Buck O’Neil and the Soul of Baseball

Joe Posnanski's The Soul of Baseball

Joe Posnanski’s “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America”

Rogers Hornsby was once asked how he spent the winter, given that there’s no baseball. “I’ll tell you what I do,” he answered. “I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

You can hardly blame him, given that he had no smart phones or Ipads to occupy himself. Not that Hornsby would have used them. He reportedly disdained the movies and newspapers — talk about someone ahead of their time — because he didn’t want to damage his eyesight.

That would rule out reading about baseball, which might be a better way to spend the winter than Hornsby spent his, dreaming of hanging curveballs.

Which brings us to Joe Posnanski’s almost decade-old The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America, which is how I spent part of my winter. Staring out the window and waiting for spring wasn’t an option, given the view.

If your idea of baseball is peanuts, $8 dollar beers and old stories mixed with modern updates, that’s The Soul of Baseball, though the beer costs almost as much as the paperback version. It’s a collection of shorter stories brought together to make one longer story, all about a year spent traveling with O’Neil.

O’Neil was 94 when Posnanski spent that year with him, old enough to have seen Babe Ruth homer off Satchel Paige on a barnstorming tour (the first to shake the Babe’s hand at home plate? Satchel Paige), young enough to appreciate Roger Clemens pitching against Greg Maddux.

It’s 280 pages, sans acknowledgements, of grace and dignity, optimism and joy, hurt and healing, jazz and baseball, race and America. It’s equal parts entertainment and education. O’Neil was so beloved that when 17 Negro League players and owners, but not O’Neil, were elected to the Hall of Fame near the end of the book, a cadre of media people who probably never saw him play was outraged, all more than O’Neil.

O’Neil, no matter his disappointment, wondered if he’d be asked to speak at the induction ceremonies.

You don’t need to read all 280 pages to understand why. O’Neil may not have been a Hall of Fame player, but — the first black major league coach, a scout and a proponent of the Negro Leagues museum — O’Neil seems like a Hall of Fame good guy and ambassador for baseball.

Posnanski’s book was worthy of its subject. It’s best read the way ice cream should be devoured: the portions smaller the closer you get to the end to make it last.

O’Neil never played in the major leagues and never managed in them (he did both in the Negro Leagues) and he never made the Hall of Fame. In the book, he never revealed any disappointment.

“People feel sorry for me,” O’Neil said. “Man, I heard Charlie Parker.”

He meant in person and not just on a record, before anyone called him Bird. He’s got a point.

A few of my favorite anecdotes, in no particular order, from The Soul of Baseball. Some of them are, as Buck would say about the first baseball game a young fan sees, hard to forget:

  • Buck O’Neil said Oscar Charleston was the best player he ever saw, and when Willie Mays asked about Charleston, O’Neil told him, “He was you before you.” Charleston is a Hall of Famer, inducted in 1976, 22 years after his death. He played from 1915-41 and was ranked by Bill James as the fourth-best player ever (Ruth, Honus Wagner and Mays). I’m sure I had heard of him before reading Posnanski’s book, but I didn’t remember it. Shame on me. It makes you ponder who was Oscar Charleston before Oscar Charleston.
  • O’Neil and a fellow scout were looking for a game in Louisiana and happened upon a stadium with the lights on. “This must be where the game is,” O’Neil said. Except when they got close enough, they saw there was a truck on the mound, not a pitcher, and the uniform of the day was neither home nor away but the KKK. Suffice to say, they left faster than “Cool Papa” Bell, who O’Neil once said was so fast he could steal second and third on the same pitch.
  • Willard Brown, called Sonny, was 32 when the St. Louis Browns brought him to the major leagues in 1947, just two weeks after Larry Doby became the American League’s first black player. He didn’t have the career Doby did. He batted .169 in 67 at-bats in ’47 and never played in the majors again. He hit one home run in those 67 at-bats, off Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser, and he did it, according to the book, with teammate Jeff Heath’s bat because Brown was pinch-hitting. It won the game for the Browns. From the book: “Sonny Brown watched Jeff Heath take his bat, the one Sonny had used to hit the home run. Heath looked at it for a split second and then smashed it against the wall. Sonny Brown talked with Buck about that moment a lot — the moment when he watched pure hatred crashing against a dugout wall. ‘What is the lesson …?’ Buck would ask the children in schools (when he told them Sonny Brown’s story). … ‘The lesson, children,’ Buck said, ‘is that it wasn’t easy.’ Footnote: On the day Buck wasn’t voted into the Hall of Fame, Sonny Brown was. Posnanski wrote that “delighted Buck no end.”
  • Buck once testified before Congress on the Negro Leagues museum. Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum made it a point to shake Buck’s hand. Whatever you think of Santorum’s politics, his reputation as a baseball fan is apparently well earned.
  • Buck was a player, in more ways than one. When they visited an old Kansas town founded after the Civil War by freed slaves, Buck visited a 101-year-old widow, who had the same name, Ora, as his late wife. “My courting days are over,” she said. Posnanski: “Buck caught her eyes. ‘Well,’ he said, “you know, I’m single.'”
  • Billy Williams played in 1,117 consecutive major league games, but when he was a minor-leaguer, he left the team and went home. O’Neil was dispatched to Williams’ Alabama home to bring him back, and O’Neil’s low-pressure salesmanship did just that. Williams hit 426 homers, had 2,711 hits and made the Hall of Fame. More than 40 years after Williams bolted, J.C. Hartman, said to Buck. “There’s another part of that story that you probably don’t know, Buck,”and Hartman told O’Neil Williams had the game-winning hit one night but couldn’t eat with teammates in the team hotel’s restaurant, and was dispatched to the kitchen where he and Hartman were ignored. Williams went home. O’Neil listened to the story as if it were new to him, but when Posnanski asked him if he knew any of it, he said yes. He had driven Williams back to Texas, and Williams had told him all. O’Neil often told the story about saving Williams’ career, but not why he needed to. From the book: “Sometimes pain is better left behind.”
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