It’s never too late

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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.

Freese’s pieces, revisited

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David Freese hoists the 2011 World Series MVP trophy. He’d also won that National League Championship Series MVP.

Notoriously enough at the time, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson pre-Yankee mused aloud, “If I played in New York, they’d name a candy bar after me.” When fellow Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson was given a day at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium, on the threshold of his retirement, the host of the event told the cheering crowd, “Around here they don’t name candy bars after Brooks—they name their children after him.”

When David Freese made the St. Louis Cardinals’ difference in the 2011 National League Championship Series, I noted—after recalling he first thought his trade from the San Diego Padres to the team for whom he grew up rooting madly, the Cardinals, was a joke—“(E)veryone except citizens of Milwaukee might be laughing with the National League Championship Series’ most valuable player.”

In St. Louis, of course, they may be ready to name a candy bar after him. Freese’s Pieces, anyone? It isn’t everyone who comes up from oblivion to out-slug Albert Pujols when Pujols is having the best postseason set of his career, or drives home a ferocious exclamation point on it Sunday night with a first-inning blast that merely starts the Cardinals en route a secured trip to the World Series.

Who knew after Game Six of that NLCS that Freese’s series would prove a mere dress rehearsal for the big event to come? Not even Freese himself, about whom Joe Posnanski—amidst a series in The Athletic remembering sixty transcendent baseball moments—writes with loving eloquence that he was one kid who got to live every baseball kid’s backyard or schoolyard dream, suiting up for the home team he grew up loving, and hitting the blasts that either send the team to the Promised Land or yank them back to the threshold.

Most such kids would sell their souls to get a chance to do it for the home team even once. Freese did it twice, also in Game Six, but this time during the 2011 World Series. He tied it with a two-run triple in the bottom of the ninth and won it with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the eleventh. Telling the Texas Rangers, “Not so fast,” he sent the set to the seventh game his first-inning, game-tying two-run double would help the Cardinals win.

Think about the roll of Cardinals World Series heroes and from whence they came in the first place. Grover Cleveland Alexander (pitching and winning Game Six to send the 1926 Series to a seventh game his team would also win)—Elba, Nebraska. Pepper Martin (hitting .500 in a seven-game 1931 Series)—Temple, Oklahoma. The Dean brothers (Dizzy: two wins; Paul, two wins, including Dizzy’s Game Seven shutout, 1934 Series)—Lucas, Arkansas. Enos Slaughter (the Mad Dash, Game Seven, 1946 Series)—Roxboro, North Carolina. Bob Gibson (MVP of the 1964 and 1967 Series)—Omaha, Nebraska. Darrell Porter (MVP of both the 1982 National League Championship Series and World Series)—Joplin, Missouri. David Eckstein (resident pest and MVP, 2006 World Series)—Sanford, Florida.

Did somebody mention Sandy Koufax? He got to be a World Series hero twice for his hometown Dodgers, the MVP of the 1963 and 1965 Series—but that came after the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, and after a serious hitch in Koufax’s delivery was caught at last and fixed in spring training 1961, turning him from an untamed talent into an off-the-charts Hall of Famer.

Think a little bit, too, of how many players were Hall of Famers who came up too short in postseasons if they got there at all. Of how many—like Freese—who weren’t Hall of Famers on the best days of their regular season lives, but played like Hall of Famers when they did get to the big postseason dance. Of how the Freeses of the game live the truth of Gene Hackman’s valedictory in (of all things) the football film, The Replacements: “Greatness, no matter how brief, stays with a man.”

(Eckstein? Al Gionfriddo? Dusty Rhodes? Sandy Amoros? Don Larsen? Moe Drabowsky? Al Weis? Donn Clendenon? Gene Tenace? Brian Doyle? B.F. Dent? Dave Henderson? Mickey Hatcher? Sid Bream? Tony Womack? Edgar Renteria? Luis Sojo? Scott Spiezio? Scott Podsednik? Carlos Ruiz? Pablo Sandoval? Steve Pearce? Call your offices.)

Porter came the closest to being a homegrown Series hero, Joplin being a measly four-hour, 284-mile drive to St. Louis. Freese was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, but raised in St. Louis’s Wildwood suburb. He’d set Wildwood’s Lafayette High School’s single-season record of 23 home runs and a .533 batting average in his senior year, but felt burned out enough by baseball to spurn a baseball scholarship at the University of Missouri to try studying computer science instead.

So much for that idea. After visiting Lafayette during a summer while working in his school district’s maintenance department, Freese gave baseball another shot at two other schools and—the year Eckstein made himself the cockroach the Detroit Tigers couldn’t exterminate in the 2006 Series—made himself the Sun Belt Conference’s player of the year. The Padres drafted him in 2006’s ninth round.

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Freese about to hit the plate in a swarm of teammates, Game Six, 2011 World Series. “I just got beat up by thirty guys,” he laughed to reporters afterward. It was nothing compared to how depression was beating him up inside.

The Cardinals sent a spent Jim Edmonds to San Diego to get Freese in 2008 because they needed a solid minor league third baseman. Then, with former Angels World Series MVP Troy Glaus injured, the Cardinals needed Freese—until they didn’t. He didn’t turn up in the Cardinals’ fatigues again until 2010, where a hot start turned unfortunately into a season-ending ankle injury that June.

His 2011 threatened to be injury compromised, too, a hand fracture when hit by a pitch costing him 51 games. After his return, he finished the regular season with a flourish of eight hits in the final nine games. Then came the NLCS. Then came the World Series. Then came first and second with two outs for Freese in the Game Six bottom of the ninth, against Rangers closer Neftali Feliz. Then came Freese on 1-2 down to his and the Cardinals’ final strike—of game, set, and season.

Then came Freese swinging at a fastball on the outer half of the plate. “The beauty of it,” Posnanski wrote at the time, “was that in the instant after the ball was hit, it had a chance to be anything.”

He had obviously hit it well — the ball cracked off the bat — but there was no telling how well. It had a chance to be a home run. It had a chance to be an out. I have written before that there is nothing in sports like the successful Hail Mary pass in football, and the main reason is that no two Hail Mary passes are alike. Sometimes they deflect from one receiver to another. Sometimes they bounce off the defenders’ hands and back to a waiting receiver. Sometimes the pass just drops into a pile and sticks in a receiver’s hands. Really, there are countless geometrical possibilities. Baseball doesn’t usually have that kind of geometry. Home runs are home runs. Singles are singles. Pop-outs are pop-outs . . . But Freese’s fly was something like a Hail Mary. There was just no telling how it would turn out while the ball was in the air.

Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz misjudged where the wall was, playing in the Rangers’ no-doubles defensive alignment, and the ball sailed over his head and into the wall. It sent the game to extra innings, where Josh Hamilton restored the Rangers’ two-run lead with a home run in the top of the tenth but a pair of singles, a run-scoring ground out, and Lance Berkman’s two-out RBI single—with the Cardinals again down to their final strike—tied things up again, this time at nine each.

Then Jake Westbrook kept the Rangers to a mere base hit in the top of the eleventh and Freese led off the bottom against Mark Lowe. Remember, now, that this was also the Series in which Pujols channeled his inner Reggie Jackson in Game Three, hitting three home runs—from the sixth inning forward, nourishing a 16-7 blowout. Who could possibly top that?

For that matter, who could possibly top Freese’s Game Six-tyer? The one that turned eight innings of somewhat sloppy baseball into three innings to come of surrealistic baseball? The answer turned out to be Freese himself. On a full count. On what looked like a changeup hanging into the middle of the plate. Over the center field fence, onto the green lawn beneath the Busch Stadium batter’s eye. With Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, then the Rangers’ president, watching from the field level seats in abject disbelief.

Trotting around the bases as the Rangers left the field, Freese slammed his batting emphatically onto the third base line, down between his briefly leaping legs, a few feet before he hit the plate to be buried by a swarm of celebrating teammates. “I’m just about out of breath,” Freese told reporters in an on-field post-game interview. “I just got beat up by thirty guys.”

His Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa—whose Game Five bullpen communication breakdown got close to vaporising his image as a tactical master and big-picture strategist, and who should have blown his team to world-tour vacations for pulling his kishkes back out of the incinerator—could only say, “You had to see it to believe it.”

This was a player who battled clinical depression his entire life, fell into alcoholism while battling it and suffered a small number of accidents and incidents before he became a Cardinal, then took the battle public eight months after he married and while in the Busch Stadium visitors’ clubhouse as a Pirate. “I’ve had moments like that since high school, to be honest,’’ he told USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale in 2017.

It’s been 15-plus years of, “I can’t believe I’m still here.” You win the World Series in your hometown, and you become this guy in a city that loves Cardinal baseball, and sometimes it’s the last guy you want to be. So you start building this façade, trying to be something I was not. And the whole time, I was scared to death what was going to happen to me after baseball.

. . . Who knows where I was headed, but as long as I was here, I had so many friends here, I wasn’t good at just saying no. I wanted to please people, make everyone happy, and that became impossible.

What happened was the Cardinals trading Freese to the Los Angeles Angels in November 2013, the Cardinals knowing Freese needed to leave in the worst way possible to blow the pressures away. That was part two of what began resolving his inner turmoil. He met part one at his friend’s media studio a week before the deal, an intern named Mairin O’Leary—who became Mairin Freese in the simplest ceremony possible, in a Pittsburgh coffee shop in September 2016. Over a crepes breakfast.

Freese had one more chance at postseason glory as a 2018 Dodger. He did his part, hitting leadoff home runs in Game Six of the NLCS and Game Five of the World Series, but the Dodgers fell to the Boston Rogue Sox who may or may not have deployed their now-infamous replay room reconnaissance ring sign-stealing plot during that postseason.

When he retired after last season, Freese no longer saw his stupefying 2011 postseason as a cross to bear from behind the wall of depression. He looked forward to taking his almost three-year-old son to a live Cardinals game in due course. Not to mention showing the little boy what Daddy delivered in Game Six. And all that postseason, including a still-record fifty total bases and 21 runs batted in.

“It’s going to be cool when Kai understands and I show it to him,” Daddy told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as he retired, “and he says, ‘Is that really you on the TV?’ He understands it’s me now if he’s watching and there’s a closeup of me hitting or something. It is going to be cool (showing him the World Series ring). Look at that damn squirrel. He might not care, which might even be cooler.”

Kai Freese will have to wait, unfortunately, until the coronavirus world tour dissipates enough to let the games bring the fans back to the stands. His father has probably told him, “Trust me, it’ll be worth the wait.”

“There are 270 players in the Baseball Hall of Fame. There is only one player who grew up in St. Louis and got to live the dream again and again for the team he grew up loving,” Posnanski writes, observing the contrast between Hall of Famers who lacked for truly signature moments and ordinary men who have one that transcends the game itself. “I suspect David Freese is pretty happy with how it turned out.”

The guy who made St. Louis baseball the happiest place on earth in 2011 fought hard enough to get to happiness with how his baseball legacy turned out in the first place.