Nate: Today we’re talking about the book, “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America”, by Joe Posnanski. Many people probably know Buck O’Neil as the former Negro League baseball player and ambassador of the game of baseball, who spent much of his life in Kansas City. I’m not from this area originally, so the first time I heard of Buck O’Neil was when I was a teenager and I saw Ken Burns’ “Baseball”. He was prominently interviewed throughout that documentary helping to tell the story of the Negro Leagues.
Dave: I remember him at Royals games when he was a scout because he always sat in the same seat. I finally found out who he was, a former player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, so I remember knowing about him for awhile. He really is like a Moses figure in baseball, where he was involved in so much of the history of the game, as a player, a coach, a scout, and finally a spokesperson. He was never the best at any of those things, but he was always good, and such a high quality person, that he commanded the respect of everyone who came into contact with him.
Nate: In his book, Posnanski goes with O’Neil on his travels around the country, recounting his experiences, stories, and outlook on life with his readers. There seemed to me to be two aspects to the book. One was learning some of the history of the Negro Leagues through the stories told by O’Neil and his former teammates and friends he meets in his travels, such as Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Red Moore. But the other aspect is O’Neil himself, and his outlook on life.
Dave: After reading the book, you really have to wonder if there’s ever been anyone who appreciated life more than Buck O’Neil. Despite the many injustices he experienced in his life, he never showed any bitterness, and he seemed to appreciate every day he had.
Nate: Exactly. As much as Buck O’Neil was an ambassador of baseball, he was also an ambassador of life. Throughout the year Posnanski spent with O’Neil in the book, he was constantly brightening people’s spirits, making friends, spreading goodwill, and enjoying what life had to throw at him each and every day.
Dave: Even when he was denied entrance to the Baseball Hall of Fame, one of his first reactions was wondering who they would ask to introduce all of the fine players who did make it in.
Nate: And hoping that he would be chosen because it would be another chance to tell the story, and share memories and insights with another group of people about players he had worked so hard to get recognition for.
Dave: When this book came out, Joe Posnanski came to the library to talk about it, and you could really tell how much Buck O’Neil meant to him.
Nate: That definitely comes through in the book. He knew O’Neil before he followed him around to write it, but you can tell that being with him for that year had a profound effect on him. Which is easy to understand. I’ve talked to people who had a chance to meet him and talk to him, and they say that just in the few minutes they spent with him, he made them feel as though they were the most important person in the world.
Dave: I had the pleasure of meeting him, and that was absolutely true of my experience. He always wanted to know your name and take a few minutes to hear what was on your mind. Your story was important to him.
Nate: I guess it’s pretty obvious by our discussion here, but this is not a book that would just appeal to a sports fan. Certainly if you like baseball, you’ll like the book. But if you aren’t a serious sports fan, you will still appreciate Buck O’Neil and the way he carried himself and lived his life.
Dave: Definitely. This is a book that would appeal to anyone. I’ve read it several times, and I know I’ll read it again, which is probably the best thing you can say about a book. It will make you feel good about life. One other thing I’d like to mention is the Negro League’s Museum in Kansas City located on 18th and Vine. Buck was instrumental in making that what it is, and assuring that it kept going. In fact, most of the time he was out on the road, he was making appearances trying to raise money for the museum.
Nate: You’re right. If you’ve never been to the Negro Leagues Museum, it’s worth the trip, and probably the greatest way you could pay tribute to Buck O’Neil. He always wanted an opportunity to tell the story and the museum does just that.