Joe Posananski’s The Soul of Baseball: a Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America struck many cords with me.
I met Buck O’Neil in the fall of 1996. At the time, he was in his eighties. He came to speak to a class I was taking about the negro leagues and the integration of Major League Baseball. Like almost everyone who had the pleasure of hearing Mr. O’Neil talk about baseball and particularly the negro leagues, I was captivated. A man who was denied his dream of playing Major League Baseball simply because of the color of his skin, Mr. O’Neil had a good reason to be angry and bitter. Ever the eternal optimist, his view was he was born right on time; in fact, that’s the name of his biography.
Listening to his funny stories and tales about players I had only been able to read about, I was inthralled. We met many historical baseball people that fall, but none of them left the impression on me that Mr. O’Neil left. Shaking his hand, I realized he was one of the most unique people I would ever meet.
Missing baseball and looking for something to read, I started thinking about the Negro Leagues. When I found The Soul of Baseball, I knew it was a book I had to read.
Before I started reading, I wondered how the perspective of such an eternal optimist would feel during the current crisis where black people are still trying to convince many white people their lives matter.
As expected, I found myself smiling and laughing a lot during the book. Sometimes, I found myself wondering if Mr. O’Neil was right. No matter how bad things had been for him, he kept believing in progress and the good of humanity. As I kept reading, I felt guilty for being unable to accept what Mr. O’Neil was selling.
Sure, I was, for the most part, enjoying the book. But I kept hearing George Floyd’s cries for help. I kept thinking about Rashard Brooks getting shot in the back for sleeping in his car. I wish I could say reading Mr. O’Neil’s words motivated me to feel better about America and people, but I won’t lie.
In the last year of his life, Mr. O’Neil had a chance to be inducted into The Baseball Hall of Fame. Given all he had done to keep the memory of the negro leagues alive, his role as the first black coach in Major League Baseball, his years as a great scout, and his work in the negro leagues, Mr. O’Neil should have been inducted. Seventeen people associated with the negro leagues were inducted that year, and he wasn’t one of them.
Even then, he had the dignity to speak at the ceremony to explain to everyone, once again, how great the players who were inducted had been. Even then, he refused to sell his case for induction. Then, like so many deserving black men before him, Mr. O’Neil died before ever having the validation he deserved from the sport he gave so much.
I’m glad I read The Soul of Baseball. I truly admire and respect Mr. O’Neil’s courage and dignity. But I’m just as convinced his faith in America and humanity is misplaced. The progress that led him to talk about the greatness of America is simply not a narrative I can accept. Incremental progress–especially on questions of dignity–is unacceptable.