Saturday, November 15, 2014

517 Miles

Joe Posnanski was probably born a story teller, but I don't doubt he would tell you he learned some of it from his friend, Buck O'Neill. In that case, "friend" isn't the right word because, you see, Joe and Buck had a bond beyond that.
The last time I saw him, he was in his hospital bed. When the doctor said he had some news, I began to walk out and Buck asked me to stay. “He needs to stay,” Buck told the doctor. “That’s my son over there.”

Joe's Blog ( is just good reading, no matter the subject, but when he talks about Buck, the writing gets great. Just this week he recounted some of the stories about Buck that you can read in his book, too. Here is one of my favorites, Joe is talking about Buck's ability to see the best in people and to let go of anger:

A foul ball

We were in Houston, at a ballgame, and I saw a man steal a foul ball from a boy. It was flagrant – the man just took the ball right away from the boy, and he held it up high like it was the head of Medusa, and I said: “Would you look at this jerk?”

“What’s that?” Buck said.

“That guy down there, he just took that ball away from that kid.”

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

Yes, that was Buck O’Neil – he just saw the best in people, even people who took foul balls away from little kids. Maybe he’s got a kid at home. That was a good one; I had to give Buck credit, only then something occurred to me.

“Wait a minute,” I said to Buck. “If he’s got a kid, why didn’t he bring him to ballgame?”

I smiled triumphantly. But Buck did not hesitate.

“Maybe,” he said, “the kid is sick.”

"Nancy" tells the story of why the great pitcher, Satchell Paige always called Buck "Nancy" and another favorite, "The Sound."

The sound

“I was a kid in Florida, in Sarasota, and the New York Giants trained in Sarasota. When teams would come, we’d stand outside the ballpark, and we would get the balls they hit over the fence during batting practice. We’d sell them to the tourists. And we made a stepladder so we could climb a pine tree out there. That way we could look into the ballpark.

“The Yanks were in town. I’m out there behind the fence, and I hear this sound. I’d never heard THAT sound off the bat before. Instead of me running to get the ball, I ran up the ladder to see who was hitting it. Well, it was a barrel chested sucker, with skinny legs, with the best swing I’d ever seen. That was Babe Ruth hitting that ball. Yeah.

“I don’t hear that sound again until 1938, I’m with the Monarchs, we’re at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C. We’re upstairs, changing clothes, and the Grays are taking batting practice. I’ve got nothing on but my jock. And I hear that sound. I ran down the runway, ran out on the field, and there’s a pretty black sucker with a big chest and about 34 in the waist, prettiest man I’d ever seen. That was Josh Gibson hitting that ball.

“And I don’t hear the sound again until I’m a scout with the Cubs. I’m scouting the Royals. When I opened the door to go downstairs, I heard that sound again. I rushed down on the field, and here’s another pretty black sucker hitting that ball. That was Bo Jackson. That’s three times I heard the sound. Three times. But I want to hear it a fourth. I go to the ballpark every day. I want to hear that sound again.”

We lived in Kansas City when the special committee was authorized to induct players from the Negro Leagues and when Buck was not voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Buck's LIFE had been spent in baseball, and it concentrated on the Negro Leagues and then the preservation of the memories. It was a mystery then and it remains a mystery why Buck didn't get in, but there is a post script.

As soon as he knew he didn't make it, he wondered if they would let him speak for the ones who did get in, 17 who were all dead. He did speak for them and he led the crowd in "his song," the one that he used every time he spoke and that I had the honor of singing with Buck on two occasions--it repeats the phrase, The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.

While Buck didn't get into the HOF in Cooperstown on that day, he did make it. As one of four "Character and Courage" statues.

One is of Lou Gehrig, the "Iron Horse" who played every game until the disease that carries his name downed him.

One is of Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the race barrier in baseball.

One is of Roberto Clemente, a great baseball player who died in a plane crash as he was trying to deliver rescue supplies after an earthquake ravaged Nicaragua.

Here is how Joe describes the fourth statue:

The fourth statue, though, stands apart. It is in an entryway, and it is of a man in a suit, looking sharp. He holds a baseball cap in his right hand, and his left hand crosses over. The man has a big smile, a welcoming smile, and it looks like he’s about to break into song, which is right, because Buck O’Neil always was about to break into a song.

The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.

Yes, Buck O’Neil is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He lives on. I see that statue, and I see him. More, I hear him. Every day, I hear him.

Yep, only 517 miles from here. Better get going.

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