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The Soul of Baseball by Joe Posnanski

by Matt Smith

The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America by Joe Posnanski (Harper, 2008) 282 pages

You would be hard-pressed to find a better central character to a book than Buck O’Neil.  Not many could match the experiences that he went through, the stories he could tell and the wisdom he could impart.  Even less could generate so much joy while sharing such memories.  O’Neill died not long after this book was written and every baseball fan should be grateful that Joe Posnanski captured the essence of the man before he left this world.  Not that O’Neil would have been forgotten without it, in fact nothing could be further from the truth.  The Soul of Baseball shows just why he will always be a part of baseball history and how everyone who met him was touched by his presence. 

Buck O’Neil played and managed for years in the Negro Leagues during the first half of the twentieth century before operating as a scout and a coach in the Major Leagues.  His unshakable determination to make baseball fans aware of the great Negro League players, who were denied the opportunity to make a name for themselves with a wider public due to racial segregation, meant that in Posnanski’s words he had “become the Negro Leagues to millions of Americans”. 

When Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in 1947, he began to lay to rest the idea (incomprehensible to many today, but believed by just as many at the time) that black players didn’t belong in the Major Leagues.  It was a far from easy transition, partly because people had to admit the injustices they had committed in the past.  For a while, it was easier to sweep the memory of the Negro Leagues under the carpet, but gradually it was realized that denying these players a place in baseball history was only prolonging the prejudice that the game believed it was moving away from.  While other notable figures campaigned for Negro League greats to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, most memorably when Ted Williams supported Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson’s cases during his own acceptance speech, nobody won over more hearts and minds than Buck.

The Soul of Baseball documents the year Joe Posnanski spent accompanying O’Neil on a seemingly endless journey of public appearances that gave him an outlet for his vocation in life: sharing memories of the Negro Leagues.  Buck was ninety-four years old and there are occasions when the heavy toll of the travel and demands on his time begin to wear him down, but they never get the better of him for long.  Far from tiring him out, the exertions were what kept him alive. 

There is a memorable passage when Buck is feeling the strain during a signing session in Washington and he has to excuse himself.  He retreats to the Roadway Negro Leagues travelling museum and meets a young boy looking at  photographs of Negro League greats.  After excitedly sharing his memories of the players with the boy, the effect on Buck is remarkable.  Posnanski notes “The flushness of his face was gone.  His eyes were wide open.  He bounced as he walked, and he laughed and talked”. 

However tired he may have been, sharing his memories with others always re-energized Buck and he had the same effect on the people he met.  The Soul of Baseball is littered with his encounters with different people from all walks of life and, thanks to his optimistic, kind and joyful nature, he rarely fails to brighten up their day.  The people he meets find it impossible not to warm to him and, thanks to the way Posnanski brings the stories to life, the same holds true for the reader.

Consequently the closing chapters cannot help but move you.  After years of promoting other people for the Hall of Fame, Buck was under consideration to join them in Cooperstown.  Posnanski brilliantly depicts the emotions of the day as the initial hope of selection slowly turns to dejection as Buck is overlooked.  The sorrow (and no little anger) that greets the decision is truly felt by the reader, but once again Buck warms the heart by his dignified reaction to the news. 

Buck always fought against the image of the Negro Leagues being second rate, even if it meant being a bit selective with his memory at times.  In one radio interview, he refutes the claim that Negro Leaguers would be packed into cars (and even on to the bumper) by stating “we had buses.  They were some of the best buses money could buy”.  Monte Irvin, a Negro League great before spending his final playing years in the Majors, replied “you must have had better buses than us, Buck”, a knowing comment that suggested the transport wasn’t quite as great as O’Neil remembered.  But that was Buck: always optimistic and seeing the best in things, especially where baseball was concerned.  Whenever anyone stated that baseball was better in his day (which was often), Buck politely disagreed and the childlike joy that swept over him when attending Major League games over the course of the year showed his love for the game was undiminished.

His determination to depict the Negro Leagues in a positive light was a selfless act.  He wanted fellow Negro Leaguers to be remembered as equals to Major Leaguers because they deserved to be.  Which brings us back to the Hall of Fame.  Its importance is emotionally revealed by Posnanski:

“The Hall of Fame meant even more to those great Negro League players who never got their chance to play in the Major Leagues.  Buck said to them the Hall of Fame meant redemption.  A Hall of Fame induction was their chance to hear at last after all the years that they were great.  They belonged in the gallery with Babe Ruth and Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax and Walter Johnson.  To those few Negro Leagues players elected to the Hall of Fame, it was bigger than immortality.  It was an apology”. 

The day Buck was overlooked for the Hall of Fame, seventeen other people associated with the Negro Leagues were selected.  Prior to this point, only eighteen Negro Leaguers had gained entry to Cooperstown.  In a lot of these cases, Buck had played a part in getting them there, either directly through his role on the Hall of Fame veterans committee or as a result of his campaigning.  Even if his playing and managerial career alone didn’t quite raise him to Hall of Fame standards, many felt that the way he championed the Negro League cause meant he more than merited the distinction.  The official  Hall of Fame didn’t agree, but the unofficial Hall of Fame in the hearts of many baseball fans certainly has a place for him.

The Soul of Baseball provides a vivid introduction to the Negro Leagues for British fans looking to learn about this aspect of baseball history.  Just as importantly, it also reveals the efforts people like Buck O’Neill have gone through (and continue to go through) to ensure that the Negro Leagues has a place in baseball history.  And more than anything, it documents what a great man Buck O’Neil was.

Have you read “The Soul of Baseball”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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