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Serve Your Country, Seize Your Opportunities: The inspiring journey of Maj. Dick "Lefty" O'Neal

  • Published
  • By Joe Gangemi
  • Headquarters Air Force Recruiting Services

In the history of baseball few stories illustrate the sport's power to bridge cultural divides as effectively as that of Dick "Lefty" O'Neal. His journey through the racially charged landscape of mid-20th-century, playing baseball, and serving his country exemplifies courage, resilience, service to country and the human spirit.

Growing up in Arkansas, O'Neal spent his early years playing catch with his father. His ability on the mound spoke for itself, during his American Legion Baseball years, where he achieved an impressive 32-2 record, including six no-hitters and ten shutouts. These achievements caught the eye of major league scouts, with at least 16 teams expressing interest in his talent.

Despite being scouted by numerous major league teams, O'Neal's path took an unexpected turn when a low military draft number diverted his course toward serving in the military. Two months after receiving a Bachelor of Science in Education, O’Neal found himself with the five percent of college graduates attending Air Force basic training.

However, instead of putting his baseball dreams on hold, his journey took a unique path. O’Neal assumed joining the Air Force would be the end of his paying days, he was wrong.

“I thought I would never play baseball again,” O’Neal said. “But in my third week of basic training, I was offered a chance to become an athletic specialist and player-pitching coach for one the Air Force teams.”

O’Neal was excited to learn he could serve his country and chase his passion at the same time.

Reporting for duty at his first assignment, O’Neal’s job was to play and coach baseball for the Kessler Air Force Base Tarpons.

The Air Force, recognizing O'Neal's talents, authorized and encouraged him to sign a semi-professional contract to play professional baseball while remaining on active duty.  His abilities on the field continued to shine, exemplified by a standout performance in which he struck out nine batters in a game against the Biloxi Dodgers of the Gulf Coast Negro Leagues, the team he signed with.

O'Neal's time in Biloxi marked the beginning of his groundbreaking journey into the Negro Leagues.

“Lefty was a great-white shark of a ball player to watch in the all-black league because he used negative comments … to his advantage,” said John “Mule” Miles former Negro league player. “The fans loved him because he was a positive role model.”

Commonly referred to as the “Bush League” Negro Leagues were associations of African American baseball teams in the United States. “Everyone, said it wasn’t true, or didn’t exist in the sixties or seventies” O’Neal said.

The Negro Leagues played a crucial role in the history of African American baseball, especially during a time when racial segregation barred Black players from participating in major and minor league baseball. O’Neal was the only white ball player to have ever played in two different Negro Leagues during the 70s while serving on active duty. The second team was the San Antonio Black Socks of the Texas Negro League while he was assigned as a Military Technical Instructor at Lackland Air Force Base.

O'Neal's post-baseball career is as multifaceted as his journey on the diamond. He served a 23-year career garrison and abroad as enlisted and an officer in the United States Air Force.

His connection to baseball and the Air Force remains strong, he has served as an adjunct professor in speech communication, a part-time corporate training consultant, and a motivational speaker, baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals.

 His commitment to the community is evident through his roles on the executive board of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in San Antonio, Texas, and as former vice president of the South Texas Professional Baseball Negro League Players' Association.

His story is set to reach an even wider audience, with plans for his book to be adapted into an independent film. His story continues with his auto biography. A copy of his book can be found in the Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York

“I met Lefty at a recent game,” said Brig. Gen. Christopher Amrhein, Air Force Recruiting Service commander. “Lefty was doing what we need all current and former Airmen to do – tell their Air Force Story.”

In the story of Dick "Lefty" O'Neal, we find not just a baseball player, or Airmen but a trailblazer whose journey transcended the color line, leaving an indelible mark on the sport and inspiring generations to come.

“Serving your country can lead to incredible opportunities,” O’Neal said. “The Air Force provided a platform to follow my passions, and it can do the same for others”.

To learn more about full and part-time opportunities in joining the Air and Space Forces, visit our website www.AirForce.com or www.SpaceForce.com. To speak with a recruiter near you, click here.