re doing in life, there is a better way. But it’s not going to fall into your lap. You can’t wait around for someone else to give you the life you want. You have to go out and get it for yourself.

Buck O’Neil’s incredible life story is an example of what can be achieved when a spirit of relentless optimism meets self-determination and grit.

You, and only you, have the power to change your life. With a can-do positive attitude and a commitment to never backing down, you can create the life of your dreams.