- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007

“It isn’t how long you live, it’s how well you live,” the late Negro Leagues baseball star Buck O’Neil was fond of saying.

He was right, of course, and more than qualified to make this observation. Few have made better use of 94 years in this world, for themselves and for everyone around them, than Buck O’Neil did. He was an athlete, a philosopher, a storyteller, a charmer, a friend to many, a patriot, a walking advertisement for generosity of spirit and possibly the best ambassador and promoter baseball has ever had. He certainly did live life well. And thanks to Joe Posnanski, readers can share this life.

Americans became familiar with O’Neil’s wit, warmth and charisma when Ken Burns showcased him in the 18-hour 1994 documentary “Baseball,” first broadcast on PBS. O’Neil, hardly a household name before this, joked at the time that he had became “an overnight success at 82.” Viewers loved O’Neil’s stories, his soothing presence and his obvious love of America and the Grand Old Game.

Too few people got to meet and know Buck O’Neil. But reading Mr. Posnanski’s “The Soul of Baseball” is the next best way to enjoy this national treasure. Mr. Posnanski, an author and sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, set himself the enviable task of traveling the country with O’Neil for a year while O’Neil made personal appearances and speeches, many of them in connection with promoting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

The result is a memorable read. During this odyssey, which ended only shortly before O’Neil’s death in October of 2006, there were plenty of great stories. The book features walk-ons by some of the great athletes who played with or for O’Neil during his long career as a player, coach, manager and scout in the Negro Leagues and Major League Baseball.

Readers will encounter Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, Minnie Minoso and Billy Williams. Also former Negro Leagues stars who are still with us, and various relations of other Negro Leagues stars who have gone on to that great dugout in the sky. Satchel Paige’s son shows up at one event to swap stories with Buck.

O’Neil enjoyed a remarkably long view of baseball. As a lad he saw Babe Ruth hit home runs at the Yankees’ spring training camp near O’Neil’s native Sarasota, Fla. Three-quarters of a century later in Houston, he watched a middle-aged but still intimidating Roger Clemens strike out the game’s best.

Through a long life — which began when blacks weren’t allowed to play in the Major Leagues or on its farm teams, and ended in the 21st century, when professional baseball has become international with black, Hispanic and Asian players on Major League rosters — O’Neil’s participation in and love for the game never slackened. When he wasn’t playing, coaching or managing baseball, he was promoting it and whooping up its manifold charms and pleasures.

O’Neil’s baseball life began in the mid-1920s, when he played on semi-pro teams as a teenager. Save for three years in the Navy during World War II, O’Neil was a player and manager in the Negro Leagues from 1937 to 1955. He was a slick-fielding first baseman and line-drive hitter who put up a .288 lifetime batting average.

He was the Negro Leagues batting champion in 1940 with a .345 average and again in 1946 with .353. As a manager, O’Neil led the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro Leagues equivalent to the New York Yankees, to a championship. The teams he led included such household names as Ernie Banks and Elton Howard, both later to make big marks in the Major Leagues.

After his Negro Leagues days, O’Neil was a scout for the Chicago Cubs and later for the Kansas City Royals. He traveled the South looking for black baseball talent. In this capacity he signed, among others, Ernie Banks and Lou Brock. The discovery of either one of these players, both inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame after brilliant careers, would have made a successful scouting career. In 1962 the Chicago Cubs made O’Neil the first African-American coach in Major League Baseball. He coached for the Cubs through the 1965 season.

Although O’Neil’s stint as a Cubs coach was his only time in a Major League uniform, he was never bitter about never being able to prove himself as a player in The Show. He hated Jim Crow but knew America would one day do the right thing and get rid of it. We finally did, of course, but too late for the then almost-40 O’Neil to follow Jackie Robinson in the Major Leagues as a player. O’Neil always deflects sympathy from those who express regret that he and other talented Negro Leagues players never got their shot in the bigs.

“Don’t feel sorry for us,” he frequently said. “We had a great time.”

The low pay (not even Major League players made big bucks back then, but pay was much worse in the Negro Leagues), the long, hot rides in rickety busses, the dumpy parks in small towns, the long and sometimes fruitless searches for restaurants that would serve them or hotels that would put them up (they sometimes ended up with sandwiches and a nap on the bus), were just the price to be paid to play the kind of “fast and loose” baseball (O’Neil’s description) they loved to play.

And it wasn’t all crumby parks in small towns. Negro Leagues games were often played in Major League parks when the main tenant was on the road, before large crowds of enthusiastic fans, many of whom, O’Neil fondly remembers, dressed to the nines for the occasion. He recalls that when there was a Sunday game, churches often began services an hour early so fans could get to the park on time afterward. “Play ball!” followed shortly after the benediction.

Both Negro Leagues and Major League teams barn-stormed in the fall in O’Neil’s day, and often played each other. So O’Neil and other Negro Leagues players got the chance to measure their talents against Major League players and often came out best. The games and the players and the hijinks on and off the field that O’Neil enjoyed are presented by Mr. Posnanski with grace and style.

But Mr. Posnanski’s triumph in “Soul” is presenting readers with the humanity of Buck O’Neil, a great American and a man well worth spending a few innings with. Mr. Posnanski gives readers this chance.

Mr. Posnanski has twice been selected as the best sports columnist in America by the Associated Press sports editors. Reading “Soul,” it’s easy enough to see why.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa, Florida.


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