Monday, August 18, 2008

The Soul of Baseball

In the early parts of the twentieth century, a gifted dark-skinned Cuban player named Luis Bustamante committed suicide. In his farewell note he wrote the five haunting words that summed up crushed dreams and suppressed rage.

He wrote: "They won't let us prove."

— Joe Posnanski, The Soul of Baseball

If Gandhi had played baseball, he would have been Buck O'Neil.
— Leigh Montville

At first glance, the title The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's Americacould describe practically anything. Author Joe Posnanski could have gotten bored with his Kansas City Star gig, found some Morrie to have Tuesdays with and driven him to every minor league park within Prius distance. A backwoods getaway with a senile old coot, or maybe two men's journey through the heartland to try to find the "soul" of the game wrapped inside a socio-political metaphor. It isn't until midway through the book that you understand the Soul of Baseball is Buck O'Neil.

Even if you've seen O'Neil's interviews in Ken Burn's excellent documentary, Baseball, it's an easy mistake to make. Too many pedestrian "my year at the ballpark" books or vacuous player bios hit the shelves annually with misleadingly existential or mythic titles. Part of what makes baseball great — the richness of its poetic references, terms and nicknames — affords bad writers' conventional narratives an unearned profundity. Classic lore and terminology are subverted and tarnished by the below-average work for which they wind up serving as titles, and, later (worse) descriptions or metaphors. Witness columnist George Will's banally extolling the nobility of The Sacrifice Bunt — an at-bat perceived as the ultimate "team" gesture — in one column, and in another explaining how wealthy individuals should be freed from the heavy burdens of preventing thousands of fellow citizens from dying of curable diseases by paying a nominal tax. So many writers and commentators have co-opted baseball's history and terms for enough nauseating clich├ęs that it's a surprise when a book's eponymous hero so deserves his title.

The book's pacing perhaps lets the realization slip by at first. Written in light episodic style, Posnanski's exposition initially breezes without a seeming unity of narrative. What might first seem insubstantial, just baseball folk amblin', represents a very smart choice on Posnanski's part: rather than controlling the narrative himself, he stands back and lets Buck tell his stories.

Buck O'Neil was born into racial injustice in Florida, in 1911. He left his native Sarasota for Jacksonville merely to be able to attend a high school. From there, he discovered baseball, and from 1934 to his death in 2006 served as a player, manager, coach, spokesman and defender of the game. He never played in the major leagues; by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Buck was already in his mid-thirties. Despite a successful career managing in the negro leagues, and despite becoming the first black coach in the majors, for the Cubs, blacks still weren't considered leadership material, and Buck coached under an allegedly racist manager in the Cubs organization who had no interest in seeing him succeed. He went on to scout for the Cubs and Royals and to help found the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

By essentially effacing himself as the narrator — except when directly spoken to, by Buck — Posnanski reverts to his familiar role as journalist. This fits both of them naturally, capitalizing on Posnanski's training in imparting action with objectivity and allowing Buck to tell his own story in his own words, without anger or hectoring from a narrator committed to railing at social injustice. Indeed, it becomes more obvious as the chapters fly by just how easily someone else could have got the book very wrong, trying to steer a series of vignettes between extremes of social and personal outrage and beatification. Montville's quote about Buck and Luis Bustamante's consuming despair illustrate them both.

There will never be an acceptable excuse for Jim Crow, just as there will never be an acceptable excuse for why the National Pastime in a land where it was self-evident that all men were created equal could so unapologetically restrict so many excellent men. It doesn't even make sense in terms of baseball: no one watching the negro leagues could argue credibly that stars like Josh Gibson weren't the equal of major-league sluggers. Reading the stories of marginalized greats, forgotten journeymen and the few negro league stars holding onto life with faint hopes of official recognition is enough to bring tears of rage. Many aspects of this book are sweetly, frustratingly heartbreaking — Buck's stories, players receding, ghostlike, into history, Posnanski's attempts to keep in the same good spirits as a nonagenarian — but none more so than Buck's incredible, almost preternatural capacity for love and forbearance.

This, too, could have been an unfortunate pitfall. There is a character type, defined by Spike Lee, perhaps in some recent relapse into not being tedious, called The Magical Negro. Originally denoting a supporting "mystical" and earthy black character who aids a white protagonist in some way, the definition has broadened on the internet to include any remarkably (perhaps supernaturally) special black person who brightens or enlivens the lives of those surrounding him, beyond seemingly normal bounds. On one hand, this elevates the black character, indicating that he possesses a wisdom others do not. But it also makes him an other, an ineffable quantity. In its own way, it can be an amazingly racist characterization, in part because it celebrates a black person for his cheerfulness despite his immaterial gifts.

Yet amazing cheerfulness practically defines Buck O'Neil. No matter how many radio personalities or journalists want Buck to indulge a sense of vengeance or outrage for a nation's injustice, there simply isn't any there. In less capable hands, the depiction of his openness and his love of his fellow men could have made him seem a fool, just another dupe at the hands of Whitey. Worse, his sheer joy in the game and in life could have been put to work as a kind of backwards apologia for baseball's color barrier. Describing Buck's joy in life, rather than letting Buck tell it himself, would run the risk of almost making him seem an alien saintly black man — shucks, just so pleased to be here that I didn't even notice that Separate But Equal thing, anyhow.

Buck did, but he didn't see any reason in blaming a whole people for the poor decisions of some. And he does get annoyed (he wryly observes that the number of people who hit home runs off Satchel Paige, who has been dead since 1982, increases every year), but sees no reason to dwell on that annoyance. Despite the baiting from interviewers seeking to castigate a system that produced Josh Gibson's bitterness, Satchel Paige as a superannuated attraction and Bustamante's suicide, the important thing to Buck is that he still got to play great baseball. No matter what else he could not do, for seven decades he got to play and work for the greatest game in the world, in segregated and integrated leagues. Instead of venting bile, he elicits the baseball stories of everyone around him. The same journalists looking for a quote put down their microphones and remember when their fathers first took them to the ballpark. Small crowds form, rapt. "What was your best day in baseball?" he asks, and everyone has one.

The only potential shortcoming in Posnanski's book is italicized stanzas, set apart from the text, in various chapters. Early in the book, he admires the way Buck's sentence fragments, brief descriptions of character or words of action, sound like poetry. From then on, these stanzas indicate an upcoming poetical homily, despite the cadence of all of Buck's language possessing the same poetical qualities. Considering the rhythm of Buck's speech and the deftness of the rest of the book, an editor seems more liable to blame than Posnanski for underestimating the reader's ability to hear the poetry. The cause for the presentation doesn't matter much anyway: for each person who knew it already, maybe there's one other person who will finally get it and understand the almost involuntary celebration of the pace and punctuation of the game for our lives, for those of the players' and for Buck O'Neil's.

Those tiny quasi-issues aside, what remains is an entertaining and clear picture of an incredible man. Much of the book can be powerfully sad — I spent most of the last two-dozen pages with tears streaming down my face — in both pity and in that tender wonderful sadness that comes from the gratitude of knowing something beautiful only temporarily. Posnanski takes care to let Buck present himself and doesn't give in to the temptation to make this book the first argument for the beatification of Buck O'Neil. The thing is, I'm not really sure it shouldn't be.

Rating: 5
Buy this book for practically anyone.