Review: Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends

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.

Digging Deep

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.

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41 Responses »

  1. I’m a big fan of Neyer’s work. I just finished reading his “Big Book of Baseball Blunders” yesterday. The format seems identical to what you describe above, and it’s a great book that you can read in short spurts or longer spans of time. I’ll definitely have to check this out.

    Great work by the team yesterday, but I’m thinking that we may need to drop Bard to the 8th spot in the lineup. He’s been horrible this year with RISP, and he always seems to be batting in these situations.

  2. Bard was amazing last year with RISP I say give him 100AB’s if he continues to struggle then drop him down.

  3. Whenever somebody is amazing or terrible at something without any cause, they’re almost certain to go back to being average soon enough.

    I’d rather have Bard hitting ahead of Greene, who has shown no signs of knowing a ball from a strike. Sticking him in the 8th spot may be the only way to force his OBP over .300.

  4. 2: That’s the thing that boggles my mind. He was so good last year and yet his approach in these siutations this year has just been awful. His 3-pitch AB against SF last week was terrible and his AB yesterday (before P-Mac drove in Edmonds) was pretty bad as well. It doesn’t seem to just be a numbers thing. He just doesn’t seem to be doing what it takes to get the run in.

    3: Though it’s woefully early, Khalil trails only Andre Ethier in the NL in Sacrafice Flies. If the guy would have caught the ball on the game in SF (where Kouz got forced at third), he’d be in the lead. Yeah, he still Ks at times in those situations. I was furious that he K’d yesterday against Park after fighting off a ton of pitches in that AB on a slider away. At this point, though, I feel better with Khalil up and RISP than I do with about anyone else on the team.

  5. 4: Really? Over anyone else on the team… you know sometimes there are RISP with 2 outs haha, then KG’s pop up to left or K doesnt really help. With the game on the line I would rather have Adrian up there than anyone else, no contest.

  6. “…how much he enjoys these stories even as he attempts to debunk them.” Does he really set out to debunk these legends, or is he trying to find the truth? That in a nutshell is my gripe with modern sabermetrics, too many guys try to make a splash by “proving” a long-held belief is wrong, rather than trying to find the truth, whatever it may be.

    Given Neyer’s previous work I tend to believe he was after the truth. I can’t imagine a guy with his love for the game setting out to write a book where he tries to prove so many great stories never happened.

    4: That Khalil AB sums up the guy’s entire career in one at bat. How can he continue to swing at sliders two feet off the plate at this stage in his career? I still enjoy watching him play but I’ve given up hope that he’ll ever be more than what he is.

  7. 4: Still Ks at times? He’s got a 13:1 K:BB ratio. He’s got a .325 OPS (that’s OPS, not OBP) with RISP. Only 661 with runners on. It’s a tiny sample, but so is Bard’s.

    I don’t think the various scoring position / clutch splits mean very much, but so far Greene’s offense has been bad. It’s been mostly home games, but that K rate isn’t encouraging.

  8. 5 & 7: Nobody has really been too consistent thus far this year. Adrian looked awful yesterday, and Kouz looked pretty bad too. Iguchi has been more consistent, but even he’s not been automatic.

    Is there anyway to compare number of Ks after 13 games this year to last year? Would I just have to run through B-R and collect stats on my own?

  9. Interestingly enough, Khalil’s third on the team in P/PA with 3.9. Kouz leads with 4.2 and Giles is second at 4.0. Edmonds hasn’t qualified yet, but he’s got 4.3 thus far.

    Of all the starters, Bard’s got the worst P/PA at 3.3. That particularly surprises me since his OBP is .410.

  10. 8: Alright, so I’ll just compare K rates since I don’t want to go through the effort of actually collecting the number of Ks through 13 games last year.

    Through 13 games, Khalil is K’ing in 24.1% of his ABs.

    In 153 games last year, Khalil K’ed in 19.4% of his ABs, so he his actually K’ing at an accelerated rate this year. This doesn’t match my perception, but facts is facts.

    As for the rest of the starters:

    Adrian – 2008 K Rate: 22.4 % 2007 K Rate: 21.7%
    Hairston – 2008 K Rate: 20.4 % 2007 K Rate: 18.9%
    Iguchi – 2008 K Rate: 19.6% 2007 K Rate: 14.8%
    Kouz – 2008 K Rate: 19.3% 2007 K Rate: 17.6%
    Edmonds – 2008 K Rate: 30.3% 2007 K Rate:

  11. Edmonds’ 2007 K rate was 18.4. Stupid Submit button.

    Anyway, I’m not going to get through the rest of the lineup, but Kouz has K’ed the least out of the starters. I will ammend my previous comment to state that I would rather have Kouz than anyone else.

  12. #6: Yes, he’s attempting to find the truth… by seeing if he can debunk the stories. As you say, many other authors wouldn’t have tackled a project like this in the same way, which is why Neyer’s approach stood out to me.

  13. I can understand my KG might want to get out of Petco. I think the worst combination for a hitter at Petco would be a high/strong power and low OBP, like KG. So Petco robs him of his power, but he still gets out. Without Petco, he could easily be 30-40 HR / year SS. His HR splits weren’t that bad 15 road, 12 home, but is OPS was .170 worse at home, so I am guessing his HR splits will be worse going forward.

    I just don’t see him getting OBP up, ever. In a neutral park, he can be an 800+ OPS SS, with low 300s OBP, low 500s SLG. Unless he can suddenly learn better pitch recognition, it is going to be very tough to move that OBP.

  14. 1 through whatever:

    There is no such thing as clutch.

  15. 14: Eh, I belive that to a degree. I don’t know if it’s something that occurs year-to-year, but I do think that some people are better able to handle that situation than others.

    I know that MB at Friar Forecast is closely following the clutch issue right now. Surely he has some input in this discussion.

  16. 13: He was a 795 OPS shortstop in 2004, when he hit 8th most of the season and drew 53 walks to go along with is 94 strikeouts.

    Now that there’s a bigger book on him, he might not get pitched around as much in the 8 hole. But that may be the only way to induce an OBP spike. I think it would more than make up for losing his power in a “traditional” RBI spot. You could probably do it only at home, it doesn’t seem like he’d let it upset his emotional equilibrium. Hit 8th at home, 5th or 6th on the road.

  17. 12.

    Love that avatar addition GY. Sounds like someone made a decent suggestion… Wink Wink! Haha!

  18. Very nice review, Geoff.

    1: I’m enjoying that book piece by piece right now courtesy of GY. Thanks for the loaner, Geoff.

    Here’s a nice article on the 23 K’s game at Tony Gwynn last weekend.

    And from Fitt’s chat:

    Q: David from Orlando asks:
    I think everyone at every level of baseball would like to catch a case of the Strasburg flu. If he were going in this year’s draft, where would San Diego State’s finest slot? In an early scout’s view, one of the scouts you quoted, invoked Mark Prior. Is that a valid comparison?

    Aaron Fitt: I think he’d go in the top five for sure, and maybe as high as No. 1. He’s got a better fastball than either Brian Matusz or Aaron Crow, and his slider isn’t far behind. He’s got a big, durable frame and an easy delivery, so there’s no reason to think he’ll break down. Matusz and Crow have deeper arsenals, though Strasburg has a decent changeup now and then against lefthanded hitters. Matusz is lefthanded, which gives him a little edge. It’s really a tough decision, but I don’t think any pitcher in college baseball has a higher ceiling than Strasburg. And considering he already works around 97-99 regularly, he’s not too far away from that ceiling. Maybe it’s the 23-strikeout game talking, but at this moment, I think I’d take Strasburg before any other pitcher in the draft, and maybe even before Pedro Alvarez. All of that is moot, of course, because he’s not eligible until 2009, but he’s unquestionably the No. 1 prospect in the ’09 draft, for me at least. Kyle Gibson has a ton of upside too, but you’ve got to project on Gibson’s velocity. There’s no projection necessary with Strasburg.

  19. 14: I think even such luminaries as Bill James have backed off that, if they ever believed it; see his “Underestimating the Fog” article. He’s not the be-all and end-all, but he’s smart and diligent. If he’s not willing to say there’s no such thing as clutch, I’m on his side.

    I think that most players will be the same in clutch as non-clutch situations given a big enough sample. Rather than some players consistently rising to the occasion, though, there may be some players who really cannot handle the mental pressure and fail more frequently than they should. I expect that’s a very small percentage of pro athletes, and it’s probably something they can grow out of with experience.

  20. #17: Wow, some really smart person must have come up with that one. ;-)

    I’m kind of testing this out for now. It’s done through if anyone’s interested.

    #19: Yep, there’s a difference between “it doesn’t exist” and “we don’t know how to measure it.”

    On another note, my Padres preview is up at BTF. Mostly review material for y’all…

  21. Re: 4…Phantom…nothing but love for you man, but really? Really?

    Then I read on and I see you sort of corrected yourself…

    I don’t know, but why anyone would EVER throw KG anything middle in is beyond me. He crushes that location…his hands are so fast and he can get such good wood on pitches middle in. If I, or any pitcher I could talk to, were throwing with KG at the plate, I would say “slider away…then slider away…then slider away…then again and again and again until he K’s.”

  22. I believe Baseball Between the Numbers had a chapter on clutch. Their metric was the hitting in leverage situations – hitting overall. Their conclusions, if I remember, was that, yes, in an individual year some players will perform much better in leverage vs. non-leverage (or deteriorate less markedly), but that “clutch” metric does not have any year-to-year stickiness by player.

    That settled it for me.

  23. BTW, I’m playing around with some other tools that might come in handy. One of ‘em is a little arrow just to the right of time stamps on individual comments. Click on that arrow to respond to a particular comment and a link back will be added for easy future reference. Try it out, let me know what you think…

  24. 22: That might be a place where James, or others, would find a chink. As unspecific and icky as it sounds, the definition of a clutch situation could vary widely between teams. I think it would need to measure the pressure felt by the hitter as well as what’s happening in the box score or on the bases. I have no idea how you’d do it, but it does seem likely that a rookie facing a flamethrowing reliever in the 9th inning in a September game with playoff implications is a lot more stressed than a veteran on a dominant team that leads its division by 10 games on Labor Day (or any day, for that matter).

    As I said, I don’t know how you’d look deeply enough it into to prove anything, and I’d never want the Padres to pay extra (sometimes I say crazy things) for a player who has a clutch reputation. But players regressing to the “clutch” mean over time may represent, at least partly, a greater comfort in those situations due to experience, so that there’s a higher “clutch” threshold for them, one that occurs rarely and is nearly impossible to tease out from the numbers.

  25. 21: Agree. Why throw him anything straight? Maybe one fastball on the outer half and low and then nothing but sliders.

    23: Like the arrows, not crazy about the avatars. No offense to KRS1, just not my thing.

  26. Current season statistics are as useless in April as they are useful in September

  27. Hey GY with the arrow can you also make it so it says the number of the comment as well?

  28. 15/Phantom: Thanks for the mention. I’m sure there are many folks here who follow this stuff more closely than I. Anyway, fwiw, I agree with what Tom Waits (and others) has said. The definition of clutch, although improved by things like leverage Index, is still really tricky.

    A bases loaded ab in a tie game in the 9th, by LI, will be very, very “clutch.” However, if it’s game 162 between KC and Tampa (both with say, 70 wins) is it really a clutch ab? Well, for that game it is, but for the season? That’s up to the individual, I suppose, and that’s why it’s still tough to define.

    That said, the general consensus on clutch hitting (I think) is that the skill exists, but it is so small, year to year, that you should probably ignore it.

  29. @Steve C: You would have to add the number manually, although the link should eliminate this need.

  30. Hmm Chris Ello just brought up an interesting stat on the Pads. The Pads are third in batting average and 26th in runs scored. They are also first in strike outs.

    I know it’s a small sample size, I just thought it was interesting that they could be third in the league in hitting and 26th in scoring runs, kind of goes to show how over-rated of a stat BA is.

  31. Slow day in baseball today (only two games in the NL) so I guess that it’s a Khalil bashing day!

    I guess it’s possible that Khalil could improve as a hitter, especially his pitch recognition, but I think that it’s probably a long shot in this stage of his career. He’s a mistake hitter, pure and simple. There are plenty of them although not too many of them play a key defensive position well. I don’t know if I’d bat Khalil in 8th though, I think his plate discipline has probably gone down a lot since his rookie season. If he’s batting in front of the pitcher he might just get a steady of balls off the plate and who knows if he can keep from swinging at them? I guess it doesn’t matter where he bats although the key would be to get him as many ABs with runners on as possible as that would seem to increase the chances of a pitcher throwing a strike. But then again, he makes a ton of outs, so do you really want him batting in the middle of the order?

  32. @Steve C: They might be 3rd in average (2nd in the NL behind the D-backs) but in the NL they are 15th in SLG, 10th in OBP, last in 2B (by nearly 50%), and next to last in HR (ahead of the Mets), first (or worst) in strikeouts, 13th in walks, next to last in steals (but first in SB%!), and last in XBH (by nearly 30%). Obviously some of those rankings have to do with the stadiums they’ve played in (7 in Petco, 3 in SF) and some are flukes — they’ll hit more XBH’s eventually. For all these ineptitude on offense, they are still above .500 so that’s good.

    On the bright side, they are first in singles by a wide margin — they have 99 and the next best has 77!

  33. @Schlom:

    Right, that was my point about how misleading of a stat BA can be.

  34. 23: I’m with TW on these.
    As for clutch, I don’t think it’s a skill that can be repeated throughout a career or season to season.

  35. 28, 30: The lack of a number will take some getting used to. In a normal DS thread several posters will have multiple comments, sometimes raising totally new points. For those of us with big monitors, it’s easy to see several entries at once rather than back-checking the link.

  36. 34: Of course. I was just expanding a bit on that.

  37. @Geoff Young:
    @Tom Waits:
    Like the Avatars. I agree that the number is helpful. The link certainly makes it easier to quickly get to the original comment, but sometimes you’ll get a string of responses to the same comment and it’s easier to follow if the number of the comment is there. GY, if you need some help I’m sure I could modify the plugin you’re using to include the post number.

  38. @36:Tom Waits:

    We could always add the number physically right before the open parenthesis.