Do you remember the first baseball game your dad took you to? Think about it for a second.
It's a question Buck O'Neil often asked, as I learned from the book "The Soul of Baseball," written by accomplished sports writer Joe Posnanski. It's a heck of a book.
O'Neil, who passed away in 2006, was a tireless promoter of the history of baseball, specifically the Negro Leagues, which is documented in Posnanski's book. But he was much more than that.
I downloaded the book to my wife's Kindle, not knowing much at all about O'Neil. I liked the title - which couldn't have been more fitting - and for a short time it was a steal at $1.99 (it has since gone up to $9.99). The cover of the book describes it as "A road trip through Buck O'Neil's America." I bought it simply cause I wanted to read a book about baseball, but I got a lot more out of it.
When O'Neil played baseball, a black person had to stay at a hotel for blacks, eat at restaurants for blacks, and play for teams that were all black. He was a solid first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, but never got the chance to play in Major League Baseball. He was the first black coach in the league, but never got a chance to manage. He was scout as well, and though not a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame (for which no one really knows why), the Hall did create the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award after he passed away.
O'Neil was more than a ball player though, which really is what warranted a book on him at 94 years of age. Posnanski tagged along with him to his various appearances, outings, promotional events and of course baseball games for the purpose of promoting the Negro League Baseball Museum, for a year, chronicling O'Neil's work and personality. He traveled the country, from San Diego to New York City all year long. What comes through about O'Neil in the book is yes, he was a good baseball player, but an even better ambassador of the sport, and an even better man. He possessed the soul of baseball.
O'Neil no doubt had a lot to be pissed off about. Whether it was the segregation he grew up with, his Hall of Fame snub, or the fact that someone was always looking for something from him. But that never comes through in this book. It shows a happy and energetic man, that loved the game of baseball. Even during baseball's "dark days" of steroid use, and when everyone swore that the game had changed, O'Neil stood by baseball. People change. According to Posnanski, he never turned down an autograph and never passed a woman in a red dress. He could chat with anyone, and made sure they always left the conversation feeling a little bit better about life.
The book talks a lot about the Negro Leagues and the stories with some of the games great players. It talks about Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson and Double Duty Radcliffe. It talks about teams barnstorming and the players that could have hung with the best. It talks about playing on bad fields, and taking on bumpy bus rides to the next game for little or no pay. O'Neil talks about how fun it all was, making sure no one saw the Negro Leagues as second class and reminding people he still got to play baseball.
This is a book for any fan of the game. It's a book not about the injustices that O'Neil or any of his teammates might have suffered, but a celebration of O'Neil's mission to recognize the efforts and talents of his teammates. It's also inspiring to read about a man who really lived life with a lot of love for the game and for the people he met.