Book Review – The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America

     Joe Posnanski is generally regarded as one of the finest sports writers and brightest baseball minds in America.  In 2009, he became a full-time senior writer at Sports Illustrated.   From 1996 to 2009, Posnanski was a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star.  In that time, he was twice named the best sports columnist in the country by The Associated Press Sports Editors.  He still occasionally writes columns for the Star.  Before becoming a columnist in Kansas City, Posnanski worked in various roles for the Cincinnati Post, Augusta Chronicle and Charlotte Observer.  Posnanski is also an extremely active blogger.  He posts daily on his personal Joe Blogs site, and while he focuses mainly on sports, he also touches on various other topics, be it travel, movies or food.

      Baseball was a topic that had always interested Posnanski, and he hoped to make it the subject of his first full-length book.  According to the prologue of The Soul of Baseball, he first aimed at writing an entire book on a single game, one that numerous Negro Leaguers had told him was the greatest game ever played.  However, he abandoned that idea after finding information on the game proved too difficult.  Almost all of the game’s participants were dead, and the Negro League did not keep sufficient records or documentation.  Posnanski then thought about writing a novel about a white talent scout sent to the Negro Leagues in search of the next big thing but as he said, he quickly came to understand that the idea was “all too real” to be fiction.  Posnanski soon realized that the best way to tell the story of the Negro Leagues would be through the eyes of Buck O’Neil.   Buck was a Kansas City legend, and one the few Negro Leaguers still alive.  Buck had been a player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues before becoming a coach and scout for the Major League’s Chicago Cubs.  Buck had a strong presence in Kansas City and attended many Royals baseball games, so Posnanski had met Buck on numerous occasions.  Being one of the few Negro Leaguers still alive, Buck became the main ambassador for the league and its museum, which was located in Kansas City.  He made trips all across the country to talk about the league and his experiences.  From New York to Atlanta to rural Kansas, Buck spoke in schools, on radio shows and at banquets.  Posnanski decided to join the eloquent Buck for a year as he made his trips across the country.

      Posnanski is successful in his quest to tell the story of the Negro Leagues.  The Soul of Baseball is not just a simple narrative about Buck’s speaking engagements, it’s a story of Buck’s entire life story, the Negro Leagues, baseball and life itself.  Buck had every reason to be resentful of the past.  He was never given a chance to showcase his talents in the Major Leagues.  Buck and his Negro League teammates traveled across the country in old, rickety buses to go play on inferior fields, littered with rocks and broken glass.  After the games, Buck and his teammates were excluded from the main dining halls of restaurants, they were only allowed to eat in the kitchen.  However, if you listened to the stories Buck told, his time in the Negro Leagues could not have been any better, it was a blessing.  Buck spoke of the beauty of Negro League baseball and how much playing the sport meant to him.  Buck talked about the great talents and personalities of the Negro Leagues, the latter of which was exemplified by the nicknames of some of the league’s biggest stars.  Cool Papa, Turkey and Double Duty were just a few. Posnanski found Buck’s voice to be musical.  He stylized that point by occasionally presenting Buck’s words in a lyrical form.

“Where does bitterness take you?
To a broken heart?
To an early grave?
When I die
I want to die from natural causes
Not from hate
Eating me up from the inside. ”

That quote embodied Buck.  He did not believe in hate.  Buck would often offer hugs to anybody he thought needed one, and for some reason, they always obliged.  As Posnanski said many times, Buck just had that look to him, he brought a smile to the face of anybody he dealt with.

     A writer is nothing without a worthy person, place, event or object to write about.  In the case of The Soul of Baseball, the subject was Buck O’Neil and he was definitely captivating. He was the star of the show.  In The Soul of Baseball, Posnanski deferred to Buck. He used Buck’s quotes to tell the story of the Negro Leagues, and the result was powerful. Buck dropped countless gems of knowledge and advice though out his stories.  Since finishing the book, I’ve questioned the power of hate; is being bitter worth the effort?  Buck was able to withstand the ugliness of racism even though it robbed him the chance to play baseball on a national stage.  Buck died before the book was published, but his story and message lives on. Buck lived an exceptional life and his story of success offers hope to all.

I wrote this book report in April 2011 for my Sports Journalism class with Len Shapiro.

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