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Very Entertaining Read -- Probably Neyer's Best Book
on March 29, 2008
This is the third of Neyer's "Big Books" and, I think, the best. (His Big Book of Baseball Lineups and Big Book of Baseball Blunders are also quite good - as is his lesser known Feeding the Green Monster; The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers is his one clinker.) In this book, he takes a large number of baseball "legends" and discusses whether or not they are true. I put legends in quotation marks because, although he includes an account of whether Babe Ruth really called that home run during the 1932 World Series and a few other famous incidents, most of the entries are really more stories than legends. Many are from autobiographies, newspaper or magazine stories, or sometimes just casual remarks made by television or radio play-by-play announcers. I really like Neyer's approach. Rather than just tell us what someone claims Bob Feller or Willie McCovey or Bob Gibson said or did, and then give us a quick summary of the results of his research - which would have resulted in a pretty short book - he takes several pages to relate what information is available to check the story, the blind alleys he went up, and the different approaches he took to confirm or refute the story. This more leisurely approach gives the reader a good feel for the variety of sources that exist for doing research on the history of baseball and also provides more context for each story - most of which are really not about earthshaking events. As it turns out, most of the stories he checks were at least roughly true, with only a relatively few apparently having been made up out of whole cloth.
One caveat: like many books of this sort, this one is best read a few entries at a time spread out over a couple of weeks, rather than in one sitting. Finally, I found his discussion of Lawrence Ritter's oral history of early twentieth century baseball, The Glory of Their Times, to be particularly interesting. Although Ritter claimed that his book reproduced his interviews with baseball's early stars with very little editing, in fact, after comparing the book to CDs of the interviews Neyer finds that Ritter did substantial rewriting. Although Neyer argues that on balance Ritter's improving the old players' reminiscences was acceptable, I think it raises some interesting questions about the distinctions between a "good story" and a "true story" - which, I suppose, is the distinction that lies at the heart of Neyer's book.