Take a journey with a baseball legend
Biographical accounts of Buck O'Neil a guaranteed page-turner
Truth be told, a thousand writers probably could have traveled across the country with Buck O'Neil over the period of a year and written a book about it.
And most of those writers probably would have produced a somewhat interesting book, one which would have taken its place among the other historical works about the Negro Leagues, the racism this country had to (and still has to) overcome, and the story of a man who refused to give up and refused to give in.
But few could have written this book, "The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America" and made the language dance with grace, poetry and humanity as Kansas City Star sports columnist Joe Posnanski has done. It was as if 'The Soul of Baseball" was meant to be. But we'll get to that in a bit.
You may already know the name Buck O'Neil, the Negro Leagues baseball legend, player, manager, scout, first black coach in the Major Leagues and star of Ken Burns' award-winning 18-hour documentary, "Baseball."
O'Neil, who was an 81-year-old spring chicken in 1994 when "Baseball" was released, told Ken Burns the stories of the great black players who were denied entrance into the Major Leagues before 1947; players like Josh Gibson, Hilton Smith and Oscar Charleston. How Burns found O'Neil (a man Burns calls the most spiritual person he's ever met) I'm not sure, but what a treasure it was to have him finally introduced to the world.
O'Neil instantly became the face of both what was good about the sport and the history of the Negro Leagues. We also got to know he was the chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., which had been founded a mere four years earlier.
Two years ago, there was a rumbling out of Cooperstown that the elder statesman could finally gain admittance to the one venue he had still been denied: the Baseball Hall of Fame. During the year leading up to that vote, Posnanski, two-time winner of the Associated Press Sports Editors' Columnist of the Year Award, traveled with O'Neil from Kansas City to New York to Chicago to Minneapolis, to anywhere where fund-raisers, radio, television or award ceremonies would give O'Neil an opportunity to spread the word about a league and players who have long passed into the pages of the history books.
Along the way, Joe -- and through him, the readers -- get to see and hear the world as Buck saw and heard it ... and how he saw it and heard it 50 and 60 years ago. And what a joy it is! From long car rides to obscure little towns, to elevators in New York City and couples kissing in the park, Buck gets hugs ("Give it up!") from women in red dresses ("Son, in this life, you don't ever walk by a red dress."), children, even Willie Mays, and imparts his wisdom along the journey.
And now the "meant to be" part. Although he is too modest to admit to it, Posnanski was the perfect fit for Buck to get his story out, and Buck was the perfect person for Joe to have as a collaborator. Look at how Posnanski's use of verse in quoting O'Neil is genius in elevating Buck's words to another, higher, more poetic level ... and appropriately so.
You look back,
Didn't make no sense.
What people do to each other
'Cause of something dark
In their hearts.
Or this about the funeral of former player "Double Duty" Radcliffe:
This is not
A sad occasion
No sorrow when a man
Lives a full life
Save your sadness
When they're taken young,
Before their time.
Man lives to be one hundred and three,
Got to do everything,
There is to feel in this world.
Don't wanna live forever.
It's one thing to recognize the cadence of speech; it's another to know to use verse as a way to lift up the emotional impact of the words, much like a sermon, as an extension of the man and the meaning of his life.
Another time, in Houston with Buck, Posnanski writes: "The third baseman stood so close to Clemens they could have shared a milk shake." Not a beer, but a milk shake! Or: "Almost forty years later, [Buck] still remembered the lush beauty of that field. The outfield grass glowed so green it looked as if children had colored the blades of grass with crayons."
Which brings me to this: "The Soul of Baseball" is two stories, really. The story of Buck and the Negro Leagues, naturally, but also the story of Joe Posnanski's own journey. This is the secret and beauty of the piece, for without Joe in here, we lose an important emotional involvement that makes this more than "just a baseball book" or "a biography of Buck O'Neil." It is when we feel Joe's love, Joe's pain, Joe's wonderment that we, the reader, get hooked in, get a lump in our throats.
When Buck approached Joe about writing a book about the Negro Leagues, to tell it like it really was, not how Hollywood had depicted it, Joe tried. First as a story about an obscure Negro League game in 1939 in which Buck played ("I don't remember much about the game," he said), then as a fictional account of a white scout sent into the black leagues.
Finally, Joe realizes consciously or subconsciously the idea of not only following Buck around, but putting himself into the narrative. At that point, Joe found the structure in which to build his story.
Buck O'Neil, who passed away in October 2006, is somebody who somehow got it "right." He talked the talk and he walked the walk.
"It's not how long you live," Buck would say, "but how well you live."
We know now, yes -- Buck O'Neil lived life well, and thanks to Joe Posnanski, the lessons continue to touch us.
Barry Wittenstein is an editorial producer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.