Successful sportswriting walks a fine line between reporting and storytelling. To earn credibility, you have to lace your articles with hard facts and straight numbers. To earn your reader’s interest, you need to pepper your pieces with interesting anecdotes or little-known tidbits.
In Joe Posnanski’s book, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America, Posnanski gets a behind-the-scenes look at what a ballplayer’s life is like after his baseball career ends. Buck is 94 years old when they make the trip, and surprisingly spry and jovial as they travel from parks to radio stations to elementary schools across the nation.
While Buck hugs adoring fans and captivates young children, Joe steadfastly observes and records his every move. If balance between reporting and storytelling is the key to great sportswriting, Posnanski takes it one step further: he steps back and allows Buck’s story to speak for itself. We hear relatively little of the author’s perspective on Buck’s past or his personal opinion of the legacy the Negro Leagues created. When Joe briefly lifts the spotlight from Buck O’Neil’s trials, triumphs, and endless anecdotes, it is only to praise Buck’s determination, or his boundless joy, or his great love for people.
In fact, this travelogue is really a love story in disguise. Yes, it is about the love two men share for America’s pastime, but it reaches far beyond that. It is about Buck’s love for the Negro Leagues, for his time spent there, for his fellow teammates who deserved a spot in Cooperstown. It is about his love for people, for every child he meets, and every fan who looks up to him. It is about a love for life so profound that even the cruelest moments of racism cannot shake it. If this doesn’t make for compelling sportswriting, I don’t know what does.