Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends by Rob Neyer, (Fireside, 2008), 331 pages.
It’s a measure of the poetic and characterful nature of the sport that baseball has been the inspiration for so many stories of amazing feats, tall tales and downright lies. It’s a game that people love to write about and discuss, using vivid imagery and humour and drawing on a distinct lexicon of words and phrases to embellish, entertain and confuse in equal measure. But how do you know which of the stories should be treated as gospel and which you should take with a pinch of salt? The answer: it’s often hard to know but Rob Neyer proves it can be a lot of fun trying to find out.
This is the third in a series of ‘Big Books’ by ESPN’s Rob Neyer and he is quick to state that this one “isn’t for everybody”. Neyer is from the school of statistical analysis and when you add together the premise of the book (questioning the accuracy of oft-repeated stories) with the fact that it contains a foreword by Bill James, seen by many as the leader of statistical analysis in the sport, some baseball fans will immediately recoil in disgust. ‘Oh great’, they will say, ‘three hundred-odd pages of some smart ass telling you that lots of stories you like are wrong and you’re an idiot for believing them in the first place’.
If that is your first impression, thankfully I can put your fears to rest. Neyer certainly does show that a lot of the stories included don’t quite add up on closer inspection, but he does so in a way that celebrates the stories all the same.
Take for example a story repeated in a biography of Thurman Munson (and biographies/autobiographies are often the source of the stories in this book). It is well known that he had a bitter rivalry with Carlton Fisk, but in 2001 Christopher Devine claimed that it reached a stage where Munson deliberately dropped “about a half dozen” third strikes in one game in an attempt to record more assists in the season than his fellow backstop. Neyer does his level best to back up this great story, checking down several avenues, before apologetically having to conclude that the reality was a little different.
Munson did record three assists in one game to take him past Fisk’s then-current total, but only one of those was on a dropped third strike (the other two were caught stealings). This is typical of many legends: often there is a kernel of truth behind a story that over time has become distorted. Sometimes this is simply due to the inadequacy of human memory; sometimes it is the product of conscious manipulation (i.e. lies).
The first story that Neyer tackles is a great case in point. It concerns a newspaper account of a game between the Boston Red Sox and the Philadelphia Athletics from 1903 that includes an astonishing claim. According to the report, a long foul ball landed in the nearby bean factory, causing a malfunction that resulted in “a shower of scalding beans” hailing down on the Boston fans. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the story wasn’t true, but Neyer is able to uncover why it was committed to print. The report was written by a sportswriter called Charles Dryden who had a reputation as a “humourist”. It was a bit of comedy thrown in for effect and, as Neyer notes, “what made it brilliant was that Dryden dropped it into the middle of an otherwise literal account of a real baseball game”.
Finding out what Dryden was up to doesn’t ruin the story, it adds to it. Any historian knows that you have to check your sources. The process can enable you to confidently repeat a tale because you know it to be true. ESPN commentator Jon Miller’s reminisced during one Sunday Night Baseball show about the time Willie Mays scored from first base on a bunt by Willie McCovey. You may be tempted to doubt it, impossible as it sounds, but Neyer is able to track it down (“Jon Miller’s memory was dead-solid perfect. I’d have expected nothing less of him”) and we can now all pass this great story on knowing that it is accurate. And as the ‘bean’ saga shows, when the research doesn’t prove this you will frequently find a story behind the story that is just as interesting as the original tale.
The reader is able to join Neyer on his journey of discovery as he often explains the methodology behind his research and reveals what resources he used. You accompany him to the library while he searches the boxscores in old newspapers recorded on microfilm, before logging on and checking out some facts on Retrosheet. It gives you a keen sense of the twists and turns that the research can take and makes you appreciate why Neyer clearly enjoys the process so much.
There are eighty-five great stories to read about (only two of which relate to the 1990s or later), with each being accompanied by another anecdote or two to the side of the main text. There are also three longer chapters, one being a selection of Neyer’s favourite articles from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) journal, one providing an incredible insight into the ‘editing’ work by Lawrence Ritter as part of his seminal book The Glory of Their Times, and one devoted to the most famous legend of them all: Babe Ruth’s ‘called shot’.
Neyer may state that this book “isn’t for everybody”, so who is it for? Well, any baseball fan with an inquisitive mind and/or an interest in history will be constantly dipping into it to read another chapter. And anyone who loves reading stories about the game will get a lot from it to. So while it might not appeal to everybody, a lot of baseball fans will find plenty to enjoy from this first-class book.
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