We're four months into the baseball season, and I'm four books into my summer-long one-man book club. July's book of the month was The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America by Joe Posnanski.
Most baseball fans know the story of O'Neil, a former Negro Leagues player and manager who was the first black man to coach in the Major Leagues. Of course, he could have played in the bigs if not for the rampant racism that stained the game through the late 1940s when Jackie Robinson broke the color barier, and he could have managed in the bigs if not for the still problematic racism that stained the game through the mid-1970s when Frank Robinson shattered that glass ceiling.
But O'Neil carried on and became one of baseball's greatest ambassadors and the most notable historian of the Negro Leagues. He came to national prominence when his commentary was featured heavily in Ken Burns' baseball documentary that aired on PBS in 1994.
Posnanski, a Kansas City Star columnist, got to know O'Neil over the years and always thought there was a book waiting to be written about O'Neil and the Negro Leagues, but he never could figure out just how to approach it. Finally, he came to the realization that spending a year traveling the country with the great story-teller would be the best way to capture the essence of the man.
And I'd have to say, he was right. There are so many lessons to learn from Buck O'Neil. I've always been amazed that he wasn't bitter, because he had so many reasons to be. He was kept from doing the one thing that he most loved to do because of "my beautiful tan," as he liked to put it. But O'Neil lived his life 180 degrees from bitter. I think this book gets to the heart of that question.
I won't spoil it for those who want to read the book, but basically, O'Neil wasn't bitter because he got to play baseball, travel the countryside and befriend literally thousands of people whom he wouldn't have met if not for the Negro Leagues. He didn't view the league as sub-standard or a lower level of the game. It was different, yes, and the accommodations weren't as nice, but he also was given the opportunity to experience joys he wouldn't have likely seen in the bigs. For example, he tells the story of the time he and Duke Ellington entered a jazz club on 18th and Vine in Kansas City (now the home of the Negro Leagues museum, his great passion in his post-retirement life) and stumbled upon a kid playing the saxophone like he'd never heard it played before. Turns out the kid was Charlie "Bird" Parker, one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century.
"People feel sorry for me," he said. "Man, I heard Charlie Parker!"
O'Neil's life is an object lesson in appreciating what you have, which is different than just blind optimism. O'Neil was no pollyanna. He saw the dark side of life and understood it for what it was -- hatred. That's a word that comes up a lot in this book. O'Neil often said racism comes directly from hatred, and bitterness comes from the same source.
"Where does bitterness take you?" he said when asked about how he can avoid being bitter. "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."
O'Neil approached the changes in the game the same way. Throughout their journey, he and Posnanski ran into many people who said they were disillusioned by the big salaries and ticket prices, the steroids, the superstar attitudes that they say have changed the game. But his response was always the same: "It hasn't changed," he told an older fan who said he hadn't been to a game in years. "We've changed. We got older. You ought to go see a game. You're a baseball fan, man. Do your heart good. Help you get young."
The point being, there's always an upside, and the game is bigger than all the petty problems that crop up in every era. The game survives. The human race survives. And life is good.
One of the blurbs in the book compares it to Mitch Albom's Tuesdays With Morrie, and I'll admit that when I read that blurb I shuddered a bit. But then I remembered my initial reaction to Tuesdays. I loved it. I blubbered like a baby. It changed my attitude about life, for a while at least. It stayed with me. I think the backlash came only after Albom's succeeding books proved him to be something of a one-trick pony. You couldn't hlep but wonder how much he gilded the lily in his story of Morrie, given that the rest of his books were couched in so much overwrought schlock.
So I guess if Posnanski follows The Soul of Baseball with a string of books about one-eyed Olympic archers who run three marathons a month to raise money for Costa Rican orphans, maybe I'll re-think this review. But The Soul of Baseball hit me hard, right where I needed it. It'll stay with me. And the lesson of Buck O'Neil will help me the next time I'm feeling sorry for myself.
TBBBC rating: 5 fungoes (out of 5)
Now batting: The Dixie Association (Voice of the South) by David Hays
On deck: October 1964 by David Halberstam