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Last week, while traveling in the desert, I met a wise man—a prophet—and asked him the secret to a long, successful life. "Good genes," was all he said.
His hair was white and his face was mahogany, calling pleasantly to mind a pint of Guinness. "I'm 91 years old," he continued, then pressed his fingertips to unlined cheeks, which shone like polished apples. "Good black don't crack."
I thanked him and prepared to take my leave—rising halfway from my seat, like a bluffing panelist on To Tell the Truth—when he said softly, "There is one other thing."
I sat back down, and he said, "I never fill my stomach. My mother was a great cook, but my father told me, 'She's only filling your stomach so another woman never gets to. She's just trying to hold on to you.' Ever since, I can eat more, but I never do."
We were seated in a hotel lobby in Scottsdale, Ariz., and presently, as so many have done before, I drew my chair closer to Buck O'Neil, the Negro leagues star, the first African-American coach in the big leagues (with the Chicago Cubs in 1962) and, as a Cubs scout, the man who signed Lou Brock. O'Neil became known to a nationwide audience in 1994, when he entrancingly recounted his experiences in Ken Burns's PBS documentary Baseball. "He's the classiest man I ever met in all my years in baseball," Bill Buckner had been telling me an hour earlier, at the conclusion of the Eddie Robinson Celebrity Golf Challenge. "When I played in Kansas City, Buck would come to the park, always dressed to the nines, and I'd make a point to find him, sit down and just listen."
That might explain Buckner's Gandhi-like forbearance toward those feebleminded Red Sox fans whose hatred—in the 16 years since his World Series error—he has never reciprocated. "They've given him such a hard time," said O'Neil. "And he has handled himself so well."
What is the secret to a life well-lived? Here was another hint. "Don't hate another human being," said O'Neil, whose father was the son of a slave. "Hate cancer. Cancer took my mother, took my wife four years ago. Hate what happened on September 11. But don't hate another human being. God made man."
But God made men who denied you, at various times, a toilet, a hotel room, an education, a living, your very humanity. "My parents always told me most people are good," replied O'Neil. "Even when I was young"—in Carrabelle, Fla.—"most people were good. The thing was, good people sometimes let the bad people have their way. But who wrapped their arms around Jackie Robinson in his time of need? Pee Wee Reese of Louisville, Kentucky, did. The commissioner of baseball in 1947 [Happy Chandler] was a man from Kentucky."
At this his left hand grabbed my forearm, and his right fist rapped on his own breastbone as if it were a door. "It comes from in here," said O'Neil. "Doing the right thing. It takes somebody to change something. My grandfather was a slave. And God saw it wasn't right, so he sent Abraham Lincoln. And Abraham Lincoln joined hands with Frederick Douglass who joined hands with Sojourner Truth who joined hands with Harriet Tubman. And so on." Human progress, in O'Neil's view, is a chain of paper dolls, linked at the wrist and leading to you.
The lobby floor gleamed like a silver serving tray, reflecting an army of bellmen. "Right here in Phoenix," O'Neil said, "in the richest country in the world, people are going hungry. That shouldn't be. But if I have it all, there's not enough to go around." Talk of human hunger called to mind another injustice. "It's like Steinbrenner," said O'Neil. "He's got more ballplayers than anyone else, so there aren't enough to go around."