Finally! A book about the Negro Leagues that actually captures the spirit of baseball as it was played professionally by people of color before Jackie Robinson broke the barrier. I've read a few attempts over the years, but they contained little more than a few Satchel Paige anecdotes and a plethora of entries that treated the players like encyclopedia articles. The supposedly exciting brand of baseball was reduced to bland, lifeless generic history blurbs. But Joe Posnanski has rescued the era from insipidness with an inspired book titled The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America.
Neither straight history nor biography, Posnanski's prose reads like a self-help treatise on living a good, fulfilling life. Nearly impossible to put down, virtually every chapter brings moments of joy while the ol' tear ducts moisten. It's not even proseso much reads like poetry. The author even acknowledges this by printing a number of O'Neil's responses in poetic format:
In our beautiful memory
We were all handsome.
We all could sing.
We all had the heart
Of the prettiest girl in town.
And we all hit .300.
If you've seen Ken Burns' documentary Baseball, you've seen Buck O'Neil. The longtime player-manager of the Kansas City Monarchs and tireless spokesperson for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, O'Neil was the star of Burns' film. No better representative for the Negro Leagues could be found in this universe. The guy is like a saint! Despite being subjected to years of racial discrimination and hardship, there's absolutely no trace of bitterness in his heart:
Where does bitterness take you?
To a broken heart?
To an early grave?
When I die
I want to die from natural causes.
Not from hate
Eating me up from the inside.
Sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, Posnanski was attempting to write a book about the Negro Leagues, but was getting nowhere at first. O'Neil had challenged him to write the first book that would describe what the Negro Leagues were really like, but Posnanski finally realized that he had to put aside his sports writer persona to accomplish the goal. He couldn't treat the subject like regular journalists who cover things like steroids, skyrocketing salaries, and regular baseball records and history. He would have to get inside Buck O'Neil's head and try to show how he experienced baseball in those days. To do so, Posnanski traveled with the 93-year-old baseball ambassador during the last year of his life.
The result is a real gem, full of anecdotes and descriptive scenes of Buck O'Neil on the road, always displaying his generosity, positive attitude, and supreme humanity. His memory may not have been as sharp as in his younger years, but he still communicates the most vivid picture of life in the Negro Leagues. And it was nothing like the happy-go-lucky clowns portrayed by Richard Pryor in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. The Negro Leagues played real games with real joy, real passion, and real pain.
We get the detailed version of Buck's famous "Nancy" story, a humorous long story involving Satchel Paige and how Buck came to be nicknamed "Nancy," but he was often reluctant to share the story. Perhaps, because too many take this as emblematic for the entire experience of baseball in that era instead of just another funny story common to all humanity.
The book is such a fast read that I had to force myself to slow down and re-read some chapterssimply because I never wanted the book to end. (I'm going to give my book to my dadas Buck notes, baseball and fathers go together) Most poignant are the chapters near the end that chronicle the funeral of 103-year-old former player Double Duty Radcliffe and that unbelievable day when Buck O'Neil was passed over by the committee that elected 17 other Negro League players into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Although O'Neil clearly wanted to be elected and obviously expected it to happen, once again the magnanimous O'Neil turns the outrageous decision into lemonade. That's what his life was all aboutcontinually showering his love on people and preaching the truth about the old Negro Leagues:
"But before Jackie Robinson, there were men who played baseball. And we were good. We could play, man. Double Duty Radcliffe could play. People who saw us, man, we could play. We made a difference in this world. Duty made a difference."
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