Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Soul of Baseball: An extraordinary book about an extraordinary man

Books now read in ’07: 34
Title: The Soul of Baseball, A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America
Author: Joe Posnanski
Genre: Baseball
Date Completed: 4-21
Pages: 273

I had many reasons to be favorably inclined toward Joe Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball, A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America. It was a gift from two dear friends in Kansas City, Jerry and Nancy Lonergan. It was about baseball, which “writes” like no other sport. And it was about the legendary Buck O’Neil.

Imagine my surprise then to discover that The Soul of Baseball, A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America not only met my expectations, it exceeded them. This book is filled with marvelous stories of negro league baseball as well as of O'Neil's experiences during his "tour" of America. Mostly, it is about O’Neil, who was a wise, kind man and whose personality shines forth in this book in unexpectedly powerful and poignant ways.

Posnanski, a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, spent a year literally traveling coast-to-coast with O’Neil; from San Diego to tiny Nicodemus, Kansas, founded by freed slaves after the Civil War, to Washington, D.C., and an appearance before a congressional committee. The book concludes in 2006 with a select committee’s inexplicable decision not to elect O’Neil to the baseball Hall of Fame.

O’Neil’s response to that decision reveals the true depth of his character. He was profoundly disappointed, but handled the rejection as he handled so many before – with grace and equanimity and class. O’Neil never played major league baseball. As with so many blacks, he was denied that opportunity by the overt racism of his time. He did play in the negro leagues and time and time again he told those who would listen to never feel sorry for him or his on-field companions because they were doing what they loved to do. O’Neil was not a great player, merely a very good one. He led the league in hitting once and almost did it again the next year.

He won pennants as manager of the Kansas City Monarchs. He coached in the majors and might have become the first black manager in the majors, except baseball wasn’t ready yet. He served as a major league scout, securing an opportunity for many young blacks that he had been denied. Those players form an impressive roster of talent.

More important, for a half century O’Neil was ambassador for baseball; in particular, he was ambassador for the negro leagues. He tirelessly campaigned for many black players’ induction into the Hall of Fame. He carried an envelope with him carrying the names of those he thought worthy of induction. Ultimately some of the names were crossed off because of O’Neil’s efforts. Sadly, most of those players were inducted posthumously.

Although he experienced racism first hand, O’Neil never displayed the bitterness and anger that rightfully claimed other men. Something deep within Buck O’Neil always let him see the best. It was not merely that he was free of rancor, but that he was always – always – a good and gracious man.

Buck O’Neil should certainly be in the baseball Hall of Fame. If there were such a thing as a human Hall of Fame he should be there too.

If you’re a fan of baseball, this book is for you. If you’re one of those people who always wonder why there’s never any “good” news on TV or in the newspaper, this book is for you. If you believe in good things and good people, if you want to laugh and cry, it’s also for you.

The Soul of Baseball, A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary man.

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