Rob Neyer checks out legends of diamond life in sixth book
In his latest book, Portland sports author Rob Neyer goes about debunking or proving some of the most famous stories of baseball lore.
'Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends' (Simon and Schuster), his sixth book, breaks down more than 100 stories and comes to one conclusion:
Whether exaggerated by sportswriters for effect or made up by players to simply tell tales on train rides and the banquet circuit, Neyer guesses that fewer than 20 percent, and maybe less than 10 percent, of the incidents he researched have 100 percent validity.
Translation: There's a lot of BS out there.
'I was amazed by how many stories do not check out,' says Neyer, 41, who lives in Westmoreland with his wife, Kristien Sima, and their 16-year-old son, Micah. 'As I went along, I yearned for a story that was exactly right. And I want the reader to play along with me, go through detective work and get to a conclusion.
'There's probably a kernel of truth in all of them.'
One of the most famous is Babe Ruth's supposed 'called shot' against the Chicago Cubs in the 1932 World Series. Depending on who tells the story - and Neyer runs all the pertinent accounts - Ruth either pointed to center field to predict his home run or gestured to the Cubs' dugout and/or pitcher Charlie Root.
Most versions say the Bambino held up two fingers to indicate two strikes, while saying to the Cubs that it would only take one swing to knock the ball out of the park. He homered on the next pitch.
Author digs to stories' roots
Neyer wrote 11 pages of accounts and detail in the book, but he never got to see either of the two films of Ruth's famous at-bat.
'If you take into account who's saying what and what their motivations would be, I'm fairly confident that Babe Ruth did not point and predict his home run,' Neyer says. 'He gestured toward the pitcher or the bench -'This isn't over yet, I'm going to get you' and not 'I'm going to hit the next ball in the center field bleachers.' '
Other stories in the book are not as dramatic but clearly paint the picture of exaggerations perpetuated.
Maury Wills, the ex-Los Angeles Dodger shortstop, once told a nightclub audience - yes, he used to sing and tell stories in L.A. and Las Vegas - that he once faked a problem with his eye to allow more time for a relief pitcher to warm up.
Truth is, Neyer found out, a coach relayed the story to Wills, and Wills just injected himself into it.
After being told by a publicist that he trailed rival Carlton Fisk for assists among catchers, Thurman Munson, the late New York Yankee great, allegedly once dropped three third strikes to throw the runners out at first and record the assists. Wrong again, Neyer discovered, as Munson never had more than one assist in any one game from dropped third strikes.
Other legends ring true
Some stories proved to be correct.
Red Sox catcher Sammy White really did hit a game-winning home run off legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, and then kissed home plate as he scored. And Braves pitcher Johnny Sain, who struck out only 20 times in 774 career at-bats as a hitter, was correct in saying that he fanned on three pitches against Paige in 1952. 'Interesting to me that Sain remembered it so precisely,' Neyer says.
Neyer always had wanted to write a book about baseball stories; he did similar research for three Bill James books early in his career. And, today, researching on the Internet has made such endeavors much more practical.
'You can track down a play-by-play account of a game from 1958 in about 15 seconds,' he says, noting Baseball-reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
'It took me a long time to switch from the 3-pound encyclopedias to Baseball-reference.com; now I might open an encyclopedia - and I have all of them - once a month at most. I've basically made the switch (to Internet research) completely.
'If I want to find out the best 23-year-old pitchers from 1950 to 1975, it's a 30-second process.'
Neyer continues to write columns and blogs for Espn.com, for which he has worked 12 years. He does regular radio shows. For now, he'll concentrate on those duties and leave the book-writing biz. 'It's six books in nine years now, and that's a pretty good pace,' he says. 'I'm working harder for ESPN than I have in 10 years.'
His first book was 'Baseball Dynasties,' about great teams. 'I hope to do a revised edition of that,' Neyer says.
In the meantime, Neyer likes to spend time with his wife, son and dog, and he played on an adult baseball team last summer.
'My goal for the season was to hit one line drive, and I didn't come close,' he says. 'Had a couple scratch hits.'
Q and A Writer looks back and ahead
With baseball season starting, Rob Neyer's job really cranks up. He covered several topics in this Q and A with the Portland Tribune.
Tribune: Do you look at recent years as the 'steroid era'?
Rob Neyer: Every era ends. I don't know that the steroid era has ended yet. I'm not willing to call it something because it's not over. No question (drugs are being used), I'd be naive to think because we're testing for something that everyone will stop doing it. As long as there's an edge to be gained and players think there's an edge, some will try to get the edge.
Until we have a better feel for how many players used and benefited from them … if a guy had a 20-year career and used for two weeks, does that taint his whole career? I don't think it does. I think a small percentage owe their careers to it.
Tribune: Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are the faces of the steroid issue. Put their careers into perspective. (Note: Neyer does not have a Hall of Fame vote.)
Neyer: (McGwire), it seems fairly clear that he benefited from whatever … maybe it was creatine or something legal; his reticence on the subject suggests he was doing something that wasn't legal. Everybody has to come up with their own take on it. But, if he hadn't done something against baseball's rules or illegal, he wouldn't have put up Hall of Fame numbers.
(Bonds) is an obvious Hall of Fame choice. The best book about Bonds suggests he started to use drugs in 1999 or 2000; he was already a Hall of Famer by then. If he wasn't, he would have been by just continuing on his career path.
(Clemens) is the same as Bonds. He had already won four Cy Young Awards before he went to the Blue Jays (in 1998, the year he supposedly started taking steroids).
Maybe in 10 or 20 years, we might have a different perspective. We may find out that all the players used steroids, and, against his peers, guys might be a Hall of Fame player.
Tribune: Compare baseball and players today to past eras and players in pure talent.
Neyer: To me, the best player in 1920, which would be Babe Ruth, probably wouldn't be able to play. That isn't a knock against Babe Ruth any more than it would be a knock against the best sprinters, swimmers or basketball players of his era.
Sprinting isn't the same now as it was 75 years ago. Think about an NFL lineman today compared to one from 1950; an NFL lineman from the 1950s couldn't play in a good college program now, I suspect. Why would baseball be any different?
Tribune: Give us your predictions for the 2008 season.
Neyer: New York Yankees (East), Cleveland Indians (Central) and L.A. Angels (West) and Detroit Tigers (wild card) in the American League; New York Mets (East), Chicago Cubs (Central) and L.A. Dodgers (West) and San Diego Padres (wild card) in the NL; Dodgers over the Indians in the World Series.
Tribune: The Dodgers, why?
Neyer: It's a hunch more than anything. The World Series is a crapshoot. All that young talent will be on the field at the end of the season - youngsters Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Andy LaRoche and James Loney - and if they complement the pitching staff and (Joe) Torre doesn't blow out the bullpen, they should be really good.
Tribune: Can the Cubs reach the World Series and win it?
Neyer: The Mets are the best team in the National League. The Cubs are as good as anybody else.
Tribune: Does Johan Santana's addition push up the Mets?
Neyer: I might have had them as the best without Santana. Now, it's an easy case to make. He makes them a 95-win team.
Tribune: Can the Mariners win the AL West?
Neyer: They're the most overrated team in the American League, if not baseball.
The numbers tell me the Mariners are a 76-win team, not an 85-win team. I don't see Ichiro and Raul Ibañez and others doing as well as in the past. You look at Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard and these guys could be the best pitchers in baseball, but they haven't been yet. If they're Cy Young candidates, yeah, the Mariners could be really good. But they would need other things to fall into place to be an 87-win team.
Tribune: Who's better, the Yankees or Red Sox?
Neyer: Both will deal with pitching issues, and the Yankees are deeper and more equipped to deal with it. With Curt Schilling out and Josh Beckett questionable, Jon Lester started the second game of the season for Boston, and he has question marks around him.
Tribune: Who's the best pitcher, player and hitter in baseball today?
Neyer: Best pitcher is Santana, by far. His numbers are not appreciably better in the past two or three years than (the Padres') Jake Peavy and (Arizona's) Brandon Webb, but he's been doing it in the American League, and they have not. The AL has the designated hitter, better teams and better hitters.
The best pure hitter is (the Tigers') Miguel Cabrera, because (St. Louis') Albert Pujols has an elbow injury.
I think (the Mets') David Wright is the best player; he and (the Yankees') Alex Rodriguez. Wright is the next great superstar.
Tribune: What is baseball's best 2008 story line?
Neyer: The National League West race with four competitive teams - Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks and Colorado. The fourth best team is the Rockies and, considering they just went to the World Series, it's a competitive division.'