Since 1950, the Japanese government has funded what are popularly known as Living National Treasures, masters of various traditional art forms: pottery, kabuki theatre, origami, etc. These practitioners receive government subsidies with the understanding that they will continue their work and pass on their knowledge to others. In the United States, I believe that Buck O'Neil would have qualified as a Living National Treasure. I am very envious of Joe Posnanski for the year he spent with Buck, collecting material for what would eventually become The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America.
Image via Rocky Mountain News
Buck O'Neil was not the best of the Negro League baseball players. Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson vie for that title. But in the decades following the decline of those leagues, O'Neil was their greatest champion, and one could hardly have chosen a more suitable emissary. Baseball is a folklorist's paradise and Buck O'Neil was the game's master storyteller. Anyone who has watched Ken Burns's Baseball knows the magic to be heard in that rich baritone delivery. Written records of the vast majority of Negro League games are lacking, so the oral history provided by former players has been essential to the preservation of the legacy. I, for one, could listen to Buck O'Neil all day.
Photo via Negro Leagues Baseball eMuseum
Storytelling is largely a lost art form in the age of mass media. But anyone who has known a great storyteller, and I am very lucky to have known a few, understands that neither television nor Internet will ever be able to replicate the joy of hearing a great yarn spun over shared food and beverage. It is one thing to know what a word means. It is quite another to know how to use it. O'Neil does occasionally offer insights into his art in Posnanski's book and Posnanski presents Buck's most eloquent utterances as italicized verse. Hearing O'Neil tell a tale is much how I imagine it would have been to hear Mark Twain.
Photo via Sons of Steve Garvey
The book has inspired a few road trip ideas of my own: the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City and other baseball-themed adventures. At a minimum, a trip or two to the ballpark are in order for this summer. I am also now curious about O'Neil's autobiography, I Was Right on Time.
I will go further than recommending this book. If you love baseball, good stories or people with joie de vivre, you owe it to yourself to read it. I may even convince My Wife to give it a go.