Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review: The Soul of Baseball

The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, by Joe Posnanski
8.5/10, a terrific look back at the Negro Leagues through the eyes of its most enthusiastic ambassador

I grew up a Philadelphia Phillies fan, becoming aware of baseball some twenty years after Jackie Robinson made his historic debut. In the mid-to-late seventies, the Philly press had still only grudgingly accepted African-American ballplayers onto their club: Mike Schmidt was the hero of that team, Greg Luzinski the slugger, Larry Bowa the scrappy shortstop. Garry Maddox, who served just as faithfully in center field for years, was one of the only non-white players on the team, let alone starting.

A kid growing up in a liberal household had no idea that there were differences or attitudes. It was only later that I recall my father telling me how cold the Philly fans and press were to embrace Maddox, compared to the affection they lavished on Schmidt and the others. In my mind, his is the only name I can remember the announcer saying, the name, "GARRRRY LEEEEEEEEEE MADDOX" echoing through the ballpark.

I had no idea the Negro Leagues existed until college, and then it seemed to me that they were a loose, patchwork show, a bunch of guys who weren't allowed to play baseball in the bigs, so they got together just to play, like a grown-up sandlot league. I had never heard, nor heard of, Buck O'Neil.

In the past few years, his name has been all over, from his famous Hall of Fame snub until his death last year. Joe Posnanski, a Kansas City sports columnist, traveled with Buck for a year, admitting that he himself didn't know what the book was going to be about until he started to write it. He found his topic in Buck O'Neil himself, the man more than the collection of his stories.

Not that the stories aren't great. His "Nancy" story is worth all the buildup. But the stories are only pieces of the whole, the experience of the men in the Negro Leagues, including Buck himself, who played as fiercely, as colorfully, and as competitively as their "official" counterparts.

Buck's story, encompassing the stories he tells over the course of the book, is compelling and moving. There are some former players who are consumed by bitterness at the discrimination they suffered, others who have learned to live with it. Buck, magically, seems to be free of it. And that is at the heart of "The Soul of Baseball," the paradox of this man who experienced firsthand the worst in people and chose to see only the best.

Posnanski's writing is skillful and evocative, crisp and colorful as a sportswriter should be. In fact, my main complaint about the book is that he doesn't let enough of himself show. I picked up the book because of Joe's blog, a consistently entertaining and insightful look at sports in general and baseball in particular. The personality of the author is one of the great delights of the blog. But in this book, I understand his dilemma: the book is about Buck, and to color it with himself would be to overshadow Buck. I think he made the right choice, but it wasn't the book I expected to read.

It's still a great read, even if you're not a baseball fan or a Joe Posnanski fan.

2 comments:

John said...

Have you read Moneyball?

I'm curious to hear your impression if you have.

jdm

Tim Susman said...

I haven't, actually. I'm vaguely interested in the inner workings of baseball in that way, but not enough to invest the time in reading that book when I have a stack of other ones that need to be read...

Did you read it? What do you think?