Certainly he was a man capable of smiling through insults and disappointments.
As Joe Posnanski presents him in The Soul of Baseball, Mr. O'Neil was not only incapable of bitterness, he dissolved ill-will and resentment in the people he encountered. Sometimes he had to sing to them or hug them to do it. Sometimes he had to tell them a story. Sometimes he only had to smile.
Ironically, The Soul of Baseball is not the book that Buck O'Neil wanted Joe Posnanski to write. Mr. O'Neil had in mind a comprehensive volume dedicated to educating people about what life in the Negro Leagues had been like. He wanted the book to celebrate the achievements of the players whose exploits for the Kansas City Monarchs, the Homestead Grays, and the other Negro League teams had been forgotten.
But once Posnanski, who is a sports columnist in Kansas City, had begun to travel with O'Neil, he began to see that the best he could do was the story of the man who wanted those other stories told. The result is a beautiful tribute to an extraordinary fellow, but The Soul of Baseball is more than that. Buck O'Neil, who died last year, remembered a lot of great stories about the players he championed, and many of the best of those stories are included in the book. But they are framed by Mr. O'Neil's telling. They live as they never have would without the gentle humor of his voice and his determination to draw from them wisdom untarnished by regret.
When I spoke with Joe Posnanski about his book, I asked him if sometimes he could still hear Buck O'Neil's voice. He said that he could. I wonder if he can hear the conversation I imagine between the two of them, in which Joe Posnanski says something like, "Buck, I'm sorry I didn't write the book you wanted me to write," to which Mr. O'Neil says with a smile, "You did just fine."
This program aired on March 29, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.