By Rob Neyer
Fireside: 331 pp., $16 paperback
What is baseball without its stories? The game has captured America’s heart over the years not only through the calling of balls and strikes but also through the telling of tales.
As stories are passed along, sometimes the details get shifted. Other times, they were wrong from the beginning but nobody bothered to check.
Now Rob Neyer has checked for us. In Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends, the author dissects more than 80 stories that have embedded themselves in the baseball canon.
As a devout follower of baseball, I’m struck by three elements of Neyer’s work: how thorough his research is, how tightly the book’s layout integrates with its content, and how much he enjoys these stories even as he attempts to debunk them.
The amount of research that went into the project is staggering. Yes, the Internet makes things easier, but Neyer, who excavated facts for Bill James before venturing out on his own, isn’t afraid to get his (and his capable assistants’) hands dirty. In many cases, he has sifted through hours of microfilm and player logs obtained directly from the Hall of Fame to arrive at the truth.
There’s an unwritten rule with artistic endeavors that the final product should conceal any traces of the scaffolding that made building it possible. In Neyer’s case, though, it’s good to be aware of the effort. His dedication reminds us how passionate he is about baseball and its stories. Who better to pick these apart than someone approaching them from such a space?
Content and Form, Working Together
The book’s layout is an extension of its subject matter. When telling a story, we often veer off on tangents that aren’t central to the topic at hand but which might be interesting in their own right — “oh, by the way…”
Each easily digestible chapter (most are 3-5 pages) tells a story that Neyer thoroughly investigates, but often there are related anecdotes in the margin. These don’t necessarily advance the main inquiry but add texture. For example, in a chapter on Lou Boudreau and Ron Santo, Neyer’s sidebar on Larry Bowa and Ryne Sandberg provides insight into another, more recent tale of a promising young player breaking into the big leagues.
Bringing the Past to Life
I’ve hinted at this earlier, but because Neyer has such a clear love of these stories (and the game itself), he never attempts to cast them in a bad light even as he debunks them. The enjoyment of a tale isn’t dependent on its veracity — if you’ve ever read a good novel, you know what I mean. Neyer gets this, and one of the chief services his book provides is to bring these great baseball stories to the forefront. Sure, he pokes holes in many of them that are wider than the late Eric Gregg’s strike zone, but in the process, he shares these stories with us and reminds us why they were worth telling in the first place.
Neyer’s book should appeal to anyone with a curiosity about baseball’s history and characters. For fans of the Padres and San Diego baseball, there’s a chapter dedicated to the first time Steve Garvey was ejected from a game and another that looks at Ted Williams. Another brief chapter talks about Ken Harrelson’s stretch run for the Red Sox in ’67 (long-time readers of Ducksnorts will know that the site is named after one of Harrelson’s catch phrases).
Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends is littered with familiar names — Williams, DiMaggio, Gehrig, Mantle, Ruth — but also with those that may have been forgotten over the years. Who today knows John Felske and Hal Jeffcoat? Doc Cramer and Joe Vosmik? Johnny Babich? Joe Tepsic? These people all played baseball, and they deserve to be remembered.
This is Neyer’s lasting achievement: In dissecting the folklore of our people, he presents it to a new generation of followers. This is who we are, this is our history. Although it may not be perfect, it’s an accurate representation of the people who created it. The diamond is flawed, but it is very real, and that’s what makes it beautiful.