I came upon a series of nicely presented autographed baseballs in a sports memorabilia store recently. Having only one autographed baseball, I thought I'd find out what it might be worth.
I asked, "Can you tell me what a Ken Griffey Jr. might be worth?"
"Oh, that's pretty rare. He doesn't sign much," was the man's reply. "I'd guess between $200 and $300."
Never missing the chance to sound important, I asked, "What if it had both Ken's as well as Buck O'Neil's autograph on it?"
"Well, that could be something special."
I learned about O'Neil in Ken Burns' documentary series on baseball in the early 1990s. O'Neil coached the Kansas City Monarchs. His players included such greats as Satchel Page and Jackie Robinson. A few years ago, I found myself going through Kansas City, the home of the Negro Leagues Baseball Hall of Fame, and thought I'd stop in.
The museum was small and in a run-down neighborhood. After looking at only the first display, I heard an unmistakably familiar voice over the partition. It was O'Neil.
Surely it was just an audio tape portion of another display. Much to my amazement, I encountered a living legend! O'Neil was there, in real life. Not only that, he was giving a personal tour to none other than Ken Griffey Jr. He was recounting history.
I quickly stopped at the gift shop for an official museum baseball and a pen. I returned and respectfully approached O'Neil from the back and waited until there was a lull in his personal recounting of yet another great story.
I nervously said, "Hello, Mr. O'Neil, it's an honor to meet a living legend."
He said, "Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, too." I will never forget his warm smile and how big his gentle handshake was. His eyes told the tale of a life of adventure and gratefulness.
After asking for his autograph on the ball, I thanked him and turned to Griffey and asked for his autograph as well. Notorious for not giving autographs, he was in a pickle. How could he say no, in the presence of this living legend? O'Neil had blazed the trail. Griffey proceeded to sign the other side of the ball. Wow!
When I told this story to the owner of the sports memorabilia store, he said, "Do you have a cube to keep the baseball in?"
I said, "No, I don't."
He disappeared into the back room. When he reappeared he had a clear plastic cube for the baseball, but something else as well.
He presented me with a framed autographed photograph of O'Neil from when he was a player in the Negro Leagues. Holy cow!
He said, "Here, I enjoyed your story so much, you really need these." I was flabbergasted. I would have been tickled to receive a free cube to store the ball in, but the photo and frame were just an overwhelming act of generosity. I thanked him and assured him we would be friends for a long, long time.
Sadly, O'Neil died on Oct. 6, 2006, but his memory will live with me forever. I look forward to his induction into the other Hall of Fame in Cooperstown someday.
Burns' story led me on a trip that revealed many incredible life experiences. I hope you enjoyed hearing this story half as much as I did living it.