Everyone has a Buck O’Neil story.
That’s perhaps the best way Joe Posnanski summed up O’Neil’s life in The Soul of Baseball. It’s not, of course, a description of the man, but the best thing about Posnanski’s writing is that he can show rather than tell better than most authors. And he shows O’Neil with verve, describing him via his colorful suits and matching shoes; as a hugger; how he could not pass by a woman in a red dress; how he took the dais at the Hall of Fame ceremony he was opaquely (and unfairly) denied; and, of course, the way everyone had a story about him
Naturally, I have my own Buck O’Neil story. Sort of.
I was seven or eight, still in the nascent stages of my baseball fandom but at an age when my passion could not have been more pure, when my mom took a friend and I to a baseball card show at a local mall. My memory of the event is not vivid. I can summon the mental image of an open concourse with rows of folding tables, each with rows of white cardboard boxes on top holding still smaller pieces of cardboard screened with the likeness of baseball players.
It’s not a stirring scene, and it would not have lodged itself firmly in my memory were it not for a small booth in the middle of the mall behind which two men sat. The booth was not like the others. It was not lined with card boxes, nor did it have memorabilia crowding every available inch. This booth was simply where two older African-American men sat, waiting for visitors.
The show was not crowded, at least not in my memory, and there was no line of fans waiting or anything else to signify to two young kids that their time would be well spent at this booth with two aging men. But still, we went. I’m fairly certain it was my mom who encouraged us to go, something else I’ll have to belatedly thank her for, because although the details of our conversation are hazy, the time we spent talking with those two men has always remained with me.
I had heard of the Negro Leagues before, of course. I had checked out books on Jackie Robinson from my school library, so there was no missing it, but I’m not sure I had ever really heard about it until I spoke with those two gentlemen that day in the early 1990s. They spent what, in memory, seems like hours telling me all about their lives, their playing careers, the injustice as well as the simple joy of playing baseball for a living. I don’t have recall of everything, but I distinctly remember their attitudes. Neither was bitter, neither was upset at their treatment decades ago; they could have been, and who would have blamed them, but they loved baseball, and that’s what I remember from meeting them. I remember the way they still loved baseball and how they wanted to share that with me.
More than two decades later I read The Soul of Baseball and that feeling was in front of me again. In every Buck O’Neil story that Posnanski describes in the book, I saw those two former Negro League players that had spent their day talking to my friend and I. I felt that feeling of awe at having someone—not someone you know is important because of what a history book told you, but someone you can feel the importance radiating from—share their experience and their humanity with you.
I wracked my brain trying to remember the names of the men I had spoken to that day long ago. It couldn’t be Buck O’Neil, could it? He did a lot of travelling, he loved speaking with baseball fans, and, most of all, everyone had a Buck O’Neil story. So, maybe. Just maybe.
The day I finished reading, I pulled down the ladder to the attic and climbed up with a flashlight to dig through the boxes where my baseball relics have been relegated since I got married and had kids and gave up my own space for others. I pulled out a framed black-and-white 4x6 of a young man in a Kansas City Monarchs jersey. Over the top of the picture, in that lovely cursive that only those born to a world without word processors still possess, was the name Sherwood Brewer. I dug deeper and found the other signed picture I had, an 8x10 illustration of a man in a Chicago American Giants hat: Dennis “Bose” Biddle.
Mine wasn’t a Buck O’Neil story after all.
But then again, it was. Brewer played for O’Neil when he managed the Monarchs; Biddle became an advocate for former Negro Leaguers later in life, just as O’Neil had.
The grace of Buck O’Neil, as described throughout the book by Posnanski, might not be a trait shared by everyone who played in the Negro Leagues. Hell, I don’t think many humans of any color, creed, profession, or persuasion possess half as much grace as O’Neil did. But I do think that O’Neil had an impact on everyone who played in the Negro Leagues. It’s certain he had an impact on Posnanski, and that led to the creation of a truly wonderful book.
O’Neil didn’t make it long enough to see Posnanski’s book reach the shelves, but we are all richer for the time he spent with Posnanski. The Soul of Baseball is an incredible read. It’s well written, it is important, and it has a truly wonderful main character. There are few baseball books I would recommend as highly.