22 October 2007

Joe Posnanski, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip through Buck O’Neil’s America. NY: Wm. Morrow, 2007.

Buck O’Neil was the most graceful man I’ve ever met. Not physically, mind you—it’s hard for a ninety-year old man, even a professional athlete, to move gracefully. No, O’Neil’s grace was internal, a peace, an all-encompassing agape love that let this man, denied so much—a chance to play, or to manage, in the Major Leagues—because of his ‘beautiful tan’, nonetheless call his autobiography I Was Right on Time. “Don’t feel sorry for us,” he said in it. “We had a great time”. That book tells of America’s impact on Buck O’Neil, longtime first baseman and manager of the Negro National League, founder of the Negro Leagues Museum, and star of Ken Burn’s miniseries Baseball. The Soul of Baseball is something else.

In this book, Kansas City sportswriter Posnanski chronicles a year of traveling with O’Neil as he moves across the country telling stories and keeping memories of the Negro Leagues alive during a year when the Hall of Fame held a special election and inducted seventeen neglected players from the Negro Leagues—but not O’Neil [O'Neil was later honored by the HoF when they created a Lifetime Achievement award bearing his name]. This isn’t a biography, though we learn plenty about O’Neil. It isn’t what O’Neil asked for, either, when he approached Posnanski looking for someone to “tell it like it was”. Instead, it is a deeply personal account in which Posnanski is able to capture—or at least reflect—some of the joy that seemed to radiate from O’Neil, some of the stories that otherwise would have been lost. We see an old man refusing to be bitter, spreading an infectious love. O’Neil makes it clear that baseball was great in his day—and is still great, in spite of millionaires, steroids, and the rest of the game’s ills: “The game hasn’t changed,” he would say, “We have”. Like baseball, O’Neil never changed; America did. Calling Buck O’Neil the Soul of Baseball is an incredible complement, but it may still be understated. As presented by Posnanski, O’Neil represented not just the best of baseball, but of all humanity.

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