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‘Lefty’ O’Neal: Crossing the color line in the Negro Leagues

Dick "Lefty" O'Neal during a recent visit to Sitka. He never thought he'd write about his experiences in the Negro Leagues, but teammates urged him to do so. (KCAW photo/Rachel Waldholz)

Dick “Lefty” O’Neal during a recent visit to Sitka. He never thought he’d write about his experiences in the Negro Leagues, but teammates urged him to do so. (KCAW photo/Rachel Waldholz)

A little bit of baseball history visited Southeast Alaska this summer. Dick “Lefty” O’Neal is the only person to have crossed baseball’s color line — in the opposite direction.

O’Neal is white, but he made his mark in baseball pitching in two of the country’s semi-pro Negro Leagues.

O’Neal hails from Arkansas, where he was highly recruited pitcher in American Legion Baseball in the late 1960s. He was scouted by at least 16 major league teams. But he had the misfortune to draw a low draft number, and by 1972 he was training for a tour in Viet Nam.

Luckily, the Air Force recognized his abilities and stationed him in Biloxi, Mississippi, as an athletic specialist for the Keesler Air Force Base baseball team. He was sometimes called upon to pitch, and that’s when he struck out 9 batters in a game against the famed Biloxi Dodgers.

O’Neal would later join Biloxi — one of three white players ever to play in the Gulf Coast League. Two years later, he became the first-and-only white player to join the San Antonio Black Sox, when the Air Force moved him to South Texas.

O’Neal published a book about his experiences in 2009 called “Dreaming of the Majors, Living in the Bush,” which is being developed into an independent film.

He stopped by KCAW during a cruise ship call in Sitka recently, and spoke with Robert Woolsey on the front porch of the Cable House:

O’Neal is now a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals. This week, he’s in Birmingham, Alabama attending the National Negro League Reunion.

Segregated baseball, by the way, continued until the recent past. The South Texas league where O’Neal played lasted until the 70’s. The Gulf Coast League played its last games in 1986.

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