December 28, 2008

Book Review: Rob Neyer's Big Book Of Baseball Legends

Back in the early 1990s, Rob Neyer worked as Bill James's research assistant and contributed what were called "tracers" to at least three of James's Baseball Abstracts.

Neyer would quote a player's or writer's recollection from a book or an old issue of The Sporting News or Baseball Digest -- and then try to figure out if the story was true. I loved reading those, so I'm in heaven because Neyer's Big Book Of Baseball Legends is comprised solely of "tracers".

Here's an example, from George Will, in the April 25, 2006 issue of Newsweek:
Leading 8-0 in a regular-season game against the Astros, Maddux threw what he had said he would never throw to Jeff Bagwell -- a fastball in. Bagwell did what Maddux wanted him to do: he homered. So two weeks later, when Maddux was facing Bagwell in a close game, Bagwell was looking for a fastball in, and Maddux fanned him on a change-up away.
Is this story true? Did this really happen?

For those of you thinking "Who cares?" or "Why ruin a good story?", stay away from this book. But if you're as curious as I am about how Neyer went about his investigations and what he found out, you'll be very happy curling up with this book while you wait for spring training.

Neyer admits that his sleuthing has become far easier since his days with James. What would have taken him hours with rolls of microfilm at the library can be done in a matter of seconds online. In a thought-provoking introduction, Bill James notes:
The 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. ... For thousands of years men made slightly heroic fiction out of their own petty lives. You can't get away with that anymore.
Here's a tracer of my own:
Back in 1982, my friend Ray and I took a bus down from Burlington to Fenway Park. We snuck a sack-full of beers into the park and sat out in the hot sun in right field. Steve Balboni bopped two home runs over the Wall and we lost to the Royals -- something like 5-3.
Not a terribly gripping yarn, but still ... how's my memory?

This game was not right after graduating high school (1981) and I was still living at home (which I was not doing in 1983). Also discounting 1983 is the fact that we drove down by car and saw two games in July of that year (spending the night in a parking garage). I drifted away from baseball after that year, returned to the Sox in August 1986, and moved to Brooklyn in 1987. Also, we went to a bar when we got back, so we're looking for a Saturday in 1982.

Balboni's home run log tells us he had 12 two-dong days in his career, but wait ... we're already in trouble.

Balboni debuted with the Yankees in 1982 and did not play for Kansas City until 1984. Not only that, but he hit no home runs against Boston that year and only one in 1985 (April 16 in Kansas City). So whatever we saw, Balboni was not a part of it.

Did the Red Sox lose to the Royals at home 5-3 (or thereabouts) on a summer weekend afternoon in 1982? No, though they did lose to Kansas City 9-0 on Sunday, July 18. They had beat the Royals the day before, 8-4, and Frank White hit two home runs for KC, but I'm very sure we saw a loss.

Maybe it wasn't the Royals. When did the 1982 Red Sox lose on weekend day games?
June 26: 10-11 Brewers
June 27: 5-7 Brewers, Gorman Thomas 2 HR, 68 degrees
July 11: 3-7 Twins, 71 degrees
July 18: 0-9 Royals, 3 KC each hit 1 HR, hot: 94
August 7: 3-7 White Sox, 79 and sunny
August 14: 4-5 (10) Orioles; unsure if day or night
September 4: 3-4 Mariners; unsure if day or night
That second Brewers game is a possibility, though it's a Sunday and the linescore seems off.

A-ha! September 25: 2-6 to Yankees. Mr. Effing Balboni hit a home run in the 5th inning off Dennis Eckersley. Rick Cerone added a dong two innings later for New York's final run. The listed temperature is only 68 degrees, but this game is a Saturday afternoon loss by a score very similar to 3-5, it has Balboni hitting a homer and another homer being hit to ice the win for the visitors.

I can't be sure, but because Balboni is so prominent in my memory of that day, I'm going to say that was the game.

(Disclaimer: I bought this book, I did not receive a review copy.)


laura k said...


Did that road trip involve someone sleeping on the sidewalk, by any chance?

allan said...

That was the 1983 overnighter. And it wasn't me. ... That's all I'll say!

laura k said...

This book sounds cool, btw. Perfect for you and other research-type people.

accudart said...

what ballgame, what year, what sidewalk...what you talking bout Willis? Allan, didn't you score most of the games you went to? Any other examples from the book you could give us? Thanks.

allan said...

No scorecard for that one.


Here's two more (a lot of them are too long to retype):

Whitey Ford, in Sweet Seasons: Recollections of the 1955-64 New York Yankees:

"I remember one day I was clinging to a one-run lead with one out and first and third in the ninth. Casey came out and said he wanted Johnny Kucks, because Johnny was a sinkerball pitcher, and he thought Johnny might get a double play. He had already called down to the bullpen and said he wanted "Kucks", but Darrell Johnson, the bullpen catcher, thought Casey said "Trucks". Casey almost died when Virgil Trucks hopped over the fence. Well, Trucks came in and threw one pitch, a groundball double play, and the game was over. But Casey never let the press know the wrong man came in. The Old Man had style."

Christoper Devine, Thurman Munson, A Baseball Biography:

"In fact, they [Munson and Fisk] did have civil exchanges during their encounters at the plate, but -- bottom line -- they really didn't like each other. Thought he two persistently denied any feud to the press, actions do speak louder than words. Thurman would frequently check his rival's statistics in the newspaper, while Fisk was infuriated at the mention of Munson's name. Fisk later remembered one instance in which Munson found out in the morning paper than he was losing to Fisk in the assist department during one year late in Thurm's career. With Ron Guidry on the mound sporting a masterful ten-strikeout game, Thurman purposely dropped about a half dozen balls and threw then to first to edge Fisk for the title."