Soul of Baseball

Joe Posnanski is one lucky little S.O.B. Forget that he gets paid to write about sports, and is well respected enough among his peers to win the AP Sports Columnist of the Year Award twice. That’s chicken feed. He got to spend a full year following Buck O’Neil around wherever the man went, taking notes, getting to know the former Negro Leaguer up close and personal. Oh, and then he wrote a book about causing him to get paid for this experience. Nice.

Yes, he did have that experience and the result is his new book, “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America. Buck O’Neil, of course, was a man with an incredibly diverse and extensive baseball resume. First a player who the led the Negro Leagues in hitting once; he became a very successful manager in the league’s waning days, taking youngsters like Ernie Banks under his wing and teaching them to love the game. Afterward he became the superscout who signed Billy Williams, Lou Brock and a host of others.

Over a decade before MLB was ready for a black manager, he became integrated ball’s first black coach. In what appeared to be the epilogue of his life, he became the driving figure behind the creation the of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and most famously since the broadcast of Ken Burns’s “Baseball” Buck O’Neill’s been both the game’s most widely cherished goodwill ambassador and the public face and voice of the Negro Leagues. Even for someone who lived over 90 years, that’s an awful lot to fit in.

It’s important to realize what this book isn’t to understand what it is. It’s not a biography of O’Neil. Anyone seeking that would be best off reading his autobiography, I Was Right on Time. It’s not a history of the Negro Leagues. Instead, it’s an attempt to gain the measure of the man as he went around the nation, giving interviewing and talks throughout 2005, in what would turn out to be the last year of his life.

The book is a joy to read because Buck O’Neil was a ray of sunshine to be around. If you’re looking for shocking “tell all” revelations, you’ve got the wrong book. In these pages O’Neil comes off pretty much just like his widely lauded public persona—a naturally positive person who has the gift to make people better about themselves and their lives just by being around and talking to them. The big shockers are—he needs to take naps to get through his schedule! (Gasp!) He gets upset when a woman asks him if he needs a wheelchair! Really, that’s the dark side of Buck O’Neil.

He did wear down at times, but one of the most interesting parts of the book is how interactions with people help him revitalize. For example, there’s a story of him signing autographs outside of a mobile Negro Leagues Museum exhibit on the hottest day of the summer in Washington, D.C. Predictably, with the thermometer besting Buck’s advanced aged, he wilted in the sun, and barely had the strength to open a water bottle. He went inside the air conditioned exhibit, and struck up a conversation with a young boy. He went around the trailer with the lad, going over all the exhibits, before going back outside to sign autographs. Posnanski wrote:

It was then that I noticed a man watching them both. It was the boy’s father. He looked as if he might cry. “Someday,” the father said, “he’s going to know how much this meant.”

But the funny thing was, while the dad was talking, I was not looking at his son. I was looking at Buck. The flushness of his face was gone. His eyes were wide open. He bounced as he walked, and he laughed and talked. When he finished the tour, Buck … headed out into the Washington oven and the hungry mosquitoes. He almost ran to the picnic table and announced to all the people wilting in the heat, “You know what? It’s a beautiful day. Feels like the sun is on your shoulder.” Buck sat down, opened up a bottle of water with one grunt and a twist. He drank half the bottle in one gulp.

This book is full of stories of people coming into contact with Buck and having him lift their spirits by sheer force of his personality, and having that experience bounce back and make him feel good. Trying to find the best story is like trying to pick the best Beatles song, there’s a lot there to choice from. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy reading, then this book’s for you.

One theme in this book, obviously, is race. O’Neil’s playing and managing career were limited by his race. During the depths of the Depression he had to play for a team called the Zulu Cannibal Giants to earn money. You can tell what kind of team they were by their name. And of course, he’s endured the countless daily slings and arrows of blatant and subtle bigotry thrown at a black man in 20th century America.

As described in Posnanski’s work (as well as in just about everything ever written or said about the man), O’Neil has experienced some very harsh racism, had the course of his life effected by it, yet somehow has managed to avoid any trace of bitterness or anger as he extolled the virtues of this land and its people. Looking back on the previous sentence, he almost sounds like an Uncle Tom, but that’s one phrase that never came to my mind as I read this book.

His enthusiasm and love for his fellow man were genuine, not fawning attempts at appreciation. He held himself with an air of self-respect and dignity. You have to wonder how he’d come off so genuinely positive. If he did have any anger, he must have done an amazing job hiding it, because no one who comes into contact with him—even those who knew him for decades—can find a trace of bitterness in him.

One subject Posnanski handled very artfully was the touchy subject of O’Neill non-induction into the Hall of Fame. Cooperstown’s enshrinement of 17 others but not O’Neil was the source of one of the biggest Hall of Fame controversies in recent years. To call O’Neil’s supporters irate would be an understatement. A few showed the level of ugly scorn for the committee that most people only hold for Nazi war criminals, child molesters, and Steve Garvey. However, it would be completely out of place for a book on Buck O’Neil to be marred by a note of furious bitterness.

Posnanski avoids this by shifting into reporter mode when describing the anger of those around O’Neil, but also looking at Buck’s reaction. He was clearly disappointed, but in he focused on the players inducted that he wanted inducted who got in. When Posnanski asked him how he can take it so well, “Think about this son. What is my life about?” replied the man who had dedicated his life to preserving the memory of the Negro Leagues.

There’s a host more that can be said for this book and its subject. I especially like how Posnanski presented many of Buck’s soliloquies as poetry. Dammit, they are poetry. There were better ballplayers than he, better managers, and better scouts. For the life of me though, I can’t think of anyone better suited to be called “The Soul of Baseball” than Buck O’Neil.

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