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Buck O’Neil

8/12/2016:

Barnstorming baseball teams crisscrossed N.D. from the 1890s through the 1950s; and the “Hard Times” of the 1930s brought many African-American players, including Satchel Paige, to North Dakota – partly because the major and minor leagues had banned them. It is a little-known fact that “Buck” O’Neil was among those black ballplayers, playing in Dunseith, North Dakota in the summer of 1936.

John “Buck” O’Neil, a young first-baseman, had joined the Shreveport Acme Colored-Giants ballclub in Louisiana that early spring and journeyed, by bus, to the Northern Great Plains for an extended barnstorming-tour.

Fatefully, the temperamental Acme Giants’ bus broke down in Dunseith, and “wound up at A.T. Lilleby’s garage.” Arnold Lilleby fixed the bus, but the team manager “took off for parts unknown,” leaving Lilleby “with an unpaid repair-bill and a band of hungry young ball players.”

Local businessmen, led by George Gottbreht, decided to adopt the Shreveport Giants. They re-named them the Dunseith Acme Giants, with high-hopes of putting Dunseith on the map. They housed the team in the old creamery building north of town.

As Buck O’Neil wrote: “Here’s how royally we were treated in Dunseith . . . The town fathers gave us this big house . . . and we had a ball there. We did our own cooking and everything.” The “best thing was we had a nice big bathtub with hot running water to soak in. That was no common thing back then.

“We had no problems getting served in restaurants and hotels . . . [because] they didn’t have . . . those Jim Crow rules” – a reference to the southern laws enforcing segregation.

The Dunseith Acme Giants had a marvelous summer, reportedly playing 126 games, “winning 115 and losing 11” against teams from North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Canada.

On this date, in 1937, the Dunseith Journal recalled that glorious 1936 season, remembering O’Neil and the others, and hoping O’Neill might return – and though he never did, the Acme Giants, who wintered in the Deep South, did indeed return to Dunseith in 1937 and 1938.

Buck O’Neil went on to a fabled career with the Kansas City Monarchs as player and manager. In later years, he became an eloquent, gravel-voiced spokesman for Negro-Leagues history. He also wrote about the summer of 1936 – when his Acme Giants had truly put Dunseith on the baseball-map.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “House of David vs. Colored Giants,” Dunseith Journal, August 12, 1937, p. 1.

“Dunseith Acme Giants Baseball Team,” Prairie Past and Mountain Memories: A History of Dunseith, N.D., 1882-1982 (Dunseith: [Centennial Committee], 1982), p. 362.

Buck O’Neil, Steve Wulf, David Conrads, I Was Right On Time (N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 364-365.

Email message, LeaRae Espe, Bottineau, ND, to the author, April 26, 2014.

“An Appreciation to the Citizens of Dunseith and Rolette County,” Dunseith Journal, August 27, 1936, p. 1.

“Dunseith Acme Giants Leave for Deep South,” Dunseith Journal, September 3, 1936, p. 1.

“Dunseith Colored Giants Win More Than They Lose,” Dunseith Journal, June 24, 1937, p. 1.

“Dunseith Giants Won At New Rockford,” Dunseith Journal, May 26, 1938, p. 1.

“Dunseith Giants Still Going Strong,” Dunseith Journal, July 7, 1938, p. 1.

Leslie Heaphy, The Negro Leagues, 1869-1960 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003), p. 217.

“John Jordan ‘Buck’ O’Neil (1911-2006),” in James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (N.Y.: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1994), p. 588-590.

Jules Tygiel, “Barnstorming; The Negro Leagues,” at "http://www.oah.org/pubs/magazine/sport/tygiel.html" http://www.oah.org/pubs/magazine/sport/tygiel.html , accessed on July 3, 2006, reprinted from OAH Magazine of History 7 (Summer 1992).