BILOXI-- Dick "Lefty" O'Neal took his disappointment in not getting drafted by baseball and turned it into a positive, becoming the only white player to play for two Negro League Baseball teams.
O'Neal spoke Friday at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art.
"My best days in baseball were in the Negro League," O'Neal said.
O'Neal believes the story of Negro League Baseball has largely been forgotten with standout players like Johnny Thompson, David Williams, Kenny Peyton, and Johnny Alexander, and coaches like William Windham.
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"I want to tell their stories," he said.
O'Neal's story starts in the mid-1960s in Arkansas as an American Legion pitcher, going 32-2 over three years with 10 shutouts and six no-hitters. His pitching caught the eye of the St. Louis Cardinals, who invited him for a try-out as a 17-year-old. After being hit hard by several Cardinals making their return on injured reserve, O'Neal said he and the Cardinals agreed he needed more seasoning and he signed with the University of Central Arkansas.
While in college, O'Neal said he kept close contact with the Cardinals and expected the club to draft him when after graduation. Before St. Louis could draft him, he received a draft number of "6" for the military draft.
"Anything below a 103, and you knew where you were going," O'Neal said. "I had no choice. A lot of people had to put their careers on hold (after being drafted)."
A week before he was to ship out for Saigon, the Air Force learned about his pitching ability and re-assigned him to Keesler Air Force Base as a player coach pitching for the Tarpons, the base team. When he arrived at Biloxi, O'Neal was told not to wear his uniform off-base.
O'Neal looked at the job board and didn't like any of the possibilities. But as a pitcher for the Tarpons, one of the first teams he met was the Biloxi Dodgers, who played in the Gulf Coast Negro League. O'Neal struck out nine Dodgers and pitched a three-hit shutout against them, which impressed Horne and Windham. Williams and Peyton owned a food truck that went on base to sell to the airmen stationed at Keesler. After a while, O'Neal said, the two persuaded him and Larry "Smitty" Smith, another white pitcher on the Tarpons, to pitch for them.
"They took a chance to allow us to play with them," O'Neal said. "They benefited from us playing, but we also benefited from playing for them."
After pitching for the Dodgers in 1972-73, O'Neal was transferred back to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. After playing for a short time for the Alamo Enterprises in the Spanish American League, he started pitching for the San Antonio Black Sox of the South Texas Negro League for two years before his enlistment was complete.
O'Neal had several tryouts with Major League teams, but his career was essentially over. The Air Force made him an offer that they would pay for his master's degree if he would rejoin and offered him an officer's commission.
"I have no regrets about serving my country," O'Neal said.
After retiring from the military, O'Neal served as a scout for the Braves and then the Cardinals. He also pitched for various amateur and semi-pro leagues until he was 55.
"I still got the last laugh," said O'Neal. "I got to do some things not too many people are allowed to do."