Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

July 30, 2007

Buck O'Neil's Baseball Journey

His biographer, who spent 16 months traveling with the distinguished former Negro League player, tells Gelf why there was no better ambassador for the national pastime.

Aaron Zamost

Until spring of last year, I'd never heard of Buck O'Neil. The Negro League baseball players whom I could name had all played in the Major Leagues and been inducted into the Hall of Fame—players such as Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, Roy Campanella and Ernie Banks. But most African-American baseball legends of the '50s and '60s first ran onto the field in cities like Kansas City, St. Louis, and Birmingham to play for Negro League teams, to say nothing of the scores of players who played in the majors but never made it to Cooperstown.

I first heard of Buck O'Neil in early 2006, when Keith Olbermann called Buck's exclusion from the Hall of Fame "the worst mistake in Hall of Fame history" (Boston Globe). Those words are a challenge to any baseball fan who, like me, hadn't (or perhaps still hasn't) heard of Buck O'Neil.

O'Neil played first base in the Negro Leagues and managed the Kansas City Monarchs. He soon became the first African-American coach in baseball as a member of the Cubs staff in 1962. He had solid numbers and a good career in baseball, but there has to be more to the story to support Olbermann's charge, and the claim—stated by sportswriters, ex-commissioners of baseball, and even members of Congress—that O'Neil's exclusion from the Hall is an injustice.

The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, by Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski, is that "more to the story." Posnanski describes the life and personality of Buck in colorful detail in this short, jazz-infused, joyous, and heartbreaking book. I'm sure O'Neil would not approve of my calling his story "heartbreaking." He'd insist that he lived a great life, accomplished fantastic things, and met wonderful people along the way—how could his story be "heartbreaking?" That doesn't sound corny after you've read a rendering of O'Neil's life as personal as Posnanski's.

Joe Posnanski and Buck O'Neil at the Negro League Museum in Kansas City, Missouri
"I saw him in many places, in many moods, but that joy, that optimism, that thing he had: I never saw that broken."

Joe Posnanski and Buck O'Neil at the Negro League Museum in Kansas City, Missouri

In the following interview with Gelf, conducted by email and edited for clarity, Posnanski talks about the intersection of baseball and jazz, Buck O'Neil's remarkable consistency, whether O'Neil would have voted for Mark McGwire for the Hall of Fame, and who baseball fans will feel nostalgia for in 2050. (You can hear Posnanski and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, August 1, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: Would you call The Soul of Baseball a sports book? It feels to me more like a book about jazz and memory than a baseball book.

Joe Posnanski: Well, the working title for the book was Baseball & Jazz—and I think that I always had that image in mind. Buck O'Neil said the two greatest things in this world are baseball and jazz. So I wanted—I'm not necessarily saying I succeeded, but I strived for this—I wanted the book to have a little bit of a musical feel, an improvisational feel, something that reminded a little of the jazz scene in Kansas City when Buck played baseball there and Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald played until morning.
Sure, I think it's a sports book because it's about baseball, which was Buck's true love. But I've had so many people tell me it's about more than sports—and I really appreciate that. It's about Buck O'Neil, and he was so much more than sports. He was in so many ways the most inspirational person I've ever known, and I thought that came through every day I spent with him.

GM: For how long did you follow around Buck while writing the book?

JP: Well, the original plan was to be with him for a summer, and it just sort of expanded from there so that it ended up being about 16 months. In all, I think we traveled to 16 cities around the country, and that didn't count many days we spent together around Kansas City, which was of course Buck's hometown.

GM: You emphasize throughout the book Buck's lasting positive attitude, even in light of difficult circumstances, both in the past and present: in the face of racism (when he played) or skepticism as to his stories or current points of view (in a confrontational radio interview, for example). He maintains that he never let these things bother him, but is that really true? His persistence—as you describe it in the book—captivated me.

JP: Well, I can tell you this: People often ask me what was the biggest surprise of my time with Buck. And I tell them that it isn't any one thing—nothing specifically about Buck surprised me at all. He was exactly as I thought he would be. What surprised me was that he was always like that. He was always Buck…that is, he never let down. I saw him in many places, in many moods, but that joy, that optimism, that thing he had: I never saw that broken.
Did things bother him? Of course. I remember, for instance, him talking about playing for the Zulu Cannibal Giants—a minstrel baseball show team that made its players wear grass skirts and do African-looking dances—and there's simply no question that the memory hurt Buck; he was a proud and gentle man. He did not like talking about that. But I never saw any of his disappointment melt into bitterness. And I think that's part of what made him extraordinary.

GM: You talk about your "best day in baseball." What was your best day with Buck?

JP: There were so many good days—every day with Buck was a best day. But one thing I've thought a lot about since the book came out is how my favorite times with Buck weren't necessarily big moments. I mean, in the book we spend time with Willie Mays and Monte Irvin and Roger Clemens, we go to numerous baseball games, and that was all great. But the times I find myself treasuring now are moments like the time we got lost in Atlanta or the funny hotel where we stayed in Gary, Indiana, or sitting in an airport in Washington, D.C., when our flight was delayed. It just seemed like in moments like those Buck would often remember some new story he hadn't thought about in years or he would make some fascinating connection between past and present. I think a lot about those times now.

GM: In the book, Buck says, "The crack of the bat sounds different for different players." This is an acutely baseball thing to say. What is it about baseball that generates the kind of nostalgia in its ambassadors (like Buck), that doesn't exist in football, basketball, or other American sports?

JP: Well, I think there is some nostalgia in other sports—nostalgia for the rough-and-tumble days of football, or the basketball days when players wore short shorts, or whatever. But as Buck often liked to say, baseball is more of a game about families: Fathers and sons and all that. I think it's because baseball is a summer game, maybe. I believe it was Al McGuire, the old basketball coach, who said we always remember summer songs more than other songs. Baseball goes on when the weather's warm, school's out, July 4th fireworks, picnics, thunderstorms, mosquitoes, all that. And I think because of that, baseball does make you feel a bit more nostalgic. Buck always used to say that every baseball fan can remember the day their father (or mother) took them to their first game. But few of them remember their first day of school.
And Buck, to me, understood that nostalgia, cherished it, he represented it. What amazed me about this trip was how many people wanted to tell Buck their stories about baseball. It was as if people thought, "Here's one person who will understand how I feel."

GM: What did Buck think of the new market for Negro League apparel and merchandise?

JP: Well, he obviously loved it, for a couple of reasons. One, he loved to see the Negro Leagues remembered. And two, much of the apparel is licensed through the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which was, of course, Buck's love. That apparel has kept the museum going and thriving, and so Buck was grateful anytime he saw someone wearing a Black Barons hat or a Grays jacket.

"Buck always used to say that every baseball fan can remember the day their father (or mother) took them to their first game. But few of them remember their first day of school."
GM: Keith Olbermann said, "What man better represents baseball in every elemental component of what makes a Hall of Famer: playing ability, managing, scouting, trail-blazing, color-line breaking, ambassadorship?" You spent quite a lot of time with Buck. What qualities would you add to Olbermann's list?

JP: It's a pretty good list there—Keith was one of the people who really appreciated what Buck O'Neil represented. I think the quality that I always appreciated most about Buck was the eternal optimism he felt, not only about baseball but about life. We're talking here about a man who was denied entry into Sarasota High School because he was black. A man who was not given the chance to play in the Major Leagues or—I know this hurt him more—manage in the Major Leagues. We're talking about a man who for many years was shouted down or ignored when he tried to tell his stories about the Negro Leagues.
And he endured. More than that, he endured without bitterness. He was the most joyful man I have ever met. He believed that he had lived a wonderful life, a beautiful life. He believed baseball was the best game in the world, and he believed that it was every bit as good in 2006 as it was in 1955, as it was in 1930.
Yes, it's true, here was a guy who played very well in the Negro Leagues (a batting champ), managed very well in the Negro Leagues (managed the Kansas City Monarchs to pennants), was one of the great scouts in baseball history (scouted Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Joe Carter, Lee Smith), was the first African-American coach in baseball history (with the Chicago Cubs in 1962), was uniquely responsible for getting numerous Negro Leaguers in the Hall of Fame, was the man who more than any kept alive the memory of those leagues, and was the driving force behind building the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. It's an amazing résumé. And still I think when people remember him, they remember the hope he exuded. Everybody wanted to be around him.

GM: Why do you think Buck was not elected to the Hall of Fame?

JP: Well, it's a touchy subject and one that I tried very hard not to belabor in the book. There was a panel of experts put together to honor Negro Leaguers, and for some reason that panel did not see fit to elect Buck. I have my own anger about what happened, and my own theories. I was with Buck when he got word when he did not get in, and I know it buckled him. It hurt me so much to see him like that.
But the enduring truth is that when the 17 Negro Leaguers the panel elected went into the Hall of Fame (Seventeen! All deceased! Even now it boggles the mind), Buck O'Neil was there to speak on their behalf. That's grace. It was his last public appearance, and I think if someone said to me, "With one story, tell me who Buck O'Neil was," I would tell them that story.

GM: Do you think he'll ultimately be elected?

JP: Well, by the time this comes out, we may know more. The Hall of Fame committee is supposed to be meeting this weekend to discuss how to honor Buck O'Neil. [Editor's note: Not much came of that meeting, according to the Kansas City Star.] I don't think they will honor him with induction, but I do think they may create an award on his behalf. We'll have to see what happens. I do think the Hall of Fame will, as promised, do something to keep alive Buck's memory and his legacy.

Buck O'Neil

Buck O'Neil

GM: Is the Hall of Fame election process broken?

JP: No, I would say it's simply not as broad-minded as it should be. The Hall of Fame voters do a marvelous job, I think, of drawing that difficult line between good players, great players and immortal players. I've seen how other Hall of Fames choose their players, and I would say the Baseball Hall of Fame has the best system out there. I believe that's why it's the Hall of Fame that the most people care about.
That said, there's one flaw, I think, in the Hall of Fame system: The Hall does not appreciate enough those people who gave their life to make the game better. There is no place in the Hall of Fame for scouts, for instance, or coaches, or innovators, or pioneers. There is also no place for the well-rounded baseball man—take Gil Hodges. He was a great player who fell just shy of the Hall of Fame standard (as seen by the voters). But he was also the manager of the 1969 New York Mets, one of the most famous teams in baseball history. The way voting is done now, it's difficult to take both of those achievements into account.
I think this was one thing that hurt Buck—he wasn't a specialist. He was a baseball Renaissance man. In the book I say that keeping Buck out of the Hall of Fame because he wasn't a good enough player (as a couple of the voters suggested) is like keeping Leonardo da Vinci out of the Renaissance Hall of Fame because he wasn't a good enough inventor. Overkill, sure, but to me the point is that the Hall of Fame doesn't recognize wide-ranging excellence well enough in my opinion.

GM: You're currently following Barry Bonds on his chase of Hank Aaron's home-run record. After spending so much time with baseball legends (like Buck, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks), do you sympathize with Aaron's decision not to see Bonds hit 756 in person?

JP: I don't just sympathize with it, I admire it. To me, Hank Aaron doesn't have to answer to anyone. He broke Babe Ruth's record while being hounded by death threats, while his daughter had to be under FBI protection, while racist letters flooded his mailbox. To me, this man has done enough. He doesn't have to answer any questions, and he doesn't have to make any appearances, and he doesn't have to fly across the country to be in the stands.
What bothers me most is that everyone wants Hank Aaron to be a spokesman for their position. The anti-Barry people want him to publicly call out Barry Bonds. Well, Hank Aaron is too classy a man to do that. The pro-Barry people want him to be involved in some sort of dog-and-pony show and appear when Bonds breaks his record. Well, I imagine that Hank Aaron has strong enough feelings that he simply won't do that. To me, he's handled it just right, and I don't understand how people can't appreciate class when they see it.

"The Hall of Fame does not appreciate enough those people who gave their life to make the game better."
GM: Mark McGwire did not get into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot. Will Barry Bonds? Does he deserve first-ballot election?

JP: I'm going to give you the most honest answer I can which is: I don't know. My friend Bill James says that we are simply too close right now, too wrapped up in the emotion of the moment, to know how players like McGwire, Bonds, Palmeiro, and others will be remembered in the context of history. I did not vote for McGwire last year, and I agonized over that decision. My feeling at the time was that the Hall of Fame is the greatest honor in sports—that's all it is, an honor—and I simply could not vote for McGwire.
I will tell you this: I am considering voting for him next year, only because the further we get away from the era, the more convinced I become that a huge percentage—perhaps a majority—of players used some sort of performance-enhancing drug. If that's the case, let's say we somehow find out 65 percent of players used. Then I think the problem was more about baseball than it was about individual players. And if that's the case, well, it just rearranges my view a little bit. If Mark McGwire, for instance, was simply doing something that was accepted and even encouraged at the time…
Well, I'll tell you what Buck said. He was on the Veteran's Committee when Enos Slaughter was up for Hall of Fame consideration. It was fairly well known that Slaughter was a racist, and he gave Jackie Robinson a very hard time. I'm told that later in life, Slaughter did modify his views, but as a young player he was pretty virulent. Buck kept voting for him anyway.
A friend said: "How can you vote for Slaughter when he was a racist?"
And Buck, essentially, said this: He was a great ballplayer. I don't know enough to look into a man's heart. Look, maybe he didn't rise above his time, his background, his prejudices. Many people don't. Most people can't. But Slaughter was a great ballplayer, and so he should go into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I'm pretty convinced that Buck would have voted for McGwire.

GM: Could someone write a book in, say, 50 years, about a baseball star of the 1990s and 2000s and evoke the same feelings of weight and longing inherent in book like this one, that evokes the baseball legends of the '40s and '50s? Or has something fundamentally changed about the way we view the sport?

JP: I don't know—it will be interesting. I hope I'm around in 50 years to write that book about, say, Mike Sweeney or Torii Hunter or Barry Zito or whoever decides to be that spokesman for the game. The great thing is that—and I really believe this—kids today will in 50 years reminisce about the game with the same innocence that I reminisce about the 1970s, or Buck reminisced about Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson. I keep hearing that innocence is gone, but you know what? For a 10-year-old kid, I don't think it's gone. It's like Buck always used to say: "Baseball is still baseball."

Aaron Zamost

Aaron Zamost has been writing for Gelf since 2005.

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- Sports
- posted on Apr 13, 08
Bob Mayer

I really enjoyed this short interview. I met Buck at the opening of the African-American exhibit Pride & Passion at the Hall of Fame in 1999. Also there were Larry Doby and Joe Black, but its Buck who stands out in my memory. His passion for baseball and for life was extraordinary. I can only suggest to those who don't know him to get a copy of Ken Burns "Baseball" and listen to Buck in those tapes. You'll be glad you did.

Article by Aaron Zamost

Aaron Zamost has been writing for Gelf since 2005.

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