The Soul of Buck O'Neil

To begin: Let me tell you the story again. We were in Houston, and it was hot. Yes, that's what you call a repetitive sentence, but it was particularly hot in Houston on that day, and Buck O'Neil was wilting. There were only a couple of times during our travels together for The Soul of Baseball that Buck would show his age, which that summer was 93 years old.

This was one of those times.

He was barely watching the ballgame, as I recall. The sun was beating down hard, and he'd asked our friend Bob Kendrick several times if we could leave. You had to know Buck to know that he must have been in some kind of agony. Nobody had his energy. Nobody loved living like he did. But, like I say, it was hot.

That was when the inning ended, and Jason Lane of the Astros tossed the ball into the stands. He threw in the general direction of two people. A man who had clearly just come from work -- he still had on his sportscoat and a loosened tie -- was one of them. A boy, maybe 10 or 11, wearing a Craig Biggio Astros jersey was the other.

I don't think that Lane was trying to throw the ball to anyone in particular; I recall him sort of blindly casting it into the crowd as baseball players will. But I am quite certain that if given the choice, he would have preferred the ball go to the boy. It did not get to the boy. The man reached over the top of the kid and caught it. He then celebrated like he had just stolen a home run in Game 7 of the World Series.

"What a jerk," I said.

"What's that?" Buck said. He had not been paying attention at all.

"That guy down there caught the ball over a kid ..."

Buck looked down. The guy was still celebrating. It was one of those scenes that inspires Samuel L. Jackson's righteous anger.

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

That was Buck O'Neil in just a few words. That's how he saw the world. He chose -- and it was a choice, a conscious choice -- to believe in the goodness of people. Buck had seen the bad. He had endured the bad. You can't even begin to count the ways that racists had tried to thwart him, hinder him, stomp on his dreams, from the white high school that would not take him to the white baseball league that would not give him a chance to play or manage. In his day-to-day life, simple courtesies were denied him for no reason other the color of his skin. He was not blind to this. He was not naive about this.

But he chose, just the same, to have faith in people. He would walk into callousness, dust himself off, and walk again. And what struck me about the baseball moment was how instant his reaction, how reflexive his response. I saw a jerk taking a baseball away from a kid. He saw a man who might have a son or daughter at home waiting for him.

"Wait a minute," I said. "If this jerk has a kid, why didn't he bring the kid to the ballgame?"

Buck smiled. He did not hesitate.

"Maybe his child is sick," he said.

And, as I wrote in The Soul of Baseball, I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I would never beat Buck O'Neil at this game.

* * *

You may know where this story is going -- I HOPE you know where this story is going -- but just in case you don't, we'll start at the beginning: This video went viral a couple of days ago. It is of a ball being tossed into the stands. There's a cute little kid in a Cubs jersey the front row, and it looks like the ball is being thrown to him. The ball skips by him and rolls under his seat.

Then there's a guy in the second row with a buzz cut and sunglasses. If you pause the video at the very beginning, you can see that he's asking for the ball to be thrown to him. Hhe seems to flash a millisecond of disappointment after it was thrown to the kid instead, and then he realizes that the ball is on the ground and rolling his way. He reaches down hard for it, seems to brush the guy on his left as he grabs it. And once he gets it, he looks to his right and celebrates his kill. The boy and his mother turn around and look at him, and while it's dangerous to guess at inner feelings, it appears to be one of those "Hey, he was throwing the ball to us," sorts of looks.

The man then hand the ball to his wife, who looks at it, while the man stares forward with a contented look.

"What a jerk," I said to Buck.

I looked at the video two dozen times when it first came out. As you can see above, I began adding my own narrative to it. It seems impossible not to add your own narrative. Ball was thrown to a kid. Ball got away from kid. Man behind grabs the ball and celebrates. Boy and mother are devastated. Man gives ball to his wife for them to put in their trophy case.

The video went crazy, people attaching all sorts of political, social and moral messages to it. I tweeted out something about how even Buck O'Neil might have a problem with this guy.

And I feel sure that Buck O'Neil looked down on me at that moment and shook his head sadly and said: "Didn't you learn anything I taught you, son?"

The video is a trap. Everything in it, every single second, is a test of our capacity to trust in the goodness of people, to offer the benefit of the doubt, to see cracks of light in the darkness and small kindnesses where you don't expect them.

In other words: Look at the video again, but this time look at it through Buck O'Neil's eyes. Look at the man as a man -- imagine, as Buck would, that he was at his very first Cubs game. How did he get such good seats? Well, he was there on his wedding anniversary, of course! That's his wife sitting next to him. Maybe she got him those tickets as the gift. Look at the Cubs jersey he is wearing, and think about what this moment and this gift meant to him.

Now, follow the man through the game. A ball comes his way early, almost right away. The joy of catching a baseball at a game is, well, I don't know because I've never caught one. I've come close and THAT is a great feeling. Now here's this guy, first game ever at Wrigley Field, and he gets a ball, a souvenir from his incredible day.

Now, let's say he immediately gives the ball to the little kid in the front row, the kid you see on the video. The boy is beyond thrilled. It's the greatest thing ever. The greatest day of his life. The man is beyond thrilled too because there's nothing better than giving a baseball to a kid at a ballgame. The man and the boy work out a deal between themselves that any more foul balls that come their way to either one of them will go to one of the other kids in the area.

Another ball somehow gets to the man. And he gives this one away to the kid too.

Are you watching the video again? Does it look slightly different? Look at the boys two seats over from the man. Maybe they are brothers. Maybe they are Little League teammates. Now imagine, as Buck would imagine, that the man has noticed these two boys, talked to them, and promised them that if another ball somehow, miraculously, came their way, he would make sure that they get it, their very own baseball at Wrigley Field. Maybe his wife is in on the deal too -- look at her. She too is reaching out her arms in hopes of having the ball thrown her way.

And now watch the video again. The ball is thrown to the kid, who doesn't want it for himself. He wants to be the one to hand it back to those two boys. But the ball skips by him, and rolls under the seat. The man grabs it.

And now notice who he is looking at as he celebrates.

He's looking right at those two boys. He is showing them the baseball.

"Whoo!" says his wife as he hands her the baseball. The guy to the man's left is smiling happily; let's say that he has been following this story the whole game.

Now the wife takes a photograph of the baseball for posterity, so that she and her husband will remember this magical game for the rest of their lives. And then she hands the baseball to the boys. And it's beautiful, absolutely beautiful, pure Americana, the best sort of thing that can happen at a baseball game.

You can see this as a story about the instant, careless and often vindictive powers of social media, and it can be that too.

But I see it more as a calling: Be more like Buck O'Neil. I immediately deleted my Twitter post, no more than three minutes after it was up, but I cannot delete my lack of faith nor the disappointment I feel in myself. I should have known better. Buck taught me better.

The trouble with giving the benefit of the doubt is that often you will get burned. And getting burned stinks. You feel dumb. You feel cheated. And on top of feeling dumb people will cruelly mock you for getting burned, for being naive, for failing to understand well enough that the world can be a harsh and cold place.

But Buck always thought that was worth it, that the life you live believing in people will be so much richer, sweeter and more meaningful than a life of closing yourself off the best possibilities. I'd love to sit next to that guy at a baseball game sometime. And I'd love to just thank him for being awesome.