Baseball Bookshelf: The Warm Charm of Buck O’Neil

Baseball Bookshelf is an occasional series of Fanposts sharing reactions to my reading about the game. The previous installment is here.

You can't watch Ken Burns' Baseball documentary series without being struck by one of the recurring speakers - Buck O'Neil. Speaking on difficult subject of the Negro Leagues, which he loved while fulling recognizing and suffering from their injustice, Buck O'Neil's character comes through, showing us a man of great strength and compassion, of grace, dignity and above all warmth. You feel like you could listen to him all day, just wrapped in the glow of his warm charm. The TV series got Buck the opportunity to write I Was Right On Time: My Journey from the Negro Leagues to the Majors. Buck and his ghost writers (Steve Wulf and David Conrads) capture his voice perfectly, so a reader gets to luxuriate in that warm glow for 240 pages.

It would be a great experience even if he was talking about the weather, but the content is fascinating too. Buck played his first paid ballgame at age 12, when the semi-pro Sarasota Tigers that shared the practice field with his school asked him to sub for their sick first baseman. At that age, of course, he hadn't settled into a position yet. He had the arm to be an outfielder. But he was tall and looked like a first baseman, so that's the way managers saw him for the next 30 years.

The career that followed includes shocking injustice like needing to move to a nearby college that had a high school replacement program because public high schools in Florida wouldn't enroll black students. Playing on the college team got him exposed to managers in Negro League ball, but making a living as an unknown in that world was tough. He had to accept indignities like barnstorming in warpaint and a grass skirt as part of the Zulu Cannibal Giants. Buck pushed through all this and had a fine career as a starting first baseman and then player-manager of the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1940s, the waning days of the Negro Leagues.

The book is filled with many baseball firsts that occurred in the Negro Leagues, and especially fascinating details of the transition years after 1946, when Jackie Robinson started playing for Montreal on his way to the Dodgers. I won't belabor all these here. But one transition centered on our franchise forbearers, the St. Louis Browns. The Browns did not cover themselves with glory back then. In 1948, they signed sluggers Willard Brown and Hank Thompson away from Buck's Monarchs. Willard Brown hit the first home run by a black player in the American League. Then the white player from whom he borrowed what should have become a historic bat broke it, so he wouldn't have to use it after a black man. Both Brown and Thompson were released before the end of the season, just so St. Louis wouldn't have to pay the Monarchs. Hank Thompson got another chance and was a star with the New York Giants soon after. But this bitter experience was the end of Willard Brown's career.

Though Buck himself never played after the Monarchs, he spent the last 30 years of his baseball career working for the major leagues, as a scout and briefly as a coach for the Chicago Cubs. The book is worth reading just to learn his impact on the game after he stopped playing. He summarizes his career this way: "I played with Satchel Paige, I managed Ernie Banks, I coached Lou Brock, I scouted Lee Smith." Hard to beat that. Harder to beat is the man's pure love of the game. He says "Just being around baseball is an elixir. ... Baseball is better than sex. It is better than music, although I do believe jazz comes in a close second. It does fill you up." His book fills you up too, with both information and emotion.

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