This book is not a history of Negro League baseball. It is not a history of John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil’s playing career. The Soul of Baseball is an encapsulation of the ninety-fourth and last year of Buck O’Neil’s life as an American baseball celebrity and human being.
If the reader recalls O’Neil’s appearances in Ken Burns’s 1994 documentary, which brought Buck—particularly his open face and bright smile—to [End Page 151] national attention, this book assures readers the man was genuine. As I read the book, I found myself referring to him as Buck because it seemed appropriate, and I believe Buck would have preferred it that way.
Of course, some space is given over to Jackie Robinson (rather than Buck) breaking the color line in 1947. Posnanski also notes that Buck did not receive the nod to enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame when seventeen other players, managers, and executives involved with the Negro Leagues were so honored in 2006. But Buck’s composure on matters like these demonstrate his passion for the game and will put a smile on the reader’s face.
Readers might imagine that Buck must have experienced frustration and anger over the circumstances that kept him out of the major leagues and forced him and his colleagues to suffer the bite of Jim Crow, as well as similarly overt or subtle forms of racism wherever they played. However, in this book Buck neither recriminates nor takes to task; he appears serene at ninety-four, grateful for the peace in his life at this time. Buck’s one lasting grief is the loss of his dear wife of over fifty years, Ora Lee, who succumbed to cancer in 1997.
The road trip in Posnanski’s title refers to Buck’s many appearances across the country in venues large and not-so-large for the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Buck’s travels bring him in contact with old friends, the children of old friends, people who only vaguely know of the Negro Leagues, people who want to touch a piece of living history, and folks he just likes to be with and who return the compliment.
There are also, thankfully, Buck’s stories and reminiscences about Satchel Paige, “Cool Papa” Bell, Oscar Charleston, and others. But this book is recommended not only as baseball history but for its celebration of the life of a baseball celebrity, perhaps legend, and a true Hall of Famer, if the reader chooses to think of him that way.