A Pea at Your Knee

Painting depicting Satchel Paige striking out Josh Gibson IN the 1942 Negro Leagues World Series... "A Pea at Your Knee" by Ken Wilson.

I'm going to tell you a bit about this painting and how it came to be. But first,  some background context is necessary. Because as much as this piece depicts the great Satchel Paige, it really isn't just about him; it's also about so much more. I hope you like the story. I think you will.

It's a rare and wonderful moment in your life if you get to meet someone famous whom you also admire and respect. For me, I've met a lot of people who are more famous than John "Buck" O'Neil. But none for whom I've thought of more highly.

You may not be familiar with Buck. He wasn't exactly an "A-List" celebrity. Which is a shame, because he was a great storyteller, a great ambassador, but most importantly he was a man with an enormous heart. I think his heart was so big that it left no room inside him to hate. 

Not that he didn't have reason to, because he did. His grandfather was a slave and Buck was born into poverty in Sarasota, Florida. He shined shoes and picked celery while other kids his age got an education. Buck wasn't allowed to attend high school because, after all, he was black.

My introduction to Buck O'Neil was watching the Ken Burns series, "Baseball" on PBS back in 1994. The stories he told of his days playing in the Negro leagues were absolutely captivating. I had grown up a baseball fan, and I knew the Jackie Robinson story (or at least I thought I did), but I truly knew nothing about the Negro baseball leagues.

Suddenly, I started reading everything I could get my hands on about people with whom I was previously, and unfortunately, unaware. Men such as Rube Foster, Josh Gibson, "Cool Papa" Bell, Gus Greenlee, "Double Duty" Radcliffe, and of course, LeRoy "Satchel" Paige.

One of my favorite Buck stories is how he became known as "Nancy" to Satchel. Here's how it went, according to a piece written by sportswriter Joe Posnanski, who is a national treasure in his own right:

[Buck] remembered playing with his friend Satchel Paige, the best pitcher he ever saw. Paige used to call him Nancy, and there’s a long story that goes along with that, a story Buck O'Neil would tell 10,000 times in his long life. Suffice it to say, Satchel had a woman named Nancy, and he also had a fiancee named Lahoma, and once Lahoma heard Satchel knocking on another hotel door shouting, “Nancy! Nancy!”

Lahoma opened her door. And at that very same instant Buck opened his.

“Did you want something, Satchel?” Buck asked.

“Yes, Nancy,” Satchel said. “What time is the game tomorrow?”

“And,” Buck would say, “I've been Nancy ever since.”

Another story, which as it turns out is the theme of this painting, is about a battle between Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in the 1942 Negro League World Series where the Kansas City Monarchs defeated the Homestead Grays.

It's the bottom of the ninth, and... well... I'll let Buck tell the story in his own words.

"A pea at your knee." I love this story and love that line. Some say that the story was embellished over time, that it wasn't the ninth and that Paige didn't intentionally walk the bases loaded to pitch to Gibson. But I'll take Buck's version as the gospel truth, because, well... it's Buck.

The stories about these men, who lived in a segregated society, are both heartwarming and heartbreaking. It's hard for me personally to fathom how we in the United States, the self-proclaimed "land of the free," could inflict so much cruelty, punishment, and hatred on a group of people for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Buck O'Neil, along with many others, had every reason to be bitter, resentful, and yes I could even understand it if he felt hatred toward the people who so oppressed his.

But that just wasn't Buck. He played and coached in the Negro leagues, mostly for the Kansas City Monarchs. At an age when most people are enjoying their retirement, he toiled tirelessly to establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City in 1990. He served as its honorary board chairman until he died at age 95 in 2006. 

After the Ken Burns piece made Buck O'Neil a minor celebrity at age 83, he also became an unofficial ambassador for the game of baseball. This was during the steroids era, when baseball desperately needed good, honest people to represent it as its reputation became seriously tarnished. And yet when the Baseball Hall of Fame held a special one-time election in 2006 to enshrine overlooked or forgotten Negro leagues heroes, the voters couldn't find a place for a 95-year-old who embodied everything decent and good about the national pastime. In spite of a national outcry at this injustice, Buck took it all in stride. With class and style that opitimized Buck O'Neil's life, he went to Cooperstown for the ceremony of the 17 others who were enshrined and led the ceremony in song. 

I met Buck O'Neil at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City in 2004. I was just some random guy from California who was there for a visit, but he made me feel like I was the most special person to ever step through that door. I told him how much I enjoyed hearing his stories and thanked him for teaching us about the Negro leagues. He just smiled, winked at me, and said, "I just started it. It's up to you to keep it going."

I cried the day I learned of his death. In the back of my mind, I've wanted to paint a picture of Buck for some time. Maybe young Buck playing or middle-life Buck managing or Buck in his later years as storyteller and statesman. Something to honor this wonderful man. 

But when I started contemplating it, and tried to sense what Buck might like this painting to say, all I could think about was "Nancy."

And Nancy told me, "Don't paint a picture of me, young man. You should paint a picture of Satchel. Nothing would make me happier."

BuckONeil

So here's to you, Buck. Because I'm trying to do my little part to keep what you started going.