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Bronx Banter Interview: Joe Posnanski

I sat down with Joe Posnanski, the author of a new book on Buck O’Neil, The Soul of Baseball, recently to talk about all things Buck. (In turn, he interviewed me about all things Yankees at his new blog.) Here is our chat. Hope y’all enjoy.

BB: Buck became a celebrity after appearing in Ken Burns’ PBS series. What did he do for the previous twenty years? Was the PBS thing really life-altering for him?

Pos: There’s no doubt it changed his life. He was a scout in the ’70s and ’80s — mostly for the Cubs, but later for the Kansas City Royals — and he told most of the same stories. He carried himself in the same way. It’s just that people really didn’t listen to him much then. I’ve heard a long interview with Buck from the early 1980s, it was just the Buck people heard a decade later. You can hear all the same joy and optimism and love in his voice. It took Ken Burns to really hear that voice and bring it to America. And it was never the same for Buck after that. Suddenly, he was in demand — an overnight success at 82, he said.

As for what kept him going in those dry years — well, I would say part of it was always baseball. He loved scouting. He was involved with the Hall of Fame veteran’s committee; Buck was such a driving force in getting so many Negro Leaguers into the Hall. But there was more to it. If I had a key question in this book, it was exactly this question: “Buck, how did you keep from being bitter?” There’s no easy answer for that. Some people just have a gift for loving life.

BB: I was so moved by Buck’s reaction to not being elected into the Hall of Fame. Obviously, he was hurt by it, but he recovered–at least on the surface–faster than those around him. Then he told you, “Son, what is my life about?” It wasn’t about the glory, it was about the giving.

Pos: That’s exactly right. It was so vivid to see the way Buck responded to the Hall of Fame. So many of the other things Buck overcame in his life — not being able to attend Sarasota High School, not being given the chance to play or manage in the Major Leagues, on and on — were just concepts in my mind. But here was something I saw first hand, and I know Buck was disappointed that he did not get elected into the Hall of Fame. But he recovered, I think, on the surface and beneath. That’s what his life was all about. You move beyond bitterness and disappointment. You embrace life.

BB: You know the famous Satchel Page line about not looking back. Do you think that applied to Buck at all? Do you think he ever had reflective moments of sorrow or anger but just dismissed them and kept moving ahead?

Pos: I can’t see how he could be human and not have those reflective moments of sorrow and anger. He dealt with so much injustice in his life … the worst of America in the 20th Century. But I can tell you this, I was pretty close to him for this book. I mean, you travel a year with someone, and you see them in all sorts of moods. I never saw things back up on him. He was a very spiritual man. And he gained so much from his contact with people. Anytime he seemed to need a burst of energy, he would go up to a stranger and just start talking.

BB: Buck really did need people as much as they needed him, didn’t he? I love the story about him taking a break during a hot day, and finding a young boy to talk to, and by the end of their chat, he was revitalized.

Pos: There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Buck’s connection to people is what kept him so alive and so hopeful about the world through 94-plus years. There is a constant theme in this book, I think. Whenever Buck felt a little tired, a little down — a little bit “old,” you could say — he would find someone to connect with. Sometimes, like in the chapter you mention, it was a child. Other times it was woman in a red dress or a man in an art gallery or a couple kissing in an airport. He never talked about these things — it wasn’t like he said, “Hey, I need to go talk to some strangers now.” He just did it. And it was always amazing to me the way he seemed reborn after connecting with someone.

BB: Buck never had children. But he had so much love to give. It’s almost as if because he wasn’t a father to his own kids, he ended up being a father to thousands instead.

Pos: Yeah, I think he did feel just a bit sad about missing out on that part of life — fatherhood. But baseball was his life; he was on the road all the time, plus he was already in mid-30s when he got married. But you are right, there are many people who feel like in some way Buck was like a father to them. I’m one of those people.

It’s funny how we regard celebrities. Most old-jocks are remembered because of their greatness, and how that connects us with our youth or important moments in time–Willie Mays, Aaron, Musial. But they are rarely the kind of men that Minnie Minoso or Buck have been, men who thrive on giving back. It’s no surprise that Buck became a star for Ken Burns. He is charming, has a way with words, but above all, he’s a gifted storyteller. I love it that this is the heart of his gift. More than numbers, or dates, the story was the thing with him.

You know, I think this is something we tend to forget: It takes tremendous talent to be a spokesman like Buck. It isn’t something that just anyone can do. Buck was warm and funny and goodhearted, but he was also a wonderful speaker, a terrific storyteller, an observer of life and he had a world-class memory. These are remarkable talents just as it is a remarkable talent to be able to hit the curveball. My point is that sometimes we might expect too much from athletes — and I include myself in this. What are the odds that someone can be a world-class baseball player AND be a world-class speaker or writer. I don’t know that God hands out gifts so freely. I do think many athletes try to give back. Some are better than others. But few have the talent to inspire people the way Buck did.

BB: I think one of the greatest lessons Buck provided is learning how to slow down and appreciate the moment. It is particularly poignant today, in our Internet culture of instant gratification.

Pos: He enjoyed everything. It’s funny, he was always moving, and yet he was always appreciating the moment too. We were in Washington — Buck was testifying before Congress regarding the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. And you should have seen him there; he was as happy as he could be just wandering the halls of those Senate offices, eating lunch in the Senate dining room, testifying before the committee. He had the time of his life — and this was TESTIFYING BEFORE CONGRESS. He said, “I wish my mother could see me now. Senator O’Neil!” He was something else. You couldn’t help but be happy around him.

BB: You talk about the restless spirit of a scout. It seems as if, more than anything else, Buck had the temperament of a scout, always moving, never sitting for too long. Do you think this is correct?

Pos: Absolutely. He used to say, “Moving is the opposite of dying.” He always seemed happiest when we were on the move, going to the next ballpark, the next game, the next interview … he really did believe that it was the journey that counted. We talked about this some, and I talked about this a lot with some of his friends: Everyone knew that when Buck couldn’t move, couldn’t talk to people, couldn’t remember, couldn’t share his stories, when that sad day happened, well, he would not last long after that. That’s exactly how it happened. After he spoke at the Hall of Fame, he really took a turn for the worse. He checked into the hospital about a week later. And though he came out briefly, it was only a brief respite. He died less than two months later. He said it wasn’t how long you lived. It was how well you lived. And he lived long and well.

BB: For someone who devoted so much of his life to the memory of The Negro Leagues, Buck refused to trash the modern player, even in light of the recent drug scandals. It is a time-honored tradition to believe that players were better in your day than they are now. Why do you think Buck refused to fall in line with this kind of thinking?

Pos: Buck was simply not a guy who was blinded by nostalgia. He believed America was a much better place late in his life. He felt that way about baseball too. He felt the game was better than ever. He was never happier than when he was around the players. One of my favorite scenes in the book happened in San Diego, when Kenny Lofton came over to Buck and said, “Buck I’ve got someone for you to meet. He’s the next Josh Gibson.” And he brought over Ryan Howard. Howard was a rookie then, and he had, I think, nine or 10 home runs. Buck said to him, “I understand you have some power, son.” And Howard kind of looked at the ground sheepishly and nodded, and Buck said, “Son, don’t be ashamed of your power. Swing for the fences.” I like to credit Buck for Ryan Howard’s success.

He just loved being around the players. Kept him young. He always said baseball players are baseball players, no matter the time, no matter how much money they made, no matter what. He did like to say there were some things he thought players did better in his day — fundamental stuff, mostly — but he always said the players in today’s game are bigger, stronger, faster and a heck of a lot of fun to watch.

“Baseball is still baseball.” That was one of his mottos.

BB: I think the fact that Buck lived for the moment, and appreciated today’s players without any trace of cynicism helped give him credibility as an expert on the Negro League players that none of us ever saw. If Buck could be trusted to give the modern player his due, then why would he be lying about the old timers?

Pos: Well, I think Buck proved over many years that he had a great sense of judgment about players. I mean, you look at the list of players he signed or helped along the way — Ernie Banks, Elston Howard, Lou Brock, Joe Carter, Lee Smith, George Altman, Billy Williams, Oscar Gamble, the list goes on and on. He had a scout’s eye. So yes, the fact that he had such a great sense of ballplayers added tremendous credibility to his scouting reports about those old Negro Leagues players so few people saw.

As for today’s players, I think it’s a natural tendency for older players to forget how difficult it is to play the game, and perhaps romanticize their own time. We’ve all seen it a thousand times. Look at Mike Schmidt now tearing into Adam Dunn and Pat Burrell for striking out a lot. Schmidt seems to think that all those guys have to do is choke up and focus on contact — that’s what he did after striking out 180 times. But it’s not that easy. One of my favorite stories — it might be apocryphal — is about Bob Gibson, when he was pitching coach of the Braves, going out to the mound and screaming at Rick Mahler for not busting a hitter inside with high heat. And as he walked off, Mahler thought: “I don’t HAVE high heat.”

Anyway, Buck didn’t have much of that in him. He always saw the game with that scout’s eye. He probably was a bit sunny about players — he tended to see the good in everybody. But when he said Leon Day could have been a 20-game winner in the big leagues year after year, I think that comes with a lot of authority because we know Buck’s record as a scout.

BB: Some people are more about the past, and others about the future. Buck seemed to be about the present while always keeping the past alive. It was like that was his job.

Pos: Absolutely. He always lived in the moment. He loved the gossip of the day. If he was around now, he’d probably call and want to talk about the Anna Nicole deal. He listened to current music. He watched some TV. He wanted to know what was going on now. I remember we were in Houston– this was when the Astros were in an awful hitting slump. Astros owner Drayton McLane walks over to Buck and says something like “We could sure use you in the lineup tonight Buck” — a complete throwaway line. And Buck said: “Well, you do need some hitting.” Drayton was amazed that Buck was so with it, so on top of the moment, but that’s just the way Buck was. And you’re right, at the same time, he was trying to keep alive memories of the Negro Leagues and baseball from another time. I don’t think Buck ever saw those two things being in opposition. He talked about the past. But he lived in the present.

BB: Can you talk about Double Duty’s funeral in Chicago a bit? That was such a vivid chapter in the book.

Pos: Yes, that was a crazy day. When Double Duty Radcliffe died — he was 103 — Buck wasn’t sure if he could make it to the funeral. I think he felt like he had been to too many funerals in his life already. And also, I think he knew that some intense emotions come out at the funerals of old Negro Leagues players — some crazy cocktail of sadness and anger and bitterness, and I think that always took a lot out of Buck. But in the end he felt like he should go; Duty was one of the last players who remembered the Negro Leagues of the 1930s, when Buck first started playing.

It was a beautiful funeral, with music and memories. Buck knew everyone, of course. One of the people Buck knew was an old player named Al Spearman, who played briefly in the Negro Leagues and then played for a few years in the minors. For a few years, apparently, Spearman had been obsessed with a Chicago character who was calling himself Johnny Washington and who said he played in the Negro Leagues. Spearman had become convinced that Washington was a fake. This was obviously the first time I had seen anything like it, but Buck had seen it many times before and so he spent much of the time at the funeral trying to calm down Spearman. At the end of the chapter, I write about Buck repeating, again and again: “Let go, Al. Let go. Let go.” Al simply could not hear him. It was heartbreaking to watch. But that was Buck.

BB: Did Buck’s death impact the book in any way?

Pos: Well, as far as the book itself goes … it had almost no impact. The book was entirely done when he died. In fact, I had received a bound copy of the book just a couple of weeks before he died. I went to the hospital and saw him, and he asked me to come back and read him the book. He took a dramatic turn for the worse just a couple of days later, and I never saw him again. I still think about that a lot.

So, after he died I wrote a very short afterword, no more than 500 words. I thought that was the best way to handle it. I didn’t want the book to change at all. The book was about his life, not his death. Several people have made the “Tuesdays with Morrie” comparison, and that’s flattering, Morrie was quite obviously an incredible man, and that book sold, whatever, a bajillion copies. But this is not a book about a man who knew he was dying. This is a book about a man who lived life to its fullest as we traveled around America. Anyone who met Buck during that year-plus we spent together would have been convinced that he would live forever.

Obviously, though, his death has made a huge impact on my feelings about the book. The book didn’t change much, but it is so much more important to me now. I hope that there’s enough of Buck’s spirit in here to help keep his name alive. That’s what I think about all the time. Those of us who knew and loved Buck — that’s our job now. To keep his spirit alive.

BB: I read a piece from a KC paper over the winter that reported that Buck hardly had any money when he died. He had a humble little home, and presumably had given his most of his money to the church. I remember thinking, “Wow, that makes total sense.”

Pos: People ask me all the time if there was anything that surprised me while doing this book. And I say it’s complicated because I knew Buck pretty well before the process. So nothing in particular surprised me. But what DID surprise me — what shocked me, in fact — is that he never let down. Ever. I saw him in all sorts of places, in all sorts of moods. I was with him when he was hungry, tired, grumpy, sad, and in every one of those moods, he was still Buck O’Neil, and he was still as optimistic and hopeful about life as any other time. I tell the story in my book about a really hot day in Houston at a game, and Buck was ready to get back to the hotel. It was hot. And an outfielder tossed a ball into the stands. A guy caught it — he basically took it away from a little kid sitting right behind him.

I said to Buck, “Look at that jerk.”

Buck wasn’t really in the mood to talk. But he said, “What?”

I pointed out the guy who stole the ball from a kid. I said again, “What a jerk.”

“Don’t be so hard on him,” Buck said. “He might have a kid of his own at home.”

That set me back. Buck being Buck. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that was ridiculous. I said, “Wait a minute Buck, if this jerk has a kid why didn’t he bring the kid to the ballgame?”

And Buck said: “Maybe his kid is sick.”

And I knew then: I would never ever beat Buck at this game. Life was beautiful around Buck O’Neil.

BB: What compelled you to write the book in the first place? Buck already has an autobiography. What did you want to convey about him that baseball fans may not have already known, or did you simply want to reaffirm what so many of us already knew, and loved, about him?

Pos: Well, this wasn’t the book I intended to write. Buck had suggested — strongly suggested — that I write a book about the joy of the Negro Leagues. He felt that plenty of books and movies had been done about the pain of the Negro Leagues, the bus rides, the white hotels, the restaurants that would not serve them and all that. He knew that was important, but he thought people were missing out on how much fun it all was. We went to lunch one day and he hinted strongly that SOMEBODY needed to write that book, and he was looking right at me.

So my first attempt was going to be about a single game, played in 1939. The game faced off two future Hall of Fame pitchers who had a bit of a rivalry — Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith. I had a lot of good stuff about the weekend (Count Basie played, Charlie Parker too) and the scene and the movies playing and the characters involved in the game. In other words, I had the background down. Unfortunately, I had almost no information about the game itself. And it wasn’t a particularly good game anyway. And it was probably just a bad idea to start with.

So I went in other directions — for a while, I was trying to make it into a novel. But that wasn’t right; it just felt too real. Finally I was ready to walk away, and it was my wife Margo — who I dedicate the book to — who said, “No. You have to write the Buck book.” That’s what she called it. The Buck book.

That’s what got me thinking about Buck. Of course, I knew Buck had an autobiography, a good one, and that’s why I had not thought of writing about him before. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt there was so much about Buck that was not in that autobiography, so many things that he could not have put in there. I didn’t want so to much to tell his story. I wanted instead to write about how he saw the world, and how people responded to him, and in time I came up with this idea of simply following him around America.

BB: What was writing this book like for you? Did you have a sense of what you wanted the narrative to be while you were hanging out with Buck or did you mostly concern yourself with keeping notes and allowing the story to develop organically?

Pos: I loved writing this book. With that said, the narrative was hard. I figured this was always going to be a different kind of book, a book with a lot of stops and starts and without that clear storyline to carry us through. There was no “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” narrative here. The original title of this book was “Baseball & Jazz,” (Buck’s two favorite things) and to be very candid I sort of saw this book as a jazz jam, I saw the book bouncing around, lots of freelancing, letting the tune take us wherever it happened to go. I don’t know if I pulled it off, but that was the idea. That’s really why so many of the chapter titles were taken from jazz songs.

Once I had taken the road trip with Buck and sat down to write the book, I knew I had a lot of great stories. There was never any doubt about that. And I felt like I had some idea of how to bring some of the Buck’s charisma and joy to the page. The rest of it — the narrative, the idea of mixing long chapters and short ones, past and present, breaking it up into seasons, all leading the crescendo of that day when Buck did not make the Hall of Fame — that came honestly and over many months.

BB: How different was writing a book compared with writing a column?

Pos: It was very different. I always put it this way: I write at home. When I’m writing a column, my two young daughters run in and out of my office constantly, my wife comes in with errands, I’m instant messaging friends, I’m scanning the Internet and reading blogs, I’m playing Internet backgammon or computer putt-putt … it doesn’t bother me at all. When I need to write the column, I just dive in.

With the book, it was very different. I found that I had to get away from the house, go to a library or coffee shop, turn off everything around me … it’s like I had to be in a different place, both literally and mentally. I don’t know if that made the writing better or worse, but it was certainly a different experience. I really did love it, though. People always say, “Wow, when you write all the time it must be hard to also write a book.” But I love to write. And anyway it was so different, such a new challenge. It’s probably how tennis players feel going from the clay in Paris to the grass at Wimbledon.

BB: What kind of collaboration did you receive from your editor?

Pos: I really did love the entire process. My editor is David Highfill at William Morrow, and he was just terrific. He was always there to talk during the writing portion, but he mostly stayed in the background and let me work out my own issues and concerns, which is probably best for me. And then, when the first draft of the book was done, he was terrific about making suggestions, asking me tough questions, challenging certain ideas. I always felt on the same page with him.

BB: Was there any point where you felt that you were rushing to get the book done?

Pos: No, I didn’t feel rushed at all. My challenge was actually the opposite — trying to learn how to take my time with the story. As a newspaper columnist, you are always time and space constricted. Get to the point quick, get out of the story quick, after a while this simply becomes who you are. I often found myself trying to slow things down — and because this was kind of an episodic book with lots of scenes instead of one long story, that really was a challenge.

BB: That’s exactly what Buck was talking about with the scouts. You need to take your time. It sounds like being around Buck, and then writing about him, forced you to appreciate this life lesson.

Pos: Absolutely. It always amazed me that a man who was so busy, who was always on the move, could find the time to appreciate everything and, yes, slow things down. I’m still trying to learn that lesson.

BB: Is there any part of you that would have liked to have spent more time on it, or are you satisfied with how it turned out?

Pos: As for being satisfied, that’s always a tricky one for me. It seems to me that some writers have that sort of satisfied feeling when they’re done with a column or essay or book or whatever. I’m jealous of that. I am missing that gene. My understanding is that whenever Jim Murray finished writing a column he would lean back and say, “Fooled them again.” I relate to that. When I sent in this book (and I had rewritten it several times), I knew that I had written it with everything I had. That was really my only emotion about it. I’ve read it since, of course, and I’m proud of it. I believe it has some of Buck’s spirit.

BB: You mentioned receiving constructive notes from your editor, how much editing did you find yourself doing on your own? And how did that self-critical approach change, if at all, in this book as opposed to your columns?

Pos: I was self-critical of the book — much more so than I am with my column, in large part because I had more time. I spent an awful lot of time thinking and reworking the structure of the book … I would say the structure changed two dozen times during the writing. It’s funny what people think about writing: I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, “Wow, I really enjoyed this; I’ll bet this book wrote itself.” I think that’s a tremendous compliment, but it’s a bit different from the truth. Maybe my next book will write itself. That would be easier.

BB: But doesn’t that miss the point of great writing? It isn’t supposed to be easy. If you are doing it well, it looks “easy” in that the reader is just caught up in the storytelling and not noticing the writing, the work. The great filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci once said that if one of his editors ever won an Oscar he’d never work with them again, because the whole point of good editing is that you are not supposed to notice it.

Pos: That’s exactly right. It’s also something we say all the time about umpires … the less you notice them, the better job they’re doing. That’s certainly true for writing. I am tremendously flattered when people say, “It’s obvious that writing is easy for you.” Of course, they usually say that after a few beers.

BB: In my mind, I keep coming back to the fact that people couldn’t help but be happy if you were around Buck. I think this is why he had an almost quasi-mythical or at least spiritual quality about him. He talked to people like they were equals, whether it was a kid or a head of state or a superstar athlete. He actually made people feel good about themselves. That is so rare.

Pos: I think that’s exactly right. One of Buck’s friends said, “Buck made you feel like he woke up that morning just to talk to you.” It’s a very rare quality. And you’re right, Buck treated Willie Mays exactly the same way he treated an 8-year-old boy he came across at the airport. He really loved people. I miss him every day.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver