I wish I could say the good guy always wins, but that’s not how the world works. Sometimes good people win, sometimes they don’t.
But either way, at least good is always good.
There I was, at a place that sells used stuff, hanging around shelves filled with dusty old books while my wife was off looking for something to put plants in. She had something specific in mind, but I was just along for the ride—which was fine, because, well … books.
Of course, I found a gem.
This is one of those things about real books you can’t get with the newfangled e-things, right? I mean, one moment you’re just killing time and the next you find this thing that you know beyond doubt is going to be something special. I love e-books. They’re very good for you. But I admit there are times I miss the real things.
In this case, the book was The Soul of Baseball, written by Joe Posnanski. It covers a year in which Posnanski traveled the country with Buck O’Neil, an aged Negro League star who did much more for baseball than I ever really knew. Naturally, given the place I unearthed it from, it’s an older book. Copyright 2009. It cost a dollar—a whole buck, I thought as I flipped a page. A whole dollar for a book by Joe Posnanski about a guy I know about but don’t really know about. I turned it in my hands so I could feel the grain of its cover and the hard, spiny edges of its corners. For a minute it was like holding onto a baseball bat and feeling the geometry of a swing.
That’s something else you don’t get with an e-book. There’s no sense of physicality to it. Nothing visceral. I could say the same thing for today’s music that comes without so much as a cardboard sleeve or plastic box.
Ultimately this question I was asking—should I buy the book—was the definition of a no-brainer. Joe Posnanski is one of the best writers of our time. How brilliant is he, you might ask? Well, I’ve been reading him for a while and to put it in terms I’m pretty sure he’d appreciate, Joe Posnanski is the Bruce Springsteen of sports writers.
By that I mean he works his ass off, and he’s always sincere. It feels like he’s always himself. He never ducks the hard stuff, he leaves everything on the page every time he writes—and he’s talented. Sometimes, when you least expect it, he makes the planets align and the world stop in just that way it can when something important is going to happen, like that pause before a first kiss or that half-beat before the best riff in your favorite song—that heart-jarring moment when you know—you just know—that the next microsecond is going to find something important ripped right out from under your breastbone, and that you’re going to feel a truth deeper than any truth ever told. That’s when Posnanski disappears the best. Joe Posnanski is so brilliant because he guides you to these places and then he steps back and lets the world speak in ways that transcend understanding.
Yeah. I know. I hear you.
You’re saying: That’s maybe the teensiest bit too deep there, Ron-o old boy.
I’ll plead guilty.
Of Joe Posnanski, I am an admitted fan boy.
And Buck O’Neil, well, even before I read the book I knew enough about Buck O’Neil to understand he was something more important than the sum of his days. He played in the hard age of the Negro Leagues and lived through all the good and the bad that this fact entails. He played, and he managed, and he coached, and he scouted. I knew that. Mostly. Or at least I knew it if I thought about it, which I fully admit I pretty much never did.
I mean, why would I, right?
When he was done playing, managing, coaching, and scouting, Buck O’Neil tried to set the world straight about what the Negro Leagues were. He told stories. He carried names. He campaigned for the people he loved. Pushed baseball to do the right thing and put his guys—and gals, to use a loaded term in today’s world—into the Hall of Fame. Because baseball is baseball, you know.
And he succeeded, too. He bent the world. At least a little, which is probably more than most people can say. But not enough. In the end, despite everything he did, he didn’t bend it quite enough.
I kind of knew that too. Or I would have said I knew it if you’d asked me, though now that it’s fresh on my mind (and in a meticulously great bout of double-looping mental barrel rolling) I can’t say for certain it’s actually true I knew all this before I read the book. This is kind of like asking if I know a song lyric from an old Stones album—which I’d say I do, and if it’s playing, it’ll come. But do I really know it?
Ya got me.
So, yeah. This book was sold before I picked it up. I mean, if ever there was an investment of a dollar more guaranteed to turn a profit, I’ve never seen it.
I read it in two days.
This in itself is a miracle. I mean, yes, I recently got through Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club in three days, but it’s short. The last time I read a whole book for pure enjoyment in just two days might have been in Obama’s first term. I mean, excepting my own books I can’t think of when that would be—and I only do that with my own because I’m proofing them. I’m not working a cushy corporate job any more, after all. I’m a writer…and these days seemingly a slower writer than I’ve been in the past. I read a lot, but I just don’t have that kind of time anymore—and when I read at night I tend to go to sleep. I mean, it can take me weeks to read a book. But I did this one in two days, staying up considerably into the night to finish.
So, of course I’m suggesting you chase a copy down.
Or anything else by Posnanski, really. He’s a sports writer, but it won’t matter. Give him half a chance and he’ll find a way to speak to you through any one of a plethora of sports. (I love the word plethora. It feels good rolling off the tongue. Plethora. Say it three times and be better for it.)
But before you read anything else by Posanski, read this book.
I want you to read it because if you do you’ll understand why, if baseball has at any time represented the heart of America (and I do believe it has), then the Negro Leagues have been its soul.
It would be easy to go overboard here and extend the metaphor too far. To assign Buck O’Neil as baseball’s minister, or prophet, or maybe its conscience. Or since the book is titled The Soul of Baseball and is told through O’Neil’s eyes it would be easy to argue that Posnanski is calling Buck O’Neil the soul of the game.
But that’s not what’s going down here.
I don’t know Joe Posnanski, and since Buck O’Neil passed as this book was being completed I’ll never know him either. But I feel comfortable that neither would say O’Neil was a prophet, minister, conscience, or soul of the institution. Instead, the Buck O’Neil in these pages is a simple flesh and blood man who loved and lived the game—but, more than that, loved, lived with, and respected the people who played the game. All of the people. All of them. Which seems like a helluva thing for a black man of his time, really.
A helluva thing.
I can’t recall where I saw it, but I remember a thought that when you look back on your childhood you’ll realize that there was this one day: a single day when you went out to the yard and played with your friends the entire afternoon. Tag or whiffle ball or hide and seek or capture the flag or whatever.
On that day the sun was probably up and the wind was cool or hot or whatever it was. You played and laughed and fought with each other just like you did any one of a hundred days before that. Maybe you skinned your knee. Maybe you hit a home run. Or maybe not. But you played hard. You had fun. Then you went home, and the sun set, and that was the end of it.
You went through that entire magnificent day, never knowing this was the very last day you would ever do that. That the next day the sun would rise and you’d all go off and do other things, and that never again would you play in the same way again.
The whole day passed, and you never knew it was the last one.
Sometimes I think about that.
I’ve been reading another baseball book for a few weeks now, too. It’s one of those calendar things. Daily notes of events related to the Boston Red Sox. You know what I mean, right? On this day the Sox did blah-di-blah-di-blah …. That kind of thing.
I like it because I can read it in little pieces at a time which, as you now know, fits my work cycle much better.
According to this book, on June 25th,1959 the Red Sox played the Detroit Tigers, losing 10-5. There wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy about the game itself. Per retrosheet, the game started at 2:38 in the afternoon. Ted Williams went 1-4 with an RBI. A guy named Dick Gernert, who would switch teams and play for Detroit the following year, had a double and a homer. Both of those guys would be out of baseball in three seasons—Williams going on to the Hall of Fame and Gernert going wherever Dick Gernert was going to go.
Al Kaline was just growing into his prime for the Tigers, though. In 1980 he’d be put into the Hall of Fame, but on this Thursday afternoon he played centerfield and hit a home run, driving in three runs on the day.
Just your run-of-the-mill game, really. The Red Sox and the Tigers were run-of-the-mill teams, Detroit would win 76 games that year, the Sox 75.
So, no, there was nothing particularly notable about this game. Well, except for this one little thing. One tiny little item that you wouldn’t ever have noticed unless you were looking for it or unless someone told you it was happening, and why would they?
But if you were looking for it, if you were fully conscious of the world around you, maybe you would have seen that this was the last major league game ever played between two teams whose rosters were comprised entirely of Caucasian men. And if you’d noticed that, maybe it would have sunk in that this was 1959. Then maybe it would have registered that the year Jackie Robinson did his Jackie Robinson thing had been 1947, a dozen years earlier. A dozen years.
A lot can be lost in a dozen years.
You tell me.
Earlier I noted that I would never get to know Buck O’Neil, yet the fact is I feel introduced. He’s a fascinating man in these pages. A heart-lifting man. His story is as interesting as his persona, his message is universal. I don’t think you can read about him without being changed in some way, and that alone is reason enough for any book to exist. It’s sitting here on my desk right now and I literally cannot help but feel this man talking to me whenever I look at it.
That’s another thing about an actual book. It takes up space. You can see it, so you know it exists. And when you put your eyes on things sometimes you find them hard to ignore.
It’s true, after all, that the world has changed since the days when overt racism altered Buck O’Neil’s life, yet when you look around you can’t help but question how far that change has really gone. Things are different, yet not so different that half of America doesn’t see Donald Trump and his policies as racially … um … problematic.
That’s hard data to look at.
I mean, I’m a pasty white guy from Louisville who went to high school back when Zeppelin was still making music. My freshman year kids in this city and at this time were literally forced together by court-mandated busing, so I moved from my all-white middle school to a fully integrated school on the edge of downtown. At the time I’ll admit I didn’t really get the big deal. Now I’m older, though, and I keep getting angrier because despite being educated—and being educated in this theoretically integrated place—I keep happening upon more of what people have done in the past that wasn’t taught. And worse, I see people actively supporting many of those same things today. So now I get the big deal. I’m probably too old to be “woke” but I’ve been getting it long enough to say I’m closer to the core. Again, you tell me.
And, I get angry. Because…
Well, because even “now” (meaning prior to the Trump campaign and all that’s followed), as I’d so slowly come to hold myself accountable for at least trying to see things as clearly as I could, I admit I mostly fell for the comfortable idea that the country was at least well on its way to healing itself.
So, yes, sometimes I get angry. I feel betrayed because I bought that stuff about land of the free and home of the brave. I get angry, and then I’m embarrassed because I’m angry.
The real question, you see, is not why I’m angry now, but why I wasn’t angry earlier.
My best friend is a psychopath? Holy shit. Why the hell didn’t someone tell me?
Why didn’t our schools teach the full truth Buck O’Neil’s life was steeped in? Why did I have to find the cracks in the company line essentially all by myself? Why didn’t I ask deeper questions? Was I truly blind? Or was I just afraid of what people would say? Was I worried, for example, that to be angrier might make my friends uncomfortable? Might offend readers?
This is a thing about privilege. Despite the clatter about it everywhere, you’re kind of on your own—a person still has overcome a lot of internal baggage to figure it out. And privilege hides itself, doesn’t it? It cloaks itself. It builds itself up by pretending it doesn’t exist. Privilege takes lies of honest ignorance and mixes them with lies of purposeful aggression, then it adds lies of omission and stirs everything up until you can’t tell what it’s doing. Then it teaches, which is perhaps the most dangerous thing of all. Privilege’s focus on teaching its own view is the germ line editing of our history. When privilege teaches, why would you think it wasn’t telling the full truth? If it leaves things out, why would you ask for more? If its lessons take hold, why would they ever let go?
You see that, don’t you?
It’s why, I suppose, I’m so clumsy around the topic.
My mom and dad, for example, got married in 1959, nineteen days before that Sox-Tigers game: D-Day, to be precise. June 6th. Exactly fifteen years after soldiers from several countries stormed the beaches in France. Does it matter if the world never teaches you that baseball’s full integration didn’t really begin until that day? That counting only the time After Robinson it took a dozen years to get there—or that it’s younger than my parent’s marriage? Does it matter that I didn’t even know this game occurred until I randomly picked up a book of daily baseball facts?
It does, doesn’t it? These things matter because why they happened the way they happened matters. You see this, don’t you? You see the difference between fact and truth here, right? The gap between what and why—you see that sometimes a baseball game is bigger than itself.
An entire class could be taught on the nuances of that single game in 1959. The meaning of it. The reason it happened when it did. The people whose lives were changed getting us to that moment, and how it changed the lives of people who came after. An entire semester could be used to track the lives of players whose careers were lived out in those twelve years from Robinson to June 25th of 1959, and another semester could be used to cover players whose careers were not.
If a school ever teaches that class The Soul of Baseball should be its required reading.
Of course, that’s not what Buck is talking to me about today.
Instead I’m feeling him catch my gaze from over there on the book cover. He looks sharp in that Monarchs uniform—leaning forward, looking out over a ballfield. He speaks to me in a slow and a heavy tone. There’s a rasp in there, too, like I imagine a 94-year-old voice to have—which is cool, I suppose, seeing as that’s how old Buck O’Neil was when we were introduced.
That’s all right, son, he says. You only know what you know until you know different. So what are you going to go do now?
Maybe you think I’m making that up, and I guess that’d be true. I am making that up. Maybe you ignore that last little hook and think it’s just wishful thinking I’m creating here to let myself off the hook, and maybe that’s true, too. But I’m telling you, those words feel true, and if I get anything from this book it’s that Buck O’Neil saw truth in a form more raw than anyone else around him ever did.
At its core, this is a hard book because life is hard. And, yet, it’s a stunningly beautiful book, too, because it’s got a man at its focus who was a good man. As I said, Posnanski doesn’t duck the hard stuff. Either way—the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. He leaves it all out there on the page for you to deal with as you will.
To a broken heart?
To an empty grave?
When I die
I want to die from natural causes.
Not from hate
Eating me up inside.
When you read this book—which you’re going to go do now, right?
I mean, I’m telling you straight up. Read this book. Because when you’re down, when you’re struggling to see anything good in the world and you think things just aren’t right, and even worse—there’s no way the world will ever be right, and you don’t think you can keep yourself on whatever you think the high ground is … well, you need to read this book. Because, believe me, you need to meet Buck O’Neil.
And when you do meet Buck O’Neil, that bit of his poetry I cribbed right up there and pretty much every other part of what Buck O’Neil’s last year was comprised of is going to make you smile, it’s going to make you proud to be a human being in ways you’re not going to be able to put into words. It’s going to make you angry, too. And it’s going to make you want to cry … for all the right reasons and all the wrong ones.
Because it’s true that the good guy doesn’t always win. But sometimes in the process of trying they bend the world just a little.
And that, my friends, is a helluva thing.