The award-winning sportswriter Joe Posnanski has just published a book about Buck O'Neil called The Soul of Baseball. Pos followed Buck around for a year. This book is about their time together. It is a wonderful reminder of what a special man Buck was. Here's an excerpt to give you a taste. I'll have a Q&A with Pos up shortly. In the meantime, head on over to your favorite bookshop and grab a copy for yourself.
Buck kept coming back to the old woman. Every city Buck had visited that summer seemed hotter than the city before, but this was the heat crescendo Washington roasted. Gnats and flies attacked in the humidity. Buck kept talking about the old woman. She had walked across the street in front of the car, and Buck watched her. She was seventy or so, gray hair, small, she wore a long dress and a silver jacket. She carried two small plastic bags of groceries. She walked slowly, like she was considering whether to turn back.
The woman came upon a puddle in front of the curb, a puddle big enough to have condominiums built around it. Buck said: "Puddles in Washington must be bigger than anywhere else in America. The sewers must be backed up or something." The driver made a crack about sewers and politicians. The woman stood by the puddle a few seconds. She studied it, measured it perhaps. She then seemed to bend her knees and lean forward, as if she intended to jump across. Buck held his breath. Then she shivered, as if a cool breeze had passed through her, and she stood up straight, took one longing glance at the puddle, and made the long trek around.
"Hold on for a second," Buck said to the driver. Buck stepped out of the car and walked up to the woman. He offered to carry her groceries, but she said she could manage fi ne. He said to her, "I saw you standing there by that puddle."
She smiled. "Yeah?"
"I thought you were going to jump over it for a minute there."
"You did, huh? I thought about it. There was a time, you know."
"I know," Buck said. "There was a time."
"I know exactly how that woman felt," Mamie Johnson said. "We all had our time, didn't we, Buck?" Three Negro League players sat together at a picnic table under a tent that fl apped in a hot breeze. This was just outside RFK Stadium, where the Washington Nationals played baseball. While Mamie talked, she signed autographs. She handed out baseball cards of herself. The black-and-white photograph on the cards showed a woman fifty years younger reaching high in the air in a posed effort to catch an invisible baseball. They called her "Peanut" thenPeanut Johnson; she was one of three women who played baseball in the Negro Leagues. That was during the Eisenhower 1950s, and by then most of the best black baseball players played in the Major Leagues. Most of the promising young black players played in the Minor Leagues. The rest of the dreamers played in the Negro Leagues. The players in the Negro Leagues by the mid-1950s were mostly old, flawed, or unluckythe league was dying. Owners needed stunts and sensations just to draw a few hundred people to the ballpark. Women ballplayers seemed interesting enough. "Mamie could play a little," Buck said.
Across the table, Hubert Simmons tried to sign an autograph.
He had pitched for Baltimore in the Negro Leagues for a short time. His hand shook severely as he tried to finish the fi nal letters on his autograph. He stopped short and apologized. "The shakes go away after a while," he said. The sun scorched the backs of necks. A radio nearby played the song "Kokomo." The disc jockey then said it was ninety-eight degrees. Body temperature. Buck tried to open a bottle of water, but his hands were sweating and he could not twist off the cap.
"Let me help you there, Buck," a fan said, but Buck pulled the bottle away and grunted, "I got it, man." He wrestled with the cap longer. Hubert Simmons gently dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief he'd been carrying in his pocket, and he tried to sign another autograph. His hand shook again. "I'm so sorry," he said softly. Peanut Johnson handed out another baseball card and talked about how the players used to treat her like a younger sister. Buck managed to get the cap off the bottle of water. His face indicated the drink was not worth the effort.
"Were you good?" someone asked Buck.
"I held my own," he said.
"Were you good?" someone asked Buck a moment later.
"I'm getting better every year," he said.
The people kept coming at Bucksome for autographs, some for stories, and some because there was nothing else to do on a hot summer day before a ballgame. Buck's face flushed, and his eyelids drooped, and he said, "Excuse me, I need to do something for a minute." He stood up and walked into the Roadway Negro Leagues traveling museum.
Buck went into the trailer and breathed in the air-conditioning. He looked around at the familiar photographs of Negro Leagues players. He saw a young boy watching a video screen. On the screen, there was black-and-white footage of an old black pitcher named Chet Brewer talking at a dinner. Buck and Brewer had been friendsBrewer died in 1990.
On the video, Brewer told this story:
There was this black youngster who wanted to play for the local white team. He showed up at a game one day, and the manager said, "Get out of here, boy. You know Negroes can't play here." The player showed up the next day, and the manager said the same thing. The next day, the kid showed up again and the manager said, "If you come back tomorrow, I'll call the police."
Well, the player did show up again, and the manager gave in. He gave the kid a uniform, but he told his players, "All right, I know how to get rid of this boy. I'll find just the right situation, send him out there, and embarrass him so much he never comes back." In that game, the bases were loaded, two outs, game on the line, and the manager said, "All right, boy, you get in there and hit."
On the first pitch, the kid hit a long fly ball off the right-field wall. He sprinted around first base. He flew around second. And as he was about to slide into the third base, through the cheering crowd, you could hear that manager scream, "Look at that Cuban run!"
The child in the trailer laughed along with the black and white audience in the video. Buck walked over to him and asked kindly, "Do you know why that's funny, son?" The child looked up, his face slightly red, and he shook his head. Buck said, "I would hope you did not get it, son. See, in those days, in this country, it was better to be Cuban than an American black man. If you were Cuban, you could get served in restaurants.
But if you were black and born right here in the US of A, they wouldn't give you a meal. Isn't that strange?"
The child nodded. Buck said:
You look back,
Didn't make no sense.
What people do to each other
'Cause of something dark
In their hearts.
Buck and the child walked around the trailer. Buck pointed to a picture of Oscar Charleston and said, "Do you know who that is, son?" Another head shake. "Oscar Charleston might have been the greatest player this game has ever seen. You know Barry Bonds?" A nod. "Oscar Charleston was like Barry Bonds. He was better than Barry Bonds."
He pointed to a photograph of Cool Papa Bell. A head shake. Buck said: "Cool Papa Bell was so fast that he could steal second and third on the same pitch. That was Cool Papa Bell. Fastest man I ever saw on a baseball field."
He pointed to Josh Gibson. A vague nod. "Best hitter I ever saw," Buck said.
Buck pointed to a stocky pitcher named Hilton Smith. Head shake. "He had the greatest curveball you ever saw. Actually, he threw three or four curveballs. He had a big curve-ball and a little one. He was something to see."
Buck pointed to Satchel Paige. "I've heard of him," the child said happily.
"He was everything you heard and more, son," Buck said.
So it went. Buck and the child walked around the trailer, they looked at different photographs, and Buck offered a quick commentary on each player. They played a couple of interactive computer games. Then the child pointed to a photograph of a young Buck O'Neil and asked, "Is that you?" A nod. "Were you good?" the child asked.
"It's not right to talk about yourself like that," Buck said. And then he smiled and said that he was a pretty good hitter. "I never did have much power," he said. "I hit those line drives."
He then explained how, over time, he became a much better hitter. When Buck was a young player with the Monarchs, he was often baffled by curveballs and spitballs and emery balls and the various other kinds of junk pitchers in the Negro Leagues would throw. Then he went into the navy during World War II, and he served in Subic Bay, in the Philippines. By day, he loaded and unloaded ships with his all-black battalion. At night, though, he thought about curveballs and how to hit them. He dreamed baseball. He was thirty-fi ve when he got out, but he led the Negro American League in hitting in his first year back, and the next year he fell just one batting-average point short of doing it again.
"You can do anything you set your mind to, son," Buck said.
It was then that I noticed a man watching them both. It was the boy's father. He looked as if he might cry. "Someday," the father said, "he's going to know how much this meant."
But the funny thing was, while the dad was talking, I was not looking at his son. I was looking at Buck. The flushness of his face was gone. His eyes were wide open. He bounced as he walked, and he laughed and talked. When they finished the tour, Buck said, "Well, I've got to go back outside to sign some autographs," and he headed out into the Washington oven and the hungry mosquitoes. He almost ran to the picnic table and announced to all the people wilting in the heat, "You know what? It's a beautiful day. Feels like the sun is on your shoulder." Buck sat down, opened up a bottle of water with one grunt and a twist. He drank half the bottle in one gulp.