From the VG Bookshelf: The Soul of Baseball

From the VG Bookshelf: The Soul of Baseball

From the VG Bookshelf: The Soul of Baseball

I know, I know, not everyone likes baseball. But The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America is so much than balls and strikes, home runs and double plays. Instead, it’s the story of how a man rose above racism to become an ambassador of grace and forgiveness.

Sportswriter Joe Posnanski spent much of 2005 touring the country with former Negro Leagues baseball player John “Buck” O’Neil. Buck was then 94 years old, but his memory was still keen, and he would often speak publicly about the Negro Leagues. Some of the stories he told about being a black player are painful, yet O’Neil carried on because of his enduring love for the game. We also learn that he loved jazz and women in red dresses. Most importantly, however, Buck loved people.

Posnanski writes of when O’Neil played baseball in a grass skirt — yes, really — a grass skirt. The year was 1937, and Buck was playing with a team called the Zulu Cannibal Giants. He was only 25 and needed the money. Not only did the team play in those skirts, they also painted their faces and used bats that resembled clubs. Plus, the crowds expected them to do some version of tribal dancing. It’s an account that makes one cringe.

Moreover, O’Neil’s world as a player in the Negro Leagues included hours spent on a bus going to towns who didn’t want them, and being forced to eat meals on the bus because they couldn’t eat in restaurants. As another player, James Lee, recalled:

“We ate luncheon meat on the buses. We ate crackers on the buses. Sometimes we didn’t eat at all. It was hard. We were treated like we were less than men. “

And there was always the knowledge that no matter how good the players were, they’d never be allowed to play in the white Major Leagues. Jackie Robinson, of course, broke that color barrier in 1947, but Buck O’Neil never got to The Big Show.


Buck O’Neil of the Kansas City Monarchs. Public domain. 

Even when O’Neil became a successful baseball player for the Kansas City Monarchs, Buck’s beloved wife, Ora, felt the effects of racism. As O’Neil told Posnanski:

“My wife, Ora, wanted a hat. So she went downtown to a store called Woolf Brothers, where black women could shop. But could not eat at the counter. Ora was allowed to look at the hats. . . but if she touched one, touched a hat, she had to buy it. A black woman could ruin a hat. . . That’s what racism was.”

Posnanski often asked Buck how he kept from being bitter. O’Neil answered him this way:

“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.”

Buck’s graciousness shines in this interview as he spoke about Ty Cobb, bigotry, and why he refused to hate:

The Soul of Baseball doesn’t have tons of stats for the baseball nerd. While there are plenty of anecdotal stories, you won’t find much information about ERA’s or slash lines. It does have humor, though, as in Buck’s fondness for women in red dresses, or why Negro Leagues legend Satchel Paige called Buck O’Neil “Nancy.” But most importantly, it’s a moving account of how one man endured injustice that most of us have never known, and still rose above that hate. In this time of political animosity and social fracture, The Soul of Baseball is an inspirational narrative on how we should treat one another. In other words, we should all Be More Like Buck.


Featured image: photo composite by Darleen Click for Victory Girls.

Written by

Kim is a pint-sized patriot who packs some big contradictions. She is a Baby Boomer who never became a hippie, an active Republican who first registered as a Democrat (okay, it was to help a sorority sister's father in his run for sheriff), and a devout Lutheran who practices yoga. Growing up in small-town Indiana, now living in the Kansas City metro, Kim is a conservative Midwestern gal whose heart is also in the Seattle area, where her eldest daughter, son-in-law, and grandson live. Kim is a working speech pathologist who left school system employment behind to subcontract to an agency, and has never looked back. She describes her conservatism as falling in the mold of Russell Kirk's Ten Conservative Principles. Don't know what they are? Google them!

1 Comment
  • Jim Armstrong says:

    Buck O’Neil was a special human being. I thought it was an appropriate gesture to rename the Broadway Bridge the Buck O’Neil Bridge, because of all he did for KC. It’s really shameful the Baseball Hall of Fame did not enshrine him. He was one of their best ambassadors and did more for the game than most of the players in it.

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