Q&A: Rob Neyer - The Big Book of Baseball Legends
Rob Neyer is no stranger to readers of Baseball Analysts. He has written a guest column for us, participated in roundtable discussions and surveys, and linked to a number of our articles on his ESPN.com website.
A long-time columnist and author, Rob has been writing about baseball since 1990 when he worked for Bill James during all three years of The Baseball Book and the first year of the Player Ratings Book. Neyer has been with ESPN.com since 1996 and is a regular on ESPN Radio and sports talk shows around the country. He has written six baseball books, including one that was just released at the beginning of April.
Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends is the latest and greatest in his Big Book series. The subtitle – The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else – pretty much captures the essence of this fun-to-read and highly entertaining book. Rob combines his baseball knowledge, skepticism, meticulous research skills, sharp wit, and signature writing style to produce an indispensable guide that should be part of every fan's library.
The Table of Contents and excerpts from three chapters (Greg Maddux & Jeff Bagwell, Billy Martin & Jackie Robinson, and Lou Boudreau & Ron Santo) should be enough to whet one's appetite.
After meeting up with Rob for a couple of days a few weeks back when he was in Los Angeles, I had the good fortune to interview him as part of this book review. I hope you enjoy our chat as well as the book.
Rich: The Big Book of Baseball Legends is your sixth book in nine years. You have become almost as prolific in writing books as The Beatles were in producing records during the 1960s. I've got all of The Beatles CDs and all of your books. Both are important parts of my music and baseball libraries. The good news is that we don't have to worry about Rob Neyer breaking up. Or do we?
Rob: I'm absolutely sure that's the first time my name has ever been mentioned in the same breath with the Beatles, and for that I can only thank you, kind sir. And no, I'm not breaking up. But I am taking a break from book-writing until I have an idea that really excites me. Because at the moment I don't have one.
Rich: Baseball Legends is your third in the Big Book series. Baseball Lineups and Baseball Blunders were described as complete guides to the best/worst players and the worst decisions and stupidest moments in baseball history. How would you describe Baseball Legends?
Rob: Well, the subtitle for this book is "The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else." Which is what we call a "grabber" in the book business. Most of the truths in the book are half-truths and most of the lies are merely well-told tall tales. And my job in the book is determining which are which.
Rich: In the Foreword, Bill James tells a story about a scene in a movie he recalls as Shattered Glass wherein a young reporter rises to the top of his profession in short order by "just making shit up." As it turns out, the scene is actually from Absence of Malice as you so delicately noted upon a bit of research. How perfect was that for the Foreword in a book called Big Book of Baseball Legends?
Rob: Pretty perfect. Somebody else mentioned that in a review, and assumed that I had fact-checked that story and tossed in the correction as a friendly rebuke to Bill, but he actually fact-checked himself and added that coda, which I really enjoyed.
Rich: Speaking of James, you occasionally investigated what Bill has called "tracers" when you worked with him for four years during the early 1990s. Was Baseball Legends percolating in your mind back then?
Rob: Yeah, I think so. In those days I was young and didn't have any original ideas – actually, I still rarely have an original idea – but I knew I wanted to keep writing about baseball. For a while we were planning to continue Bill's biographical encyclopedia, as a stand-alone project. But that sort of petered out, after which I talked to Bill about doing a book of tracers. Nothing happened with that, either. But yeah, the tracers have always been in the back of my mind, because I enjoyed the research so much.
Rich: I have no doubt that the research in this book was a labor of love. Although Bill claims that backtracking anecdotes no longer qualifies as research given the explosion of organized knowledge on the Internet, you obviously spent a lot of time verifying the accuracy of these claims.
Rob: I think Bill overstates his case some. The research is certainly much easier than it was, but I spent many hours poring over microfilm, and entering data from players' day-by-day logs into Excel files. Obviously, Retrosheet makes a researcher's life a million times easier, but their play-by-play data goes back "only" to the mid-1950s and a lot of the stories in the book are from before then. Anyway, the point of the book isn't necessarily the backtracking; it's what the backtracking leads to.
Rich: Of the more than 80 stories in your book, how many would you say are truths and how many are lies?
Rob: First, I should mention that there are more (many more) than 80 stories in the book if you count the sidebars. As you would probably guess, few of the stories in the book are completely true or completely false. I would guess that roughly half of them contain at least some kernel of a fundamental truth that I was able to find. Maybe two-thirds.
Rich: What do you say to those who think you are taking the fun out of the game in your attempts to debunk some of the most classic legends in the history of the sport?
Rob: It's a funny thing … I anticipated a fair number of readers making that criticism, but I haven't actually seen it yet. Also, it was never my intention to debunk anything. I just found baseball stories that I liked, then checked them out and let the chips fall wherever they fell. I was absolutely thrilled when the facts checked out.
Rich: Is it your belief that sportswriters, players, managers, umpires, and owners make up these fables for the hell of it or do you think they really believe them to be true? Or is it possible that many of them have been lost in the translation, if you will, as they are retold over and over by people other than the one who originated the story?
Rob: All of those. But I think what happens most often is that something happens, and years later someone who was there tells the story in good faith but has simply forgotten many of the details. Of course, some of the stories are simply invented out of whole cloth, often for use on the rubber-chicken circuit.
Rich: I can't help but be amused by the fact that a so-called stathead like you loves the stories of the game as much or more than the next guy.
Rob: You're not the only one. But you know, it's funny, most of my sabermetrically inclined friends enjoy a good story at least as much as I do. One of the great things about baseball is that there are so many ways to enjoy it. And fortunately there's no law restricting us to one or two of them.
Rich: Who do you suppose is the greatest "story" teller of them all?
Rob: Oh, I don't know. Whitey Herzog tells a pretty good story.
Rich: Can you share one of his stories with us?
Rob: It's too long to reproduce here, probably, but I love the story Herzog tells about betting Satchel Paige, then his teammate with Miami, that Paige couldn't throw a baseball through a hole just slightly larger than a baseball. And of course Paige did exactly that, and collected on the bet.
Rich: I know you don't want to give away the contents of your book, but can you tell us once and for all if Babe Ruth's home run in the 1932 World Series was really a "called shot?"
Rob: It depends on how you define "called shot," I guess. Did Ruth point toward the center-field bleachers like he does in the movies? No. He certainly did make a defiant gesture, perhaps toward the Cubs' dugout, from where he was taking a great deal of verbal abuse.
Rich: When did the bench jockeying disappear from the game? I mean, you can't call somebody "rabbit ears" if you don't yell at him to begin with.
Rob: Oh, it still happens. Not as much as it used to, I'm sure. But in the heat of battle, nasty things are still yelled from the dugouts.
Rich: I really like your format, starting each chapter off with a quote and then sharing your research with the readers over the next few pages. As always, I think the sidebars add a nice touch, too. All in all, it’s a fun read, a book that one can pick up and begin reading any chapter in any order.
Rob: Thanks. I wish I knew how to write a different sort of book, but I'm glad you enjoy this sort.
Rich: Let's do a lightning round that we will fittingly call Truth or Lie? If it goes well, we'll take it on the road in the hope that FOX will pick it up as its next big hit.
Rob: I'm pretty sure ESPN wouldn't like that. But okay, let’s roll...
Rich: Truth or Lie? You're a blogger now.
Rob: Oh, that's a scary thought. But, yeah. Hard to deny it.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You blog in your boxers in the basement of your parents' home?
Rob: Lie. I wear pajamas. And Mom kicked me out last month.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You only wear flannel shirts?
Rob: Truth. And man, are they itchy. Which is one of the reasons I'm so cranky in my chats.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You have written more words on ESPN.com than anybody?
Rob: Truth, as far as I know. But Henry Abbott's closing the gap fast.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You recently broke the all-time record for the longest chat on ESPN?
Rob: Truth. Twelve hours and one minute. Let's see the Sports Guy top that!
Rich: Truth or Lie? You broke the record working on next-to-no sleep?
Rob: Unfortunately, that's also the truth. I worked until midnight the night before, was up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight, got maybe fifteen minutes of sleep on the plane, and got home with exactly seven minutes to spare before the chat started. And would you believe that after the chat ended, I wrote a blog entry? It really wasn't that bad, except for a 20- or 30-minute spell, maybe seven hours in, when I was hallucinating and it seemed like all the questions were about Derek Jeter's Gold Glove-quality defensive work.
Rich: Truth or Lie? Your wife thinks you are crazy?
Rob: She's not the only one.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You're a card-carrying member of the Baseball Writers Association of America?
Rob: Ha. You know the answer to that one.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You stay up at night hoping, praying, and worrying about the results of the next BBWAA election?
Rob: Truth. Here's another: When I get my BBWAA card I'm retiring the next day, having achieved all that one may achieve in my chosen profession.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You didn't pay any attention to the Final Four this year?
Rob: Lie. I hung on every minute, having been a manic Kansas fan since 1984 when I decided that's where I wanted to go to school. And as a fan of the Royals and the Minnesota Vikings, one of my teams hasn't won a championship since these same Jayhawks won exactly 20 years ago. And as I've said when friends have congratulated me on this year's title, "Thanks. I kicked ass on my couch."
Rich: Truth or Lie? You're a vegetarian?
Rob: Truth. Unless my fondness for Tofurkey disqualifies me.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You're No. 1 hobby is birdwatching?
Rob: If I were to retire tomorrow, I would bird full-time and baseball would be my No. 1 hobby.
Rich: Truth or Lie? You went birding in Los Angeles?
Rob: Truth. Picked up a lifer (Red Knot) just a few miles north of LAX, too.
Rich: And you thought you could only find birds in Portland and Baltimore!
Rob: And St. Louis.
Rich: Ahh, I thought those Cardinals were a religious reference.
Rob: They were, originally. But in 1893 a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment swept across a great swath of the middle Midwest, and the team adopted the color red as its official mascot. In 1894, having realized how stupid it was to have a color as their mascot, management switched to the bird we've known and loved ever since.
Rich: My goodness, you are a treasure chest of baseball knowledge. A walking and talking baseball encyclopedia. No wonder I love your columns and books so much. Thanks, Rob, for taking the time to share your Big Book of Baseball Legends with us.
Rob: My pleasure, Rich, and thanks for letting me hang with you for a while.