April 9, 2008

Review: Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends

I'm naturally skeptical in all facets of life, so my initial reaction to hearing a juicy baseball story--whether it's Joe Morgan bragging about his glory days on "The Big Red Machine" or Bert Blyleven poking fun at himself for serving up tons of homers--is to wonder whether or not the events in question actually took place. That aspect of my personality is also one of the driving forces behind this blog and my Twins fandom in general.

It's not always easy being a skeptic or a cynic or whatever it is in my personality that allows me to write critical things about my favorite team when a huge segment of my fellow fans would never dream of doing the same. But for better or worse that's simply who I am and who many other baseball fans are, and that's why I devoured Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends in one sitting over the weekend while enjoying it immensely.

Rob Neyer begins his sixth book--and the third installment of his "Big Book Of Baseball ..." series--with a disclaimer that I've often used when people claim that this blog is too negative about the Twins: "This book isn't for everybody. Seriously." Just as not everyone will enjoy a blog about the Twins that's written by someone who views the team with a critical eye, not everyone will enjoy a book about fact-checking some of the most interesting stories in baseball history. Or as Neyer puts it in his introduction:

Some poor guy is going to get this book, probably as a Father's Day gift, and despise every word before giving up in disgust. Because I've done something in this book that some will find sacrilegious. I've checked. I've checked the stories.

The book is nowhere near as heavy as that warning suggests, but the point is that not everyone wants their favorite bubbles to burst. And that's essentially what Neyer's book is about, at least on the surface. Legends is a collection of brief chapters and even shorter sidebars, each examining the accuracy of a juicy baseball story. Neyer first began doing this sort of thing back in the early 1990s, when he worked as Bill James' research assistant prior to joining ESPN.com.

Back then James called the fact-checked stories "tracers" and Neyer's work on them was included in several of his books, so it's fitting that James provides the foreword to Neyer's collection of tracers. In the foreword James makes an interesting observation that the recent emergence of dogged pursuits of accuracy has robbed stories of their fiction-like aura. My sense is that he's generally right, although the observation applies to politicians, writers, movie stars, and musicians in addition to baseball players.

People often lament that today's athletes don't have the same sort of mystique that athletes had in the past, which is why guys like Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, and Joe DiMaggio seem so much bigger and more interesting than guys like Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Alex Rodriguez. Babe Ruth is the biggest legend in baseball history mostly because he's the greatest player in baseball history, but also because nearly every major story about him contains something extra, a little padding or poetic license.

It's like the difference between golfing with a few buddies on the weekend and golfing on the PGA tour. You might be the same golfer, but miraculously when you're at a public course on a Saturday afternoon kicking balls out of tough lies and taking "gimme" putts from 10 feet your scores are going to be a little bit better. That's sort of how old baseball stories work and that's why something from 1920 or 1950 has an advantage over something from 1990 or 2008 when it comes to mystique and intrigue.

James then takes that a step further, suggesting that it's difficult to be completely factual and extremely interesting. However, in the 300 or so pages that follow Neyer makes a convincing case for that being incorrect, because Legends is filled with facts and is anything but uninteresting. While the abundance of available information these days might lessen the potential for intriguing, semi-truthful stories, it also makes it a whole lot easier to research past stories and debunk old myths.

In discussing an amusing story that longtime umpire Tom Gormon once told about Willie Mays hitting a homer off Sal Maglie after being knocked down by a pitch earlier in the at-bat, Neyer writes about how he found his old notes from previous attempts to research the same story back when he was working for James. Back then he had trouble simply narrowing down the list of possible games to examine and the overall lack of available resources made things difficult.

Between Retrosheet and online newspaper archives doing that research today is a relative piece of cake and Neyer determined that the story simply couldn't have happened as Gormon told it: "Gormon's story is a good one. I'd love to know who told it to him." Why? Well, Mays never homered off Maglie in a game that Gormon umpired. It seems simple, but that sort of conclusion was nearly impossible to draw just a decade ago and the journey that Neyer takes to get there even today is plenty interesting.

In a different chapter--there are a total of about 90 to pick from--Neyer quotes the Yankees' television broadcast team of Michael Kay and Ken Singleton telling an on-air story about former Cy Young winner Ron Guidry. It basically boiled down to Guidry supposedly not having thrown a single changeup for the first nine years of his career and then throwing his first ever changeup to Willie Wilson on a 3-2 count with two outs in the ninth inning.

The story goes that Wilson struck out for the third time that game and got upset about whiffing on a new pitch, so Guidry told him to shut up because he hadn't hit anything else either. The problem, as Neyer found out, is that Guidry never struck Wilson out three times in a game and never struck Wilson out to end a game. The book is filled with small, fun stories like that one and Neyer also digs into meatier stories, like Ty Cobb supposedly killing a man during a street fight or Ruth's famous "called shot."

The book certainly isn't all about debunking myths or fact-checking stories. It's also about Neyer having an excuse to simply talk about baseball. He weaves in other stories, hopping from player to player and anecdote to anecdote, and that's the beauty of this series of books. They provide a sort of jumping-off point for discussion, a way to incorporate stories that might otherwise be homeless, and a way to organize information that allows Neyer to delve into all kinds of interesting stuff throughout each book.

Neyer doesn't merely point out if something is wrong, he shows his work in an interesting way. He incorporates old quotes from the parties involved, wondering aloud how a story came to be false and where it may have originated. Yes, he fact-checks the stories and ultimately many of them prove to be inaccurate, but along the way he allows the stories to be told and gives an interesting glimpse into the process that enables a story to get passed off as truth.

The book is all about the momentum behind legends and puts human nature, exaggeration, and the telephone-game effect that blurs reality over time on full display while still managing to celebrate the stories, rather than attack them. Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends is definitely worth reading whether you're a skeptic, a cynic, or someone who simply enjoys interesting baseball stories. And despite Neyer's disclaimer, I'd even recommend it for "some poor guy ... as a Father's Day gift."

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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