Writing a book about Buck O’Neil couldn’t have been an easy task. The author of The Soul of Baseball, Joe Posnanski, spent an entire year with Buck and came away with countless stories to relate to his readers. All it takes is watching one interview with Buck to know that any time spent with him will result in plenty of content that no author in their right mind wants to disregard or not include in their tome on the Negro Leagues legend. Such is life with Buck O’Neil, one of the most important figures in the history of baseball, let alone the Negro Leagues.
The time Posnanski spends with Buck is near the end of Buck’s time on this planet. The years had taken their toll on his body, but Buck’s wit and positive outlook on life remain as engaged as ever. It’s odd then that this is the area where The Soul of Baseball most easily falters. Posnanski attempts to present O’Neil as flawed and pushed to his limits. But, in doing so he glosses over Buck’s flaws in a fashion that is hard to stomach.
I’m not arguing that Buck needed to be perfect, no one is perfect, not even Buck O’Neil. Rather, when I find myself cringing because of the way Posnanski frames Buck’s handsy approach to women it’s not Buck that is making me cringe. I can easily accept that Buck wasn’t the best with personal space or boundaries. Understanding that Buck had little concept of a woman not wanting a friendly hug from him isn’t hard. What is hard to stomach is the saccharine way in which Posnanski presents these moments. The Kansas City writer intends for these moments to show Buck as flawed, but by dousing them in sweetness Posnanski tries to hide Buck’s flaws. Buck is being Buck and allowing himself to be human, but Posnanski can’t allow Buck to be human and thus he tries to use sweetness to hide Buck’s womanly flaws, to a rather offputting effect.
That being said, I loved the majority of The Soul of Baseball. Buck O’Neil is, as stated, an engaging fellow. He’s a personal hero of mine and I have unlimited time in my day for stories from or about Buck. I’ve heard most of them before, but that’s the thing with Buck O’Neil stories, you can hear them fifty different times and they are still engaging. Posnanski does a splendid job of making the reader feel as if they are in the room with Buck, himself, and Bob Kendrick (Buck’s traveling partner and operator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum). The ability of the book to make every story interesting and every Buck idiosyncrasy feel so very real is a testament to Posnanski’s ability to spin a compelling yarn.
Like Buck himself, The Soul of Baseball is a flawed tome. Its warts are obvious and sometimes they are hard to face. They are real though, just like Buck was real. Spending time with an old friend, or at least someone who feels like an old friend even if I’ve never met him, is always welcome. For those who have heard the stories, you know you want to hear more about Buck’s life and the glory days of the Negro Leagues. For those who haven’t, well, it’s hard to go wrong spending time with Buck O’Neil.
Lead photo courtesy of William Morrow