A little wit, a lot of reflection at the Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame Induction

Sunday at Cooperstown. Back, left to right: Hall of Fame president Josh Rawitch holding pitcher/catcher Bud Fowler’s plaque; pitcher Jim Kaat; outfielder Tony Oliva; designated hitter/first baseman David Ortiz. Front, left to right: Irene Hodges for her father, first baseman/manager Gil; Dr. Angela Terry for her uncle, first baseman/manager/coach/scout Buck O’Neil; Sharon Miñoso for her late husband, outfielder Minnie.

They had as many people turn up at the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies Sunday as fill Fenway Park for a sellout Red Sox home game. And the man who brought enough of those Fenway crowds to their feet in the years the Red Sox finally buried the accursed Curse and hammered the coffin shut twice more gave them more.

And he didn’t even think about hollering, at whatever the choice point might have been, This is our [fornicating] Hall of Fame! either.

The only thing wrong with David Ortiz’s induction speech is that his fellow inductees Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil weren’t still alive on earth to see and maybe raise. But those two men who loved the game as deeply as Ortiz does surely looked upon the stage from their Elysian Fields roosts and hollered camino a seguir—way to go.

With the “Papi! Papi!” chants pouring forth well before he took the podium, it would have been tempting for the first Hall of Fame designated hitter to get there on the first ballot to fall all the way into his public persona as a big, laugh-hunting, laugh-indulging eternal kid. He let some of it come forth. But for the most part he stayed on the side not always accounted for when his name comes up.

The side of soul.

Ortiz felt as reflective and as emotional as anything else after his daughter Alexandra, a college music student, opened the proceedings with a stirring singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He also had a country to thank, the United States, for “welcoming me with open arms since I was practically a child, and giving me the opportunity to develop and fulfill all my dreams and then some more.”

Under ordinary circumstances, that would have been Hall of Fame boilerplate. Out of Ortiz’s usually garrulous mouth, it was as heartfelt and honest as when he thanked his family for standing by their man during the career that brought him to this point—even his wife, Tiffany, despite the couple’s separation last December.

If Big Papi indulged any of his wit he used it simply to segue into the next thanks, the next acknowledgements, whether to the coaches and evaluators who encouraged and mentored him, the teammates who engaged him, the managers who didn’t let him let any slump swallow him alive, the family who braced him, the country that embraced him.

There were times you thought Ortiz’s voice might crack from emotion, but—just as he didn’t flinch when swinging big with postseason advances or World Series rings on the line; just as he didn’t flinch achieving a .947 OPS in 85 postseason games that would have been half a career season for lesser men (his World Series OPS of 1.372 is a jaw-dropper, too)—he didn’t let himself flinch now.

“I’m always joking around, I’m always being me,” he told a news conference after the induction. But you had the whole planet, the whole nation watching you and you have to deliver a message, especially the way life is going these days. You want to deliver a positive message, the words, that people can understand that we need to stay together, we need to be more humble, we need to be sharing love, that’s what we need. Because a lot of bad things are happening nowadays.”

A lot of bad things happened to keep Miñoso from entering the Show before his cup of coffee with the Indians at 25 and his full rookie season at 27. (Eight games with the Indians before being traded to the White Sox in a three-team, seven-player deal.) He did for black Latinos what Jackie Robinson did for African-Americans and he let his effervescent personality diffuse bigots and engage teammates as well as he played.

But a lot of good things might have come forth Sunday afternoon if Miñoso could have lived to accept his plaque. The man who once said his last dream in the game he loved was to make it to Cooperstown (he died in 2015) would have made the crowd his own just the way Ortiz did. “As Minnie would say,” his widow, Sharon, told the gathering, “‘Thank you, my friend, from the bottom of my heart’.”

So would O’Neil, maybe the only one among Sunday’s Hall inductees—including Miñoso’s successor Cuban-born star Tony Oliva—who could have made Miñoso resemble a clinical depressive.

I once wrote that getting O’Neil to shut up about baseball (and it holds about life, too, if you’ve ever read the book he wrote [I Was Right on Time] or the best written about him [The Soul of Baseball]) was like taking the alto sax out of Charlie Parker’s mouth. (“People feel sorry for me? Man! I heard Charlie Parker!” he once said.) The only problem anyone would have had with him Sunday would have been holding him back.

After he was spurned for the Hall by a single vote in 2006, O’Neil graciously accepted the invitation to introduce seventeen Negro Leagues inductees, a few months before his death. He even got all the Hall of Famers on the podium and the crowd on the lawn to sing with him, “The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.”

His niece, Dr. Angela Terry, may have joked that she got to accept her uncle’s plaque because she holds the longest membership in the AARP, but she nailed home gently and firmly that Uncle John (as she called him throughout) belonged above and beyond his splendid Negro Leagues playing and managing stats, above and beyond his scouting, coaching, and mentoring after.

Which he does. What Pete Rose only thinks he is, O’Neil was: the best ambassador baseball had before he was taken home to the Elysian Fields. You could imagine O’Neil ending his induction speech the way he ended his memoir: “I think it’s about time to close the book on this book before I start boring you. Besides, I’ve got a game to go to. I just might see for the first time the next Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige.”

Hall of Famer Dave Winfield inducted Bud Fowler, considered the first black man to play professional baseball prior to the imposition of the disgraceful colour line. It seemed fitting since Fowler himself was a Cooperstown-area native. “There was something magical about this game that caught his eye and imagination,” Winfield said, “so much so that he’d spend the rest of his life playing and managing this game.”

He pitched, caught, ducked and eluded the game’s racists, and created the black barnstorm teams that led to the formal creation of the Negro Leagues in the first place. A rib injury led in due course to his premature death, but Fowler’s impact on the game was literally nationwide. The time’s conditions and the advent of the colour line compelled Fowler to play and oversee the game in the minors in almost all states—while he worked as a barber on the side, something he learned from his father, to supplement what he earned in the game.

Tony Oliva remembered his own pre-Castro Cuban youth as he looked out around the Hall of Fame lawn and crowd. “I’m looking to the left, I’m looking to the right, and it is bringing memories,” the longtime Twins bat virtuoso and righ fielder told them. “This place right here looks like my home in Cuba, where my father built a field where the young kids were able to play baseball. Exactly like.”

His Twins teammate, lefthanded pitcher Jim Kaat, remembered taking his father’s advice and spurning a $25,000 bonus from the White Sox—it would have kept him on the parent club bench two years under the bonus rule of the time—to take a lesser $4000 bonus from the ancient Washington Senators (on the threshold of moving to Minnesota) so he could be seasoned right.

Haans Kaat wanted his son to learn the professional game properly. (In case you wonder about such things, Kaat’s induction makes for two Dutch-stock former Twins in Cooperstown, joining Bert Blyleven.)

“My dad made $72 a week in 1957,” Kaat told the crowd after accepting his plaque. “You can do the math, figure out what he sacrificed so his son could start his career at the right level.” And, highlight it by pitching his best baseball when someone else was having a career year while outlasting Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in Game Two of the 1965 World Series—the only time Koufax would come up short in that seven-game set.

Remembering another father was a little different for Irene Hodges. When her father, Gil, died of a second heart attack in 1972, Jackie Robinson said through his grief, “Gil was always a calming presence. I always thought I’d be the first [of the “Boys of Summer” Brooklyn Dodgers] to go.”

“Nothing was more important to my dad than giving Jackie all of his support,” she said Sunday afternoon, accepting her father’s plaque. “We were like family with the Robinsons. Jackie’s kids played in our house, and we played in theirs. My dad was not only teammates with Jackie, but they were family. My father made everyone comfortable and accepting of Jackie when he came to the big leagues.”

He did it for Japanese children, too, even in Okinawa where he earned a Bronze Star. “During his time in Okinawa,” his daughter said, “he would befriend the Japanese children who were so frightened by the American soldiers. My father would gather the children from the village, along with his fellow Marines, and teach them baseball. He gave them some joy back in their life that the war had robbed them of.”

That was the same elemental decency that provoked Brooklyn not to boo but to warm up even more to the quiet first baseman, the National League’s best of the 1950s, when he fell into a ferocious batting slump starting in the 1952 World Series—so much so that even a priest who wasn’t of Hodges’s own church ended a Sunday mass saying, “It’s too hot for a sermon, so everyone just say a prayer for Gil Hodges.”

Hodges’ experience with Robinson surely played into how well prepared he kept his 1969 Mets as their manager, after learning on the job with the expansion Senators from 1963-67. Injuries and growing pains kept those Mets from repeating their miracle feat while Hodges managed them. But he remained a firm but engaged boss who loved to teach or re-teach, gave players room to vent privately when need be.

He kept everyone from the merest spare part to the most obvious Hall of Famer in waiting ready to go when needed. He never denounced the injured as quitters and, whenever the tough love was needed, he did it behind closed doors and not in the press.

On Sunday afternoon, Hodges’s daughter re-introduced her father to baseball in a near-perfect bookend to the outsized bombardier who kept himself in check enough to make it about the game to which he’d contributed an outsize share of grandeur when he swung, swayed, and put a city sickened by atrocity on his back.

“If my story can remind you of anything,” Ortiz said, “let it remind you that when you believe in someone, you can change their world; you can change their future.” A man who believes that is a man Hodges, Miñoso, and O’Neil would have loved playing with or coaching in another time, another place, even as Kaat and Oliva had chances to mentor him in his earliest seasons.

This was their [fornicating] Hall of Fame.

Miñoso, O’Neil reach Cooperstown, but Allen’s still excluded

Minnie Miñoso, Hall of Famer at long enough last—but posthumously.

There’s a bit of poetic justice in the first black player for the White Sox and the first black coach in the entire Show with the Cubs becoming Hall of Famers together. But only a bit. Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil should have been voted the honour while they were still alive, not posthumously by the Early Baseball Committee.

So should Dick Allen have been voted the honour while he was still alive. But Allen missed out by a single vote with the Golden Days Era Committee on Sunday. The committee elected Allen’s great contemporary Tony Oliva, but Oliva is still alive to accept the honour.

Miñoso died at 89 in 2015; O’Neil, at 94 in 2006; Allen, at 78, almost a year ago. Nobody ever said things were entirely fair even disallowing the races of these three men, but it’s not so simple to say better late than never for Miñoso and O’Neil; or, for Allen, who’ll surely be voted the honour in due course without having lived to accept it.

Cuban-born Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Miñoso didn’t get his chance in the Show until he was 25, thanks to baseball’s segregation until Jackie Robinson emerged. When the seven-time All-Star finally arrived in 1951—eight games with the Indians before his trade to the White Sox—Miñoso posted a season that should have earned him both the league’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honours.

Award voters in those years had already come to terms with non-white players, but they were still distant enough from the idea that a league’s most valuable player didn’t necessarily have to be on a pennant winner. Miñoso’s season eclipsed the two Yankees who won those respective awards, Gil McDougald (Rookie of the Year) and Yogi Berra (Most Valuable Player), at least at the plate.

Berra’s award probably came as much for his handling of the Yankee pitching staff as for his team-leading runs scored and runs batted in. McDougald had a solid season, but Miñoso out-hit him, out-scored him, and out-stole him. (Miñoso led the league with 31 stolen bases and could be argued as the real father of the Show’s stolen-base renaissance his eventual Hall of Fame teammate Luis Aparicio kicked off in earnest later in the decade.) He also walked more often, struck out less often, and played more field positions competently than the multi-positional McDougald did.

Miñoso put up a lot of MVP-level seasons without winning the award, even though he might plausibly have won three such awards if voters then looked beyond assuming pennant winners automatically carried the league’s most valuable players. He was also (read very carefully) the first black Latino to crack the Show.

In the years that followed after his career ended, there came a few who looked deeper and concluded that Miñoso might have been the most deserving player not to reach Cooperstown for a very long time. When Allen Barra wrote Clearing the Bases in 2002, he devoted an entire chapter to Miñoso and drew that very conclusion, even if he had Miñoso’s age as a Show rookie wrong. (Barra said 29; Miñoso was 25. But still.)

“His 1951 season,” Barra wrote, “taught a lesson to Latin players for the next forty-odd years: you will have to do better than the non-Latin player just to be noticed, and far better to win an award . . . Minnie Miñoso was a better ballplayer than several white players of his time who are in the Hall of Fame. He was also better than [several] black players from his era that are in the Hall of Fame.”

He was also an effervescent personality who used it to win White Sox World over emphatically, while he played and for decades to follow. Chided once because his English was rather halting, Miñoso is said to have replied, “Ball, bat, glove, she no speak English.” At least as classic as the day black Puerto Rican first baseman Vic Power, told by a Southern server that the restaurant didn’t serve black people, was said to have replied, “That’s ok, I don’t eat black people.”

John Jordan O’Neil won one Negro Leagues batting title, made three Negro Leagues All-Star teams, and was known to be swift and slick at first base, but his stronger metier was as a leader and a manager. In fact, O’Neil managed the legendary Kansas City Monarchs to three pennants before baseball’s integration began to mean the death knell for the Negro Leagues themselves.

Buck O’Neil—pennant-winning Negro Leagues manager, groundbreaking Cubs coach, nonpareil baseball ambassador—and Hall of Famer at long enough last, albeit posthumously, too.

As a Cubs coach and scout O’Neil was immeaurable in his mentorship of Hall of Famers such as Ernie Banks and Billy Williams. In due course, he discovered Hall of Famer Lou Brock and World Series hero Joe Carter. As a baseball ambassador, both concurrent to his work with the Cubs and beyond it, O’Neil was even more immeasurable for helping to keep the Negro Leagues legacy alive.

This friendly, soulful man who was a people person first and foremost told all who’d listen that, regardless of the disgrace that kept himself and his fellows from their warranted tastes of what was then considered the only major league baseball life, those who played Negro Leagues baseball managed to have fun, live reasonably, and savour the good in life.

I once wrote that getting O’Neil to shut up about baseball would have been like trying to take the alto saxophone out of Charlie Parker’s mouth. “People feel sorry for me,” O’Neil once said. “Man, I heard Charlie Parker!” Referencing, of course, the virtuoso alto saxophonist who helped change jazz irrevocably with his running mates Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Thelonious Monk (piano, composer), and Kenny Clarke (drums, the first to shift timekeeping to a ride cymbal away from the bass drum) by inventing the smaller-lineup, freer-wheeling style known as bebop.

O’Neil was a jazz nut who linked the musical art to baseball unapologetically and seamlessly. “Music can’t be racist. I don’t care what,” he told Joe Posnanski for the invaluable The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.

It’s like baseball. Baseball is not racist. Were there racist ballplayers? Of course. The mediocre ones . . . They were worried about their jobs. They knew that when black players started getting into the major leagues, they would go, and they were scared. But we never had any trouble with the real baseball players. The great players. No, to them it was all about one thing. Can he play? That was it. Can he play?

O’Neil made his way into his country’s complete consciousness once and for all time when he factored large in Ken Burns’s 1994 documentary, Baseball. Others of his generation who endured with him made fans, but O’Neil made friends. He became what Pete Rose only claimed himself to be, the single best and most effective ambassador for the game ever seen—and that’s saying a lot.

He missed being elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, by the Committee on African-American Baseball. There was much speculation that his exclusion then had to do with a dispute between O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s original research director, Larry Lester, over policy issues. But I’ve never forgotten the sweet grace with which O’Neil accepted the result.

“I was on the ballot, man! I was on the ballot!” he exclaimed, while saying it showed America itself was growing up and getting better even if the growing pains continued to be  too profound.

God’s been good to me. They didn’t think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That’s the way they thought about it and that’s the way it is, so we’re going to live with that. Now, if I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don’t weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful.

O’Neil accepted when invited to induct the seventeen in Cooperstown. His speech evoked living history, deep love, and concluded when he got the Hall of Famers on the podium and the crowd on the lawns to hold hands and sing a line from his favourite gospel song, “The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.”

Three months later, that irrepressibly active and life-affirming man died under the double blow of bone marrow cancer and heart failure.

Dick Allen, who should have been elected to the Hall while alive, and fell one vote short posthumously by the Golden Days Era Committee Sunday.

I have long argued that Tony Oliva deserved to be elected to the Hall of Fame, and I’ve found no evidence to change that conclusion—but Dick Allen, whose career dovetailed completely to his, was over twice the player Oliva was, especially at the plate.

I saw both of them play while growing up and beyond. Oliva was a smart batsmith and run-preventive right fielder. Allen was a wrecking machine at the plate and a brain on the bases in all regards; his Rookie of the Year season compared favourably to Joe DiMaggio’s and he didn’t just hit home runs, what he hit should have had not meals and stewardesses but astronauts on board.

I once did an analysis that concluded a fully-healthy Allen might have finished his career with about 525 home runs, while a fully-healthy Oliva might have finished his with about 315. Neither man reached the Sacred 3,000 Hit Club; hell, neither of them reached 2,000 lifetime hits. But the Hall of Fame is supposed to be about greatness, not mere longevity or compilation. Allen and Oliva were Hall of Fame-great, but only one is now a Hall of Famer.

Allen’s unwanted war with 1960s Philadelphia’s racial growing pains, the city’s carnivorous sports press, and isolated bigots on his own teams too often eroded the memory of just how great he really was. So did the injuries that kept him (and Oliva, in all fairness) from having a more natural decline phase than he (and Oliva) should have had.

But I’m going there again. Line them up by my Real Batting Average metric—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—and Tony Oliva’s going to be holding Dick Allen’s coat, in peak and career value.

First, their peak values:

Player, peak PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Dick Allen, 1964-72 5457 2592 685 120 33 11 .631
Tony Oliva, 1964-70 4552 2090 303 82 38 36 .560

Now, their career values:

Player, career PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Dick Allen, 1963-77 7315 3379 894 138 53 16 .612
Tony Oliva, 1962-76 6880 3002 448 131 57 59 .537

I wrote more extensively about Allen when he lost his battle with cancer last year. And it’s also fair to mention that, in his later years, Allen not only made peace with the Phillies organisation but became one of the most popular members of the team’s speakers’ bureau.

But one more time, here, I’ll hand Jay Jaffe the last word—the best short summary of the hell through which Allen was put so unconscionably in his Philadelphia years by a Philadelphia sports press and population uncertain or unthinking about the city’s racial growing pains, and by some teammates likewise uncertain or unthinking—from The Cooperstown Casebook:

[C]hoosing to vote for him means focusing on that considerable peak while giving him the benefit of the doubt on the factors that shortened his career. From here, the litany is sizable enough to justify that. Allen did nothing to deserve the racism and hatred he battled in Little Rock and Philadelphia, or the condescension of the lily-white media that refused to even call him by his correct name. To underplay the extent to which those forces shaped his conduct and his public persona thereafter is to hold him to an impossibly high standard; not everyone can be Jackie Robinson or Ernie Banks. The distortions that influenced the negative views of him . . . were damaging. To give them the upper hand is to reject honest inquiry into his career.

The next Golden Days Era Committee meeting will be five years from now. Allen waited long enough while he was alive. He damn well deserves a plaque in Cooperstown, even if his family alone can now accept on his behalf.

It’s an absolute wonderful thing to see Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil get their due even posthumously. It’s a wonderful thing to see elected Bud Fowler (arguably the first black professional baseball player); Gil Hodges (the great Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman/Miracle Mets pennant-winning manager); and, Oliva plus his great Twins teammate Jim Kaat, pitcher, whose Hall case is really a) borderline at beat and b) could be seen by re-arranging his best seasons. (Kaat tended to pitch his best baseball too often when someone else was having an off-chart career year.)

But Dick Allen’s continuing exclusion remains a disgrace.

It’s never too late

2020-08-04 TheSoulOfAmericaCover

Is it ever too late to read and recommend a genuine lyrical ballad such as this soulful book?

When you argue as I have on behalf of putting an end to baseball’s (and all sports’) goat business, part of the argument is that to err is human, though not all err before audiences of millions on television and 55,000+ at the ballpark. The trouble is that most of us forget the part about forgiveness being divine.

Buck O’Neil, Negro Leagues legend and the first African-American coach in Show history, had enough to say about forgiveness to make a book in its own right. (He’d written one himself, his memoir I Was Right on Time.) But there’s one story above all that’s going to stick with me for the rest of a life in which I’ve had to re-learn forgiveness repeatedly.

Watching a game with O’Neil in Houston, a writer saw a man and a boy, strangers to each other, stretch for a ball tossed into the stands by an Astros outfielder named Jason Lane. The man being taller, he caught the ball, then celebrated the catch. The boy looked absolutely crestfallen.

The writer quietly denounced the man as a jerk. O’Neil counseled him gently, “Don’t be so hard on him. He might have a kid of his own at home.” The writer, admitting he’d learned to try seeing things through O’Neil’s eyes, thought about it. Then, he asked, “Wait a minute. If this jerk has a kid, why didn’t he bring the kid to the ball game?” Smiling, O’Neil replied, “Maybe his child is sick.”

The writer was Joe Posnanski, now a senior writer for The Athletic but then a columnist for the Kansas City Star. Their travels together delivered The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America, published the year following O’Neil’s death at 94.

If you haven’t read it yet—as I hadn’t, until this week—put baseball’s Hitchcockian  coronavirus season to one side and buy it. Read it. What began when O’Neil asked Posnanski how he fell in love with baseball became maybe the single most lyrical epic ballad ever written about one man’s love affair with a game that didn’t always treat O’Neil and his fellow Negro Leaguers, legends and scrubs alike, with the same love.

What Pete Rose merely thinks he’s been, O’Neil really was: baseball’s possible greatest ambassador, from the moment Ken Burns reached him to speak of the Negro Leagues generations for Burns’s mid-1990s documentary series, Baseball.  From there, O’Neil spread the words, the stories, the achievements of the Negro Leagues as if anointed by the God in whom he believed deeply to be that messenger.

Other baseball legends taking their stories on the road win fans. O’Neil made friends. But God wouldn’t have had to do anything more than just nudge the line drive-hitting, longtime Kansas City Monarchs first baseman turned manager. (Among others, he played with and managed Hall of Famer and colour line breaker Jackie Robinson.) Getting Buck O’Neil to shut up about baseball, Negro Leagues and otherwise, would have been like taking the alto saxophone out of Charlie Parker‘s mouth.

If you think that’s a stretch, be advised or reminded that the only thing that ever animated O’Neil more than baseball was jazz. This sunny man who meant every word when he said nothing in his experience could ever force him to hate any human being of any colour once said, in Posnanski’s earshot, answering whether he had fun playing baseball when black men such as him were barred from the Show, “People feel sorry for me. Man, I heard Charlie Parker!”

O’Neil’s passion for music equaled that for baseball, and he linked them unapologetically.

Music can’t be racist. I don’t care what. It’s like baseball. Baseball is not racist. Were there racist ballplayers? Of course. The mediocre ones . . . They were worried about their jobs. They knew that when black players started getting into the major leagues, they would go, and they were scared.

But we never had any trouble with the real baseball players. The great players. No, to them it was all about one thing. Can he play? That was it. Can he play?

“For five seasons,” Posnanski wrote, meaning nature’s and not baseball’s, “I would watch Buck look at the bright side. He had every reason to feel cheated by life and time—he had been denied so many things, in and out of baseball, because of what he called ‘my beautiful tan.’ Yet his optimism never failed him. Hope never left him. He always found good in people.”

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Buck O’Neil running the bases for the Monarchs: “I wasn’t no power hitter. I hit those line drives.”

Part of O’Neil’s reason for going on the road with Posnanski was knowing he wouldn’t write just another clinical analysis of Negro Leagues baseball. “The books . . . mostly read like encyclopedias,” Posnanski wrote, “and that was no way to get people interested.” O’Neil put it more directly: “Somebody needs to write that book—the one that tells what it was really like. You’ll do it.”

Poring through the morgues of the old black American newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender wasn’t enough. Interviewing O’Neil’s fellow living former Negro Leaguers wasn’t enough. Then O’Neil mentioned an appearance in Nicodemus, Kansas, one of O’Neil’s inumerable stops to promote Negro Leagues baseball and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Posnanski asked to join him. “Be on time,” O’Neil replied.

O’Neil asked Posnanski inumerable questions instead of the writer doing the questioning. From there was birthed a portrait of an elder gentleman who wanted the world to know and remember just how good, exciting, and even transcendent Negro Leagues baseball, and those who played it before the disgraceful colour line broke, could be and usually were. And, its role helping America try to grow up in due course.

He was a player/manager for the Monarchs in the final decade of their existence and the Negro Leagues’s existence. As the Monarchs’ manager and then a Cubs coach, O’Neil could (and did) claim to have turned Hall of Famer Ernie Banks from a shy kid to the effervescent icon for whom every day was beautiful enough to play two.

“I learned how to play the game from Buck O’Neil,” Banks would say. Buck said no, Ernie Banks knew how to play, but what he did learn was how to play the game with love.

If he missed becoming one of the infamous Cubs’ experiment of rotating leaders known as the College of Coaches because of his race, since black men weren’t thought  managerial material still in the 1960s, O’Neil also missed being remembered as a cog in a laughing-stock experiment that didn’t change the Cubs’ losing ways. As a major league scout before and after his coaching days, O’Neil’s finds included Hall of Famer Lou Brock and, in due course, 1993 World Series winner Joe Carter.

When seventeen Negro Leagues figures were elected to the Hall of Fame by the Committee on African-American Baseball in 2006—including Effa Manley, the longtime co-owner of the Newark Eagles—O’Neil was on the same ballot but missed election by two votes. He would have been the only living person in the group if he’d made it. We can only marvel at what his induction speech might have been.

The country that once enabled his and dozens of his peers’ exclusion from the Show now wept that this soulful, effervescent, accessible man would see Cooperstown only as a visitor or guest. I’m not ashamed to say I was one of them. From the moment I saw O’Neil on Burns’s Baseball, my lone regret about the man is that I never had the honour of meeting him.

If O’Neil’s actual playing record isn’t as glittering as those of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Monte Irvin, or Double Duty Radcliffe (Radcliffe died over a year before O’Neil), marry it to his self-appointed ambassadorship and his work on behalf the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and you should have had a Hall of Famer.

Speculation ran rampant that O’Neil’s exclusion rooted in a feud between the impossible-to-dislike O’Neil and Larry Lester, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s original research director, who’d battled with O’Neil—who’d been the museum’s chairman and face—over policy issues.

The winners included Eagles legend Biz Mackey, who managed them to the 1946 Negro Leagues World Series championship (future Show Hall of Famer Roy Campanella was his catcher) and Cum Posey, the longtime owner of the Homestead Grays. And, Willard Brown, an O’Neil teammate on the Monarchs who owned a pocketful of Negro National League home run titles and became the first black player to homer (off Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser) in the American League. (It was Brown’s only major league homer.)

Characteristically, O’Neil could only bear to look on the bright side. This son of a Florida whose segregation included denying him high school in his youth saw his mere presence on the ballot at all as a sign America was growing up and getting better all the time, even if the growing pains remain profound. “I was on the ballot, man! I was on the ballot!”

God’s been good to me. They didn’t think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That’s the way they thought about it and that’s the way it is, so we’re going to live with that. Now, if I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don’t weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful.

Graciously, O’Neil accepted the Hall of Fame’s invitation to introduce those seventeen new Hall of Famers. His speech was as memorable for its affection as for its evocation of living history, not to mention his getting everyone present, from the Hall of Famers on the podium to the crowd of all colours holding hands and singing a line from his favourite gospel song: The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.

O’Neil had humane ways of putting in their place people who only think they know the “way it was” in his generation. “I wondered,” Posnanski wrote. “What did they know about his day?”

They knew nothing about riding from one dot on the map to the next—one town named for a former president to one named for an old explorer—and playing baseball on dusty infields against furious dreamers on town teams. They were not there when Buck worked for the post office during the winters, and when he stepped outside for his five-minute break, he would smoke a cigarette, close his eyes against the chill, and think of sun and grass and spring training. And yet Buck never stopped them. He gently corrected them . . .

“I remember catching batting-practise home runs,” [a television reporter] said. “That was when baseball was still baseball.”

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Buck O’Neil said, “but baseball is still baseball.”

Posnanski cited a verse fashioned out of one of O’Neil’s recollections about those Negro Leagues years, when the men who played the Negro Leagues game could only fantasise about being allowed to play with and against white men to whom they felt at least equal in talent if not yet in station.

People used to tell me
How they thought it was
Way back then.
Used to tell me
How they imagined it.
And I tried to say
It wasn’t like that.
We were men
Flesh and blood
And we played baseball in the sunshine.
We hit doubles off the wall,
Slid hard into second base.
We had fights, and we made love.
We sang songs and prayed on Sundays.
Before games.
We were real. Yeah. We laughed and cried.
There was a lot wrong with the world.
But we weren’t sad, man.
We had the times of our lives.
I told them that for fifty years.
They heard. But they didn’t listen.
They listened. But they didn’t hear.

When Posnanski asked O’Neil to identify his greatest day, ever (“I’d heard him tell it a hundred times. I wanted to know if he was awake”), the old first baseman/manager/coach/scout didn’t flinch. Easter Sunday, 1943, in Memphis. The Monarchs played the Memphis Red Sox. O’Neil hit for the cycle. In his hotel later that evening, a friend introduced him to some local schoolteachers.

“I walked downstairs and walked right up to one of those teachers. I said, ‘My name’s Buck O’Neil, what’s yours?’ That was Ora. And we were married for fifty-one years. Easter Sunday, 1943. I hit for the cycle and met my Ora.”

O’Neil’s only regret was that his baseball life kept him from his Ora far too often. She died eight years before her husband did. After you read The Soul of America, you’ll believe more powerfully that they were reunited serenely and happily in the Elysian Fields, where she grins as he reminds those who preceded him how to see the good through the bad, the beauty on the other side of the dark side.

You’ll also believe that Ora O’Neil—as should we who remain on earth, where he made America make him its friend—just keeps on loving Old Buck, as he keeps loving her and the game to which he gave more than it deserved.

If it’s never too late to read and recommend such a lyrical ballad to a man who was a gift to a country that didn’t always appreciate him and his generation, then Posnanski made one of my baseball wishes come true. I’ve finally met and gotten to know Buck O’Neil.