Buck's secrets for living

Twenty years ago today, Buck O’Neil told me some of the secrets of life. It was Prince’s party year, 1999, and Buck was turning 88 years old, and all the talk was about the new millennium. What would the next 1,000 years bring? Would all the machines break down? Would they take over? This was before iPhones, before Facebook, before anyone “Googled” things or looked at Wikipedia. This was back when AOL was the biggest thing and people guiltily (or not so guiltily) used Napster to get music.

Ol’ Buck, having been born on this day in 1911, never expected to see a new millennium. He was the grandson of a slave. He grew up working in the celery fields of Sarasota, Fla. His life was framed by the boundaries that white America built all around him. He could not attend the white high school in Sarasota. He could not go to the white colleges all around. He could not stay at most hotels, could not eat in the dining room of most restaurants, could not sit in most train cars, could not even try on a hat in a store without immediately buying that hat. Humiliations, big and small, waited at every turn.

He could dream of playing baseball, they couldn’t outlaw dreams, but he was not welcome to play in the leagues that were written about in the biggest newspapers. He heard about the Negro Leagues, though. He never forgot the boiling hot day he was in the celery fields, and he shouted out in anguish, “Damn, there’s GOT to be something better than this.” And his father told him there was something better, but he had to go out there and get it.

So he went out there and played ball. He was so admired that almost from the start everybody began calling him “Cap,” for “Captain.” He played ball with Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, with a 40-something legend named Oscar Charleston and the fastest man who ever played, Cool Papa Bell (“How fast?” you would ask Buck; “Faster than that,” he would reply). Buck was good at playing ball, a defensive whiz at first base, a line drive hitter good enough to win a batting title. He could really run in those days. He stole home a time or two. 

Buck interrupted his career to fight in World War II, but he came back, and he became a successful manager; Buck was born to be a manager, but there were no black managers in the minor or major leagues then. He became one of the first black scouts in the Major Leagues, and then he became the first black coach in the Major Leagues for the Chicago Cubs. 

The Cubs never let him coach on the bases, though. That was too close to the field.

Buck was impossible not to love, impossible not to admire. He saw the best in people. He saw the best in things. When he faced injustice, he felt assured that things would change. When he came up against hatred, he insisted that there were more good people than bad. I’ve told the story countless times about an Astros game we watched together. A ball was tossed into the crowd, a man reached over a boy’s head to catch the ball and take it away.

“What a jerk,” I said.

“Don’t be so hard on him,” Buck said. “Maybe he has a child of his own at home.”

It was so immediate, so natural for him to think of people that way. That was his superpower. I saw a jerk in a suit taking a ball away from a kid. He saw a father excitedly -- perhaps even too excitedly -- seeing a baseball to take home to his child.

‘Wait a minute,” I said. “If this guy has a kid, why didn’t he bring the child to the ballgame?”

“Maybe,” Buck said without missing a beat, “his child is sick.”

And I knew then -- as I’d always known, I suppose -- that I could never beat him at this game, never break that endless chain of optimism and hope that he carried with him always. You already know that when the call came that he had fallen a vote shy of election into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he instantly said, “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.” And after a moment of reflective silence, he began to think about what he would say in Cooperstown if asked to speak on behalf of the 17 others from the Negro Leagues who were elected.

“You would really do that?” I asked, incredulous because I was angry for him, we were all angry for him, and he smiled and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Son, what has my life been all about?”

And in his last public appearance, as he approached 95 years old, Buck O’Neil spoke in Cooperstown on behalf of 17 people who could not speak for themselves. And then he led the crowd in his favorite song, one that in his mind only had 10 words: “The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you.” Buck died two months later.

Today, on what would have been his 108th birthday, I think about those things. But more, I think about a few of those secrets of life he told me 20 years ago. 

-- Drain the bitterness from your heart.

-- Sing a little every day.

-- Tell people you love them.

-- Do a little showboating now and again. Remember, it was the so-so ballplayers who came up with that word “showboat.” If you have something to show, go ahead a showboat a little.

-- Don’t let anger boil up inside you. There’s too much anger out there already. 

-- Hold hands with the person next to you. That way they can’t get away. And neither can you.

-- Don’t worry none. Everything will be just fine. You can’t spend your life worrying about things.

-- Always be on time. There’s no use in being late.

-- Be there for old friends.

-- Learn your history. We have come so far. We still have a ways to go but that your job, and your children’s job, and your children’s children’s job.

-- Live a long life. Yeah. You get to see a whole lot that way.

I can still hear his voice. I hear it every day. Negro Leagues President Bob Kendrick and I talk all the time about Buck and how he altered out lives. As Bob likes to say, it’s hard to live like Buck. But we try. Every day, we try. It’s all we can do.

Catching up

Hi everybody,

So, you might know, I’ve been pretty absent the last few weeks while out promoting my new book The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini. But I’ve actually been thinking about a couple of other things I’d like to tell you about.

The Baseball 100: So, here’s the plan on the Baseball 100 — right after the first of the year, I’m going to count down the 100 greatest baseball players in 100 days over at The Athletic. As you might remember, we have done the first 35 players or so already here — those essays will be edited and updated (and I believe there might be one or two changes based on recent events!). So the first month will be a bit of a repeat for many of you with a couple of added twists. But then we should have all 100 up more or less by Opening Day, plus a special Negro Leagues countdown in February. It’s going to be a lot of work, yes, but I’m really excited about it.

A weekly newsletter: So, here’s the feedback I’m getting from you — and please tell me if I’m wrong in the comments: These little emails I’m sending out every time I write a new story for The Athletic are not especially useful for you. They’re clogging up your email, and they’re not especially informative.

And they’re probably not necessary. For one thing, you can just check out my Athletic page for the latest updates at any time. And for another, there is a personal Athletic RSS feed available so that you can get direct updates every time I write.

So, instead of sending those out, here’s what I intend to do here at JoeBlogs — and again, please tell me if you disagree:

  1. Stop the link emails. Instead, every week, I’m thinking Tuesdays, I will put together a newsletter which is all new and original stuff. I’ve got all sorts of ideas for the newsletter, and I think it should get better as we go. It will also include a rundown of the stories I wrote at the Athletic and maybe a link or two of stuff I’m reading.

  2. I will continue to put my non-sports, family, oddball, PosCast and literary stuff here (like the piece about Elizabeth and Football I put up on Sunday). More of that should come out now that I’m (mostly) through the first phase of my Houdini tour.

  3. I will try, particularly during Hall of Fame season, to put up weekly Q&A threads so we can talk about whatever you want to talk about.

That’s it. Now, if you don’t like this plan and would prefer something else, absolutely, put it in the comments. In fact, if you DO like this plan, please put that in the comments. I’m hoping to start immediately with the first newsletter coming out next Tuesday.

Over The Top

The strangest thing happened the other day. It feels like a half-remembered dream. We were sitting on the couch together, Elizabeth and I, and there was a Kansas City Chiefs football game on television, and Elizabeth was screaming. And she kept screaming. And she kept screaming still.

This is Elizabeth, understand.

“Come on, stop him! Stop him! Come on!”

“What are you doing?”

“Go! Go! Run!”

I did not recognize this young woman. I did not know her. She sat the front edge of the couch, as if she was about to pounce, and she screamed at the television, and I looked at her, and she screamed at the television, and I looked at her, and no matter how long this cycle revolved, I couldn’t make any sense of it at all. It was like staring at a fluffy cloud and being asked: “What does it look like,” and the mind blanks because, incredibly, the cloud doesn’t look like anything at all.

I have been using the word “wonder” a lot lately. I have been saying it in radio interviews, in television interviews, on podcasts, in conversations, in essays, in tweets, in author talks. I have been using it so much that “wonder” has warped into one of those words that sounds a little bit off, a little bit funny, a half-word, wonder, wander, under, winter, ponder, blunder, warbler, Dunder, Mifflin.

I’ve been using “wonder” a lot because it is the word that motivated me to step outside of sports and write a book about Harry Houdini and his lasting impact on the world. This was, as interviewers have cheerfully and repeatedly reminded me since the book came out, an odd thing for a sportswriter to do.

But that word, wonder, I’ve spent a lifetime chasing after it, so many us spend our lifetime chasing it. What is it, anyway? There are countless possibilities, but I have come to think of wonder as these little explosions in the mind, tiny blasts and booms and rumbles that hit you just right and make the world seem just a little bit bigger. Juan Soto turning around a high fastball. Joshua Jay doing a card trick for the blind. Lamar Jackson faking and making defenders crumble and fall. A poem. A song. A Greco-Roman wrestler.

Mostly, I’ve found wonder as a father. I suppose that’s pretty common. I found it taking Elizabeth to see Hamilton and taking her to Harry Potter World. I found it watching Katie play piano and watching her continuously try to make the world a better place. Parents hold these stories close.

I hold them particularly close now. Elizabeth is 18. She’s a senior in high school. She will be leaving for college soon enough that I can hear it in the distance, like Edgar Allen Poe’s tell-tale heartbeat.

When Elizabeth was born, we nicknamed her Beth. We had decided on the nickname months in advance. A boy, we would call him Joshua and nickname him Josh. A girl, we would call her Elizabeth and nickname her Beth. These are the sorts of choices that first-time parents obsess over; we had no fewer than 50 conversations on the subject. As the big day approached, we somehow knew she would be a girl — we both had dreamed it — and so we practiced thinking of the nursery as Beth’s room, of the car seat as Beth’s car seat, of our lives as Beth’s parents.

For days, I gathered material for the The Kansas City Star column to run the day she was born. The headline: “To Beth. It’s First and Forever.”

And then she was born, and we held her, held our Beth for the first time, and we immediately and simultaneously found ourselves stopped cold.

She was not a Beth. She was an Elizabeth.

And to this day, we have never called her Beth.

We don’t know why this happened. There was something adamant about this baby, something wordless but insistent about the way she carried herself. “I’m definitely not a Beth,” she somehow transmitted to us through her gaze and tears and small smiles. When she grew old enough to speak, she made it clear that, yes, we had received the proper message. She was not a Beth. She is an Elizabeth.

Elizabeth has always been like that, sure in her identity, sure about she liked and what she did not like. She liked princesses and reading, she liked drawing and reading, she liked Avenger movies and reading, she liked Mad Men and reading, she liked Broadway and reading, she liked horror movies and reading, she likes movie makeup and reading.

The thing she never liked was sports.

Maybe this came from being the daughter of a sportswriter. She grew up knowing that the Super Bowl and Olympics and World Series meant that Dad was going away. But beyond that, there was something born in her: A deeply embedded non-competitive streak. She never enjoyed winning much because it meant someone else losing. I vividly remember when they would give out candy at the end of her dance classes — she was 7 or 8 — and everyone would rush to be the first in line, but Elizabeth would stay back, let everyone else go first. She was always like that. Everything about sports (watching AND playing) repelled her.

Well, she did like going to baseball games. We had been taught at trick by Bill and Susan James; they convinced their daughter Rachel to come to baseball games by letting her bring along a book. Elizabeth liked that too; she would bring a book, and she would order her beloved nachos, and she read all game long. It suited her. Now and again, something interesting would happen in the game, and the crowd would roar, and she would look up from her book as if in a daze, as if surprised that all these people had just shown up. She would glance down at the field, take in some part of what was happening, and then return to her blissful world of reading.

“I like baseball,” she would say sometimes.

“Well, you like reading at baseball games,” I would remind her.

“No,” she insisted. “I watch some.”

We all grew used to this rhythm. Elizabeth and sports were separate circles in the Venn diagram of her life. It seemed permanent. When Elizabeth began her college search, one of her key demands was that the school not be immersed in sports.

And then … Patrick Mahomes came along.

I had forgotten this about myself as a young person: I was touched with madness. In my entire childhood, I missed one Cleveland Browns game on television*, on radio or in terror. The “in terror” option was when the Browns were neither on television nor radio, at which point I would have no choice in those dark ages but to sit on the floor, shivering in fear, and switch television and radio channels back and forth in the hopes of getting an update, any update, about the game. These updates were about as slow as news from the front during World War I. Sometimes I would call the paper, The Charlotte Observer, to see if they had a score.

If they had known I was that kook, they NEVER would have hired me.

*The game I missed was Oct. 19, 1980, Browns vs. Packers. I missed it because my mother had promised to buy me a typewriter and that was the only day of the big sale (and the game wasn’t on television locally anyway). I wandered the store in a daze, trying to pick up anything I could from the way people around me were acting. As it turns out, the Browns won that game on a last minute pass from Brian Sipe to Dave Logan, which is good because if they had not, I might have never left the house again.

When the game WAS on television, I would take five days to prepare for it. My schedule was as such:

Monday: Float around all day if the Browns won; die repeatedly if they lost.

Tuesday: Die repeatedly if the Browns lost. Tentatively begin worrying about next week if they had won.

Wednesday: Have my first meal of the week if Browns lost; Begin to gauge chances of a Browns victory on Sunday.

Thursday: Break down the game position by position in an effort to determine the likelihood of a Browns loss and, thus, the likelihood of my going through repeated deaths.

Friday: Look for reassurance from anyone — the media, friends, family — that the Browns would actually win.

Saturday: Try to watch college football or other sports to take my mind off of the game, though this didn’t work.

Sunday: PANIC!

No, it wasn’t the healthiest cycle. I should clarify that phrase “I had forgotten this about myself.” Obviously, I remember being obsessed with the Browns.

But until watching Elizabeth screaming at the television on literally every single Kansas City Chief play, I had managed to suppress the truest memories of that obsession.

When this whole thing first happened, when Elizabeth announced that she had become a Chiefs fan, when she made quarterback Patrick Mahomes the screen saver on her phone, when she began insisting on watching every minute of every game, when she began memorizing players and their numbers, I felt like I was watching the movie “Vanilla Sky,” like, I had no idea what was going on, and each new scene only confused me more, and finally I just gave up on hoping to understand and tried to enjoy the confusion.

But then I saw her watching these games on the edge of celebration, on the edge of tears, at the crossroads of alarm and elation, and she yelled at the television, and all it clicked into place. She is me. I was her. Yes, it was the dazzling brilliance of Patrick Mahomes that triggered it, but it hit me for the first time that it could have been anything.

The bomb was ticking inside her all along.*

*Elizabeth just walked into my office to say that a friend had asked her to go to lunch and she had laughed and replied, “Are you crazy? This is Patrick’s first game back.” How many opportunities did I turn down in my life for the Browns? And, yes, she calls Mahomes, “Patrick,” and thinks of him as a friend.

Believe it or not, none of this is that “strangest thing,” mentioned at the top. No, that came suddenly and unexpectedly. Elizabeth is learning about football at light-speed. Each week, she spends the seconds between screams asking questions, constant questions, about penalties and history and strategies. She can hold her own in football conversations now, but there are gaps because her passion sparked only a year or so ago and before that it’s all darkness.

So we were sitting there watching the Chiefs game and she was screaming and freaking out and falling apart and celebrating …

“That was beautiful! That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! I’ve never seen anything like that? That was so beautiful! I can’t believe how beautiful that was!”

— This was Elizabeth after the Chiefs Damien Williams broke a 91-yard touchdown run.

And then the network went to New York for an update. I don’t even remember the teams or players involved. I only remember that the highlight was a bland one of a running back diving in from the 1-yard line.

How many times have you seen that in your life? In an instant, right off the top of my head, I can recall a hundred instances of Walter Payton or Marcus Allen or Priest Holmes or Earl Campbell or Herschel Walker or Cam Newton or LaDainian Tomlinson or any number of others jumping over the top for the touchdown. It’s one of the most common things in football, the touchdown dive. I barely noticed.

Elizabeth, however, went into joyful hysterics.

“Oh my gosh!” she shouted. “He just jumped over them. Did you see that? How did he do that? He was just like, ‘Boop! I’m going to jump right over you.’ Wow! Dad, did you see that? Did you see that?”

And I realized that this was the first time she had ever seen a running back dive in from the 1. I turned and looked at her, and she had that look on her face, that look she had when we went to see Hamilton together, that look she had on the first day of kindergarten, that look she had when she saw the Eiffel Tower, that look she had when we first brought our dog Westley home.

And, not for the first time and I suspect not for the last, I realized that I had NOT seen it. We rewound, and we watched it again, and this time I did see it, maybe. There was the running back performing a miracle, jumping over over 20 hulking men like Evel Knievel launching his motorcycles over 20 busses. Elizabeth gleefully cheered this daredevil, and I looked at her closely like I have all of her life, and I felt this unspeakable joy and this terrible pang because she still teaches me about wonder, and I already miss her.

The Case of Marvin Miller

The Athletic

I have written repeatedly for 20 years now that Marvin Miller belongs in the Hall of Fame. I have written repeatedly for 20 years now that it goes beyond that — that the Hall of Fame is a lesser place without Marvin Miller.

Now Marvin Miller is back on the Hall of Fame ballot.

And it’s complicated.

Marvin Miller: What’s the Right Thing To Do?

Matheny Time

The Athletic

I had a great conversation with Mike Matheny once. We talked about baseball and kids. I liked that guy. A few hours, I watched him in a press conference where he defensively batted away even the most innocent of questions. I wasn’t crazy about that guy. I think THAT was the guy who was fired in St. Louis.

The question with him in Kansas City now is: Can he change?

Oh, and there’s a Google Maps analogy in here that I think is not bad.

On Matheny and 21st Century Managers

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