Friday, March 28, 2008

REVIEW: Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends

Rob Neyer has been a good friend to ShysterBall. Most of you never would have found this site if it weren't for his frequent links back this way, and Lord knows I've made my admiration of his work abundantly clear. In light of all of that, there's really no way I'm going to convince every single last one of you that I'm on the up-and-up when I say that his new book -- Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends -- is wonderful. But it is wonderful. In fact, I believe it's the best book he's written to date, and you're just going to have to take my word for it.*

Not that you'd necessarily know that from the first few pages. In the Foreword Bill James -- Neyer's own mentor, champion, and occasional co-author -- openly questions the wisdom of Rob's mission which, as I mentioned the other day, is to check the accuracy of those old yarns which sound too good to be true, probably because they usually are.

Specifically, James notes just how much detailed, organized knowledge about baseball's past is available now, and how easy the old stories are to check. You might be surprised to learn, however, that he is quite ambivalent about this fact:
This explosion of knowledge about the past, roaring up from behind us, exposes every exaggeration, every fictionalization, every enhancement, every substitution. It's a little sad. Paper-thin lies, once protected by layers of darkness, are now transparent in the glare. We know now that it wasn't Mickey Mantle in the batter's box, it was Roger Repoz, and it wasn't the ninth inning, it was the fourth, and the bases weren't loaded, and the score wasn't tied, and the frog did not become a prince.

Accuracy is a prickly concept for the modern quasi-journalist. Everybody is certain that that he is more accurate than the other guy is. God forbid that anyone should think that I am speaking against accuracy in journalism, but something is happening here that borders on being unnatural. Journalists a hundred years ago . . . and did the concept of "journalist" even exist then? . . . journalists put things in the newspaper that were never quite meant to be taken as entirely true. Everybody understood that this was just supposed to be a good story . . . Accuracy is a nasty concept, a bristle-wire toothbrush that strips off the plaque and the enamel and cuts right into the tooth.
James concludes his opening remarks about journalism's sad but understandable push for essence-killing accuracy by quoting a line from the movie Shattered Glass in which the main character admits that his story, while not true, "was accurate." After all of that I found myself wondering if Neyer -- upon reading his mentor's seeming disapproval of the very undertaking upon which he had spent a couple of years of his life -- had any misgivings about the book. Neyer immediately puts that notion to rest, however, when he notes that his research reveals that James was wrong: the movie he was quoting was actually Absence of Malice.

If Rob is OK with calling out Bill James' hooey, I think he's just fine with debunking sacred history.

But you know what? "Debunking" is probably the wrong word. "Debunking" implies a sort of impatient and disdainful exposure of frauds or perfidies, and that's certainly not what Neyer is up to here. To the contrary, he is very respectful of the scores of old baseball legends he relates, telling each of them with care while adding the sort of context, detail, and flavor about which even their original relators likely had no idea. The result are stories, erroneous or otherwise, made all the richer by virtue of their retelling.

For example, there's a funny old tale about how, in 1971, an aging Willie Mays took himself out of a game against the Astros in order to avoid the embarrassment of a fourth strikeout at the hands of a young and supremely intimidating J.R. Richard. But guess what? Neyer checked it out, and it turns out it never happened (get used to that, by the way; while Neyer confirms a handful of legends, most are shown to more truthy than actually true).

Are we worse off for learning that an archetypal passing-of-the-torch story like the Mays-Richard tale didn't really happen the way we heard it the first time? Of course not, because rather than simply checking Retrosheet and reporting the falsity of the story with a wagging finger, Neyer takes the opportunity to tell us about the times the Say Hey Kid actually did get turned around four times in a game and, while he's at it, explains why it was possible that Ray Chapman actually did once give up and walk back to the dugout before allowing Walter Johnson to ring him up with an inevitable strike three. As Neyer puts it in his introduction, we're all the better off for learning about that stuff:
Whether or not the story is completely true -- and I'll let you find out in due course -- is, if not beside the point of this book, certainly just one point. The stories tell us something about their subjects and they tell us something about those who tell the stories.
And that's the case with Willie Mays and J.R. Richard and Bill Mazeroski and Zach Wheat and Whitey Herzog and Bobo Newsome and Honus Wagner and Fred Haney and Tommy Lasorda and each and every one of the hundreds and hundreds of ballplayers, writers, managers, owners, umpires, heroes, goats, villains, rakes, rogues, saints, knuckleheads and oddballs that populate this book. Indeed, few or none of the tellers or subjects of the baseball legends with which Neyer grapples come off diminished as a result of the grappling. That's because while Neyer is provocative, he's never disrespectful. While he's skeptical, he's never dismissive. Above all else, Neyer has not committed an act of heresy, even in the story in which God plays a major role (you'll have to buy the book to find out about that one).

That last point may seem a bit defensive, but given the environment in which writers like Neyer find themselves these days, it is inevitable that someone sitting in a press box or newsroom somewhere will accuse him of disrespect, nitpicking, joy-killing, or worse. Let us kill that notion before it takes root. Checking these stories the way Neyer has is not disrespectful nor heretical. In fact, a healthy portion of these stories -- maybe even a majority of them -- are ones most readers have never even heard before. Ask yourself: are we better off letting these stories die with the after-dinner speakers who tell them or vanish into history as the old tomes in which they appear go out of print, or are we better off with Neyer giving them new life here, even if some of them are cut down to size a bit in the process? Seems an easy question to answer.

Ultimately, however, any such debate that springs up surrounding this book is a phony one. That's because Baseball Legends represents that rare ground upon which the old school and the sabermetricians can meet and find some semblance of a consensus, with the former enjoying the colorful tales and personalities which populate them while the latter can find satisfaction in the analytical, Retrosheet-fueled certainty of each story's denouement.

Ideally, of course, each of these self-defined camps will enjoy both aspects of Neyer's work, but I'm not much of an idealist and therefore take comfort in knowing that there's a little bit here for everyone, all of it good.

I recommend Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends without reservation.

*For those of you who get prickly about this stuff, allow me to offer a bit more on my objectivity: While we link each other's work and exchange the occasional email, I've never met Rob in person, don't get any money from this blog he so generously promotes from time to time, and don't stand to gain one iota based on the success or failure of his book. Beyond all of that, I hope you've realized by now that I am a soulless and heartless lawyer who would sooner cut someone to the quick than blow sunshine up their nether-regions. If the book sucked I would say so. Actually, on some perverted level I may have even preferred it, because it's way more fun (and much easier) to slam something than it is to praise it.

If, after all of this you think I'm completely out to lunch on this review, I'll make the following offer: buy the book, read it, and if you hate it, tell me why. Assuming it's a reasoned criticism possessed of decent grammar and a couple of cogent points, I'll post it here and we can play book club.



Anonymous said...

"If, after all of this you think I'm completely out to lunch on this review, I'll make the following offer: buy the book, read it"

Aha! I see what you're up to Craig. Looks like you slipped that in there so we, the readers, subconsciously decide to buy Neyer's book just to prove you wrong! Busting out all the tricks to help out that Rob Neyer, huh? :)

Just joking of course... Anyway, I really appreciate the review. I own 3 of Neyer's books already (and enjoyed each one) and will probably pick up this one at some point too, once my semester ends.

Voros McCracken said...

Stealing books is so much more difficult these days. Everybody's got all of this new fangled technology, and I'm sure they have tiny little Lojack chips in the paper.

I'll have to wait until this hits the library. Rob was kind enough to shoot pool with me once, but I can't spend food money on his book.

I'll cut him a deal: I'll buy his (and read it) if he promises to buy mine when it eventually comes out.

Greg P. (China, Maine) said...

I had this book pre-ordered from Amazon for a couple months and it shipped yesterday, so I am anxiously awaiting it. I do already own all of Rob's books and actually found Feeding The Green Monster my favorite thus far. I am perhaps the only one who thinks that, by the way.

If this one is close to what you describe, Shyster, I don't think anyone will be disappointed.

Jacob said...

Thanks for the review. I can't wait to read the book.

Dan said...

I was curiously awaiting the release of this book, always telling myself I'd pick it up if I got a bookstore gift certificate and remembered it. After reading this review, I'm going to pick it up on my lunch break today. And pay cash.

Thanks for all you do, Shyster.

Ken Dynamo said...

im not sure im on board for bill james contention that people at newspapers 50 or 100 years ago didnt share our concept of what a 'journalist' was. i understand that things like stats in the sports pages werent considered with the same importance as they are today, or at least, the editors werent as concerned with their accuracy, but if some writer gets the count, the inning, whos on deck or anything else wrong with a description of an event that 50,000+ people watched live than that paper is going to have some serious credibility issues. i mean, the business of newspapers was a mature industry a hundred or more years before baseball even existed. they had libel and slander laws, and they certainly understood the word 'journalist'.

i get james' point, but i have the feeling he's exaggerating the extent of how 'loose' papers dealt with obvious facts.

Anonymous said...

I've read most of Rob's books, and while I tend to enjoy all of them to some extent or another, I haven't enjoyed any as much as "Feeding the Green Monster". And I don't particularly care for the Red Sox, either, it was just a great read.

Shyster said...

Ken -- I think that "journalist" bit is just the latest example of James ranting about one of his favorite subjects, which is the rise of "professionalism." He has an essay in NBJHBA about how "educators" used to be simple teachers, "custodians" and "sanitation engineers" used to be janitors, "journalists" used to be reporters, etc. etc.

In light of that essay, I think what he's saying here is not so much that they weren't accurate or responsible 50 years ago as much as he's saying they weren't so damned serious about it, elevating ethics and sourcing and all of that to the level of medical ethics.

Not saying I agree with that, but that's what I think he's saying.

Ken Dynamo said...

ok, fair enough. pehaps james' has earned himself a little slack. what you brought up tho makes me wonder if high school guidance counselors could have ever been called anything else that would possibly imply them being even more worthless than they are currently perceived.

i find it important to hold a profession that actually makes a difference in peoples lives. thats why i manually masterbate farm animals for artificial insemination.

Shyster said...

The saddest part of all of that Ken, is that even if that WAS your real job, you'd bemaking a greater difference in people's lives than I do (at least at my day job).

Chadillac said...

Ken, how funny! I just posted a Kevin Smith related comment at The Cardboard Gods and then I come over here and see yours. Glad to see he's still relevant.

Mike McClary said...

Craig, you've put me in a bind here. By writing such a solid review of the book, you've left me to either write one for my site -- -- as planned, knowing it will pale in comparison, or to not write one at all and look even more lame.



Dan said...

As promised, I bought it over lunch and spent the balance of my break reading it. I didn't even eat.

Excellent book with wonderful stories. I may need to get a second copy of this for my dad, too.

Anonymous said...

What's with all this book writing that people are doing? Couldn't Rob put different chapters on his WWL blog every day so I wouldn't have to actually read a book? Who wants to sit and do that?