The sun was shining bright on the late-autumn day in 1999 that I rode with family and friends from our hometown of Columbus to the beautiful church in Powell, Ohio, where the memorial for my father, Charles “Chick” O’Neill, was to be held. Out in the wooded Midwestetn countryside, the leaves had turned, and the fall colors were on display reds, oranges, browns and yellows. A light wind ruffled the leaves still clinging to the trees and stirred up those on the ground.
Another autumn was coming to an end. The smell of winter was in the air.
Ohio-born and -grown, I am the youngest of the six O’Neill children one daughter and five sons who were blessed to call Chick and Virginia our parents, and at 36 years old, I knew enough about changes in the seasons. Not just in the cycles of nature and in baseball, but also in the seasons of life. And yet, even though Dad’s health had been on the decline and we knew that the time had been coming when he would no longer be with us, I was totally unprepared for the reality of his being gone. Even in his last weeks, frail as he was, Dad always believed that tomorrow would be a bright day, and he would be back on his feet again. He made me believe that, too, impossible though it was. That was part of his magic, part of his larger-than-life persona.
Dad’s eternal faith in a golden future was as deeply ingrained in him as was his love for baseball a game he loved as much as I’ve ever seen any man love a game. Then again, baseball was less a game to him than a way of life, a set of rules and philosophies, challenges and opportunities that provided order to the universe. It embodied so much of who he was and what he stood for the old-fashioned American values he learned growing up in the Midwest: hard work, sacrifice, courage, devotion to family and nation, overcoming hardship, reaching for dreams.
According to my sister, Molly, while other kids in our neighborhood were being brought up Methodist or Lutheran, in Dad’s house we were brought up Baseball. She had that right. My brother Robert saw Dad’s passion for baseball as one of the many ways he liked to live poetically. I could see that, too, how he expressed equal gusto for the small and the great moments from the simple pleasure he got from eating a hot dog as he watched spring-training practice to the euphoria he felt at his son’s team’s winning a world championship. It was his celebration, just as he loved crowds, entertaining people, mixing up a batch of his famous secret-recipe pancakes, or cranking out homemade ice cream filling up the house with his friends and ours, always making everyone feel welcome.
For all these reasons, it came as no surprise during Dad’s memorial in the sanctuary of the wood-beamed, light-filled church that baseball people, ex-teenagers who worked summers for him in the 1960s and ’70s, came up and spoke to me so poignantly, recalling how profoundly he touched their lives. It was just fun to be around him. And when it was time for eulogies, four of my siblings took their turns Molly, Mike, Patrick and Robert braving the emotion in their voices to share heart-wrenchingly beautiful stories of Dad’s humble beginnings and extraordinary contributions, all of them ending by putting into words their undying love for him.
From the book Me and My Dad: A Baseball Memoir by Paul O’Neill with Burton Rocks. Copyright © 2003 by Paul O’Neill. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow & Co., an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Available in bookstores in hardcover and coming in paperback in May.