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It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book Paperback – February 26, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
From the authors of the popular statistical analysis site BaseballProspectus.com comes a rare bird, a sports book that's both thoughtfully written and brimming with drama. Dissecting 13 of the most compelling, down-to-the-wire pennant races in baseball history, from the 1908 National League to the 2003 National League Central, the authors first use flowing, novelistic prose to detail what happened, and then their own statistical formulae to illuminate why the race ended as it did. Regular readers of Baseball Prospectus will find some of this book repetitive, such as lengthy comparisons between teams from different eras, but there is much here for fans of all interest levels. One chapter examines the development of the modern farm system, while another illustrates how failure to integrate crippled some franchises for decades. Along the way, myths are debunked (infamous goat Fred Merkle gets acquitted, having been victimized by the inconsistent umpiring common in the early 1900s) and legends are re-examined (would Bobby Thompson have hit his "Shot Heard Round the World" if Dodger manager Charlie Dressen hadn't been in "a kind of fugue state throughout that ninth inning"?). With clear prose and surprising wit, this book is a perfect end-of-summer read for fans.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
If you are a baseball fan, there's a high probability you are a nerd for statistics. You may even know about baseballprospectus.com, a stats site in which irreverent humor exists in perfect harmony with sometimes impossibly complex mathematical formulas. For those who don't know the site, here's the perfect introduction: a statistical analysis of the 10 greatest pennant races in baseball history, as determined by the Davenport method. Along with the statistics behind the selections, the contributors identify the key players on each team, set the context (on the way up or down), and describe the key moments in each pennant race. More importantly, they provide reasons for the surges and/or the collapses. Included are the Philadelphia Phillies collapse in 1964, the Boston Red Sox miracle in 1967, and the Detroit Tigers half-game victory over the Red Sox in 1972. Baseball Prospectus is a popular brand name, and this may be its most easily accessible book for the casual fan. And since it's examining the past rather than predicting the future, it has a long, long shelf life. Don't miss it. Lukowsky, Wes
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Yes, but do you have a good book? In spots, yes, very much so. In others, less so.
There are all sorts of books on pennant races out there. The idea is to provide some perspective and new information, possibly through statistics.
For example, editor Steve Goldman points out that the Yankees gave the Indians an opening in 1948 when they weren't quite as good as usual, and Cleveland marched through the gap to a pennant. A reason was that the Indians were willing to add African-American talent, thus briefly closing the talent gap between them and the Yankees. Of course, New York compensated within a year.
For example, Clifford Corcoran writes about the 1964 pennant race, and shows just how good Dick Allen was that year. Allen even turned it up a couple of notches during the Phillies' famous collapse. (By the way, Allen Barra writes a spirited essay on Allen's status as one of the most underrated and misunderstood players in baseball history -- it's a little over the top, but interesting.)
The essay on the demise of the Yankees in the 1970's/80's was particularly interesting. Goldman uses Otto Velez as an example of a young player who should have been a star but was always the odd man out because he was young. As a result, he got shuffled around eventually lost to Toronto, letting some potential go unfilled. The Yankees' drafting record is none too good in that era.
Other chapters aren't quite as interesting. For example, Alex Belth delivers a straight-forward review of the 1973 National League season, won by the Mets at 82-79 -- the worst championship season to date, relatively speaking. It's more history than analysis, if you understand my idea at the difference -- not badly done by any means, but not what I'm looking for in a book like this.
In addition, some of the essays are heavily into charts and statistics. There are some valid points to be made here, such as one that points out how attendance drops after September 1 although the decline has been slowed with the introduction of wild-cards. Still, some might not wade through a graph that has "percentage of games with TPRI of 3 Percent of Higher."
This gets something of a split decision, then. For those familiar with Baseball Prospectus (a worthwhile purchase every spring for big baseball fans), "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over" works pretty well with some good analysis and insights. For those who aren't, readers might get a little bogged down in some unfamiliar stats or too-familiar history in spots.
The book is dedicated to "Branch Rickey, our spiritual father." Mr. Rickey created the farm system, forged three championship teams (the Cardinals of the 30's, the Dodgers of the late 40's/early 50's and the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates), and of course, integrated Major League Baseball by signing Jackie Robinson.
The book describes the greatest 14 pennant races over 13 different chapters (the 1948 & '49 AL are combined). The criteria that the authors used to determine the greatest pennant races is outlined in the introduction, but can be simply reduced to (1) "the longer a race remains undecided, the better a race is" and (2) "a three-team race is better than a two-team race."
The 1967 season bats lead-off. Jay Jaffe goes into great detail about how Yaz and the Red Sox won a four-team race and breathed life into a new generation of Red Sox fans. This season was the founding of the modern Red Sox franchise and its rabid followers.
There are a number of articles at the end of each chapter. There is a fascinating bit about "The Braves Dynasty That Wasn't." It laments the fact that the Milwaukee Braves only won one title in the late 50's, despite having Aaron, Mathews, Spahn, Burdette, Adcock and Logan (part of the problem was a couple of terrible trades).
Steve Goldman, a historian turned baseball writer (who also writes on-line for and about the Yankees), has two outstanding chapters on the 48-49 AL and the 1908 NL races.
The collapse of the 1964 Phillies gets a chapter. Dick Allen is redeemed (he hit .341/.434/.618 from September 1 on) and Gene Mauch is eviscerated for his handling of the pitching staff.
There is an outstanding chapter about The Shot Heard Round the World (`51 NL), in which Mr. Rickey's team lost to the Giants (and the Dodgers old manager, Leo Durocher) in a three-game playoff. Mr. Rickey's 1934 triumph, the Dizzy Dean Gas-House Gang Cardinals, also gets a chapter.
It's an excellent baseball book. It is reasoned and well presented. It's not a dry book; the seasons spring to life in flowing narratives that are enhanced by BP's statistical analysis.
I think the book also suffers from confusion about whether it is aimed at the serious baseball fan or the casual fan. There's a lot of advanced baseball analysis terminology and numerology in the book that is familiar to the perhaps 200,000 people who are fascinated by sabermetrics. But the authors want to cast a wider net, so they spend a fair amount of time explaining these concepts to the newcomers in the audience. Trying to serve two audiences weakens the flow for those of us who already are on the bandwagon.
Yet, the book has significant strengths. The stories of how certain teams were built and reached their pinnacle during a particular pennant race (or staved off collapse for one more year) are frequently compelling. In fact, they're stronger than the data and statistics, which is usually BP's strength. I'm not a softie for the stories about a particular player's "manhood" or "ability to play in pain" or whatever, but this book highlights those achievements without being hyperbolic about it.
In conclusion, it's a decent addition to my baseball library, but far from a grand slam.