Karl Lindholm: Two books — ‘Right on time!’
Editor’s note: Second in a series on the centennial of baseball’s Negro leagues.
Over the years I have conjured a number of fantasy jobs for myself. None were consummated, of course — reality intruded, but it was fun to imagine myself in these roles.
One of my favorite fantasies was traveling the country, under the auspices of Major League Baseball (MLB) or ESPN or the Hall of Fame or some such authority, presenting seminars on baseball’s Negro leagues for people whose profession extends from baseball but who don’t know squat about the Black game in the 60 years the National Pastime was segregated by race (1887-1947).
When I discuss baseball with friends — like you perhaps, gentle reader — and they show what appears to be a genuine interest in knowing more about baseball during segregation in America, I recommend two books as starters.
“The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America” by Joe Posnanski, is one of those books. Posnanski is one of the country’s foremost sportswriters, a longtime columnist for the Kansas City Star now writing for The Athletic. Kansas City was also the home of Buck O’Neil and they became friends.
Buck O’Neil was an all-star for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues in the 1930s and ’40s, and managed the Monarchs from 1948-1955. He was the first Black coach in the Major Leagues (1962) and worked for the Chicago Cubs for more than three decades: as a Cubs scout, he was responsible for signing Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Billy Williams, Joe Carter, Lee Smith, and others.
Buck was the heart and soul, the “driving figure” in the creation in the 1990s of the Negro Leagues Museum, which opened in 1997 on 18th and Vine, the dynamic cultural center of Black Kansas City in the first half of the 20th century. Baseball was Buck’s greatest love, but jazz was a close second.
In Ken Burns’ nine-part 1994 baseball documentary, Buck at age 82 told the stories of life in the Negro leagues that he had been telling for 60 years, and became, in the words of author Jules Tygiel, “a symbol of baseball’s past and the game’s greatest good-will ambassador.” He was indeed the soul of baseball.
Buck himself urged Posnanski to write about what the Negro leagues “were really like.” Posnanski determined he would write a book that “saw the Negro leagues and baseball and life through his (Buck’s) eyes.”
Buck disliked the emphasis on the hardships of Negro league play, the prejudice, the rigors of travel, the hotels and restaurants that barred Blacks — he wanted the glory as well as the pain to be acknowledged. “I had a beautiful life,” he said. “I played with the greatest ballplayers in the world and against the best ballplayers in the world. Waste no tears for me. I wasn’t born too early. I was born right on time.”
Posnanski’s strategy was to spend a year, 2005, with Buck as he (usually along with Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Museum) traveled the country on behalf of the Negro League Museum, telling his stories, dispensing his wisdom, wherever he was invited, from small towns in rural Kansas to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis, and elsewhere.
Buck was 93 years old in 2005.
When Posnanski asked Buck “if I could follow him around America, he said three words — ‘don’t be late’ — and that was that.”
So this book, “The Soul of Baseball,” is an unconventional biography of an extraordinary man, and also an on-the-road tale, providing first-person recollections on life in the Negro leagues. It’s also the story of a relationship.
Posnanski was asked if he had been “changed” by knowing Buck O’Neil and traveling the country with him. “Of course it changed me,” he wrote in the Afterword. “I had a chance to travel around America with the most positive, life-affirming person I have ever known. How could that not change a person?”
Buck knew he had lived a rich and varied life, a baseball adventure, despite the extraordinary challenges of the journey. He resisted martyrdom, he foreswore bitterness. He exuded respect, self-respect, and pride.
In the summer of 2006, Baseball’s Hall of Fame inducted posthumously 17 new members from the Negro leagues, 16 men and one woman (Effa Manley). It was the end point of a long process. A group of a dozen scholars of Black baseball evaluated the credentials of 39 Negro league figures for entry into baseball’s shrine.
Buck didn’t make it. The word is that he came up one vote short. In a heart-rending final chapter, Posnanski describes Buck’s waiting with friends at the Negro Leagues Museum for the phone call that never came.
His exclusion from the Hall of Fame was met with astonishment and outrage in the world of baseball — he was considered a shoo-in. Buck was gravely disappointed. At the same time, however, he was overjoyed for those finally being acknowledged.
He represented the 17 inductees at the July 30 ceremony in Cooperstown, saying there was no place “I’d rather be (than) right here right now representing these people that helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice.”
He died a few months later, just short of his 95th birthday. If there were a Hall of Fame for character, Buck O’Neil would be its first inductee.
The second book I urge those to read who want to know the basics of Black baseball history, the great players and teams and the life they led in the America of that challenging time is “We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball” by the contemporary artist Kadir Nelson.
It recounts the history of the Black game both in narrative form and in series of stunning illustrations by the author, over 50 full-page illustrations in this oversize but inexpensive (15 bucks!) book. It’s officially categorized as a Young Adult, but it is perfect for all ages.
A discussion of that book will have to wait until next time.
Until then, I have some homework for you: check out Kadir Nelson’s website (Kadir Nelson.com) and examine the remarkable illustrations of his work there, and elsewhere online.
Do your homework, students of the game and its place in American culture. You’ll be glad you did.
Karl Lindholm, Ph.D., is the Emeritus Dean of Advising/Assistant Professor of American Studies at Middlebury College. He taught two baseball classes in the American Studies Program at Middlebury: “Baseball, Literature, and American Culture” and “Segregation in American: Baseball and Race.” Email him at [email protected].
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