Monday, November 15, 2010

Review - Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else by Rob Neyer

Short review: Rob Neyer fact checks numerous tall tales told by and about baseball players and finds many wanting and makes debunking funny and interesting stories funny and interesting.

A good baseball yarn
Is fun and interesting
But often untrue

Full review: Baseball history is full of stories. The baseball yarn, usually told by an aging ex-player that begins with some variation of "there I was . . .", is a familiar and time-honored event. Every baseball fan can probably recount at least a half-dozen such stories from memory, if not more. Some of these stories have become treasured lore, woven into the mythology of the game. If you are a person who loves these sorts of stories unconditionally, then you should avoid this book at all costs. If, on the other hand, you are curious about the origin and veracity of these tall tales of the diamond, then this is the book for you.

Modern technology, by placing information at the fingertips of everyone from news reporters to your brother, has become the bane of faulty memories, puffery, and the tall tale. The availability of information can catch people in lies that change their careers, as Tim Johnson, former manger of the Toronto Blue Jays discovered when he was fired after it was revealed that he had lied about his service as a Marine in the Vietnam War. In Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else, Neyer turns modern technology (mostly databases of boxscores and newspaper records) to a less serious purpose: checking up on a number of colorful yarns told through the years about baseball and figuring out if they can actually be confirmed as true, or were just made up as entertaining anecdotes.

The format of the book is pretty straightforward. In some ways, the book is sort of like a Mythbusters for the baseball yarn. A baseball story is presented, usually with attribution to one or more sources. The potentially verifiable facts of the story are then identified. Then Neyer sets to work, combing through team rosters, boxscores, and contemporaneous newspaper accounts to determine if the story is potentially true, or if it simply doesn't match the concrete data. Each story gets the treatment, and most are examined to see if you slightly change the facts that they could match. If there are similar stories involving different players, different teams, or a different time and place, they are usually examined as well. The stories range from the obscure, like the first one in the book concerning a shower of boiling beans, or whether a Chinese player was in organized baseball in the 1920s, to more notable ones like Lou Gehrig's supposed impostor, to the most famous of baseball legends Babe Ruth's called shot. Each story is presented with quotes and anecdotes from players, managers, umpires, and reporters while Neyer tries to match all the often varying accounts of events against the known facts.

At first blush one might think a book devoted to using boxscores from 1956 to fact check some story told by umpire Tom Gorman would be dry and uninteresting, but Neyer keeps the writing light and conversational, making the pages roll by. The stories are drawn from a wide range of baseball eras, from the early 1900s all the way up to the 1980s. Some of the stories will no doubt be familiar to most baseball fans, while some will probably be completely unknown, and some of the fun of the book is reading these obscure baseball stories which are often quite entertaining, even if they stretch the truth a little (or, as often seems to be the case, quite a bit). So, for a baseball fan who doesn't mind if the legendary exploits of his boyhood heroes turn out to have been a little exaggerated, this is highly recommended.

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