Jason Smith's Reviews > The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America

The Soul of Baseball by Joe Posnanski
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Aug 05, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: sports

I've been following Joe Posnanski's writing for some time now. I read most of his blog posts—golf and LeBron posts excepted—and try to hunt down his long form articles. His recent one on Musial in SI was great. There a lot's of reasons for why he's one of the very few sports writers I make an effort to read all of their work. Some of it is an affinity I hold for fellow Missourian (Pos wrote for the KC Star for a long time), and a reverence I hold to professional Royals fans, something that requires a steel stomach lining and tolerance for routine, crushing disappointment. There is, of course, a stronger reason for my fandom: Posnanski's utterly unsportswriter approach to writing about why we love the silly games we do.

In saying that, I need to point out that this book, while certainly moving and emotional throughout, is bereft of the hollow sentimentality of Albom (ignore the unfortunate pull quote on the cover) or the needling nostalgia for a game long gone and likely never existed. Much of that is thanks to the writer's subject, the 94-year-old Buck O'Neil, African American baseball pioneer and tireless advocate for the players that used to make up the old Negro Leagues.

A marginal player at best, Buck nevertheless has impacted how we understand the years of segregated baseball perhaps more so than the legends that played it, i.e. Satchell Page, Josh Gibson, etc. He helped found the Negros League Museum in KC—a trip I recommend every single baseball fan make, it's incredible—and relentlessly speaks as to anybody and everybody about those men; at tiny Kansas towns, to David Letterman, to every baseball stadium in the nation. And his talking works. He, like the writer, recoils at any mention that the game "ain't what it used to be"—although he does miss how people used to dress up for games, something I, too, think was fantastic. Baseball will always be baseball. No need to demonize those caught with steroids, all baseball players were looking for an extra edge since the game began. Players are paid too much? Buck will quickly point out that he could have used the money.

What's important about the past that Posnanski and O'Neil uncover is that these players were great. Some of the best athletes the game has ever seen, and just because they were excluded because of a pernicious hatred in this country doesn't mean they should fade from the story of the game as they themselves die off. And as evidenced by the number of people that show up to hear him tell his stories, that listen intently to the nineteen thousandth time he's told the "Nancy" story (read to find out), I think Buck accomplished his goal.

A very good book, the only complaint about which is that I wish there was more to it. Perhaps one day Posnanski can write an expanded 800 page oral history (probably too late) of Negro League baseball.
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