From the Editor's Vault...: September 12, 2008
Richard Lally Spends Five Minutes With...Rob Neyer and
It is disconcerting, really. Rob Neyer has been providing probing baseball analysis through his columns, books and media appearances for all this time, and yet he still manages to look so young while staying so busy. Rob writes a thoughtful, popular blog for ESPN.com, appears regularly with Bob Valvano on ESPN Radio, and, as he puts it, he is usually “…on the radio somewhere -- including ESPN Radio during the week, usually late Thursday -- just about every dang day (at least from March through October).” He is the author or co-author of six books that belong in the library of every baseball fan: “Baseball Dynasties” with Eddie Epstein (W.W.Norton), “Feeding the Green Monster” (Grand Central Books), “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitcher” with Bill James (Fireside), “Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups”(Fireside), “Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders” (Fireside), and the latest edition in the series, “Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends”(Fireside). Our editor-in-chief, Richard Lally, recently sat down and chatted with Rob (all right, they both sat down at their computers and exchanged emails) about his latest book.
RL: The first element that drew me to “The Big Book of Baseball Legends” was the Table of Contents. Just one look and I could that you had stayed away from the "Usual Suspect" grab bag of baseball myths, that you were going for something deeper. What were your criteria when you assembled your list of candidates?
Rob Neyer: I did want to avoid the "usual suspects," and in fact I had to be dragged kicking and screaming -- well, not screaming, because I am eager to please -- to the Babe\'s Called Shot. Even that one, though, I would not have done if I hadn\'t been able to come up with a somewhat original angle on the story. I had two basic criteria when whittling down the stories that would be in the book. One, a story had to be well-told, the more vivid and colorful the better. And two, I had to be able to check out the story\'s particulars. A Bonus Criterion: Ideally, a story could somehow be connected to an important piece of the game\'s history (I would guess this is true of roughly half the stories in the book).
RL: What did you learn while researching the book that surprised you the most?
Rob Neyer:I had never quite understood what makes The Glory of Their Times such an incredible book. After all, there are now dozens of other books just like it, superficially at least. But what I discovered, when comparing the material in the book to the raw audio interviews, is that Larry Ritter brilliantly edited, shaped, and --here\'s the somewhat surprising part -- significantly enhanced what those old ballplayers told him. The players were fine storytellers, to be sure, but without Ritter\'s help it would have been just another baseball book (if the first of its kind).
RL: I enjoyed the "through line" I see leading from your career to this book. You\'ve used statistical analysis to eviscerate many of baseball\'s sacred cows, the various myths that are accepted as dogma even by people working within the sport. In this book, as with all your work, you\'re getting at something much deeper than may at first be obvious: the genesis of myth and how it hardens into fact. What intrigues you about that dynamic?
Rob Neyer: Well, if there\'s one thing that most humans are sure about, it\'s their memories ... Which makes it all the more interesting to realize that our memories are constantly failing us, even before we hit our twilight years. That said, if there\'s a "through-line" in my career, it\'s probably that I\'m most interested in the things I don\'t know. In fiction, the hoary old advice is to "write what you know." But I\'m not so interested in the things I know. I like to write about the things I want to know. I wanted to know what it would be like to spend a season at Fenway Park, so I wrote a book about it. I really wanted to know who was the best-fielding shortstop in Phillies history was, and who was the Yankees\' greatest rookie shortstop. So I wrote a book about that. With my latest, I simply wanted some idea of how many baseball stories actually happened as they\'re told. So I found out.
RL: Do you have a favorite story among the collection and can you you explain why it appealed to you?
Rob Neyer: Gosh, that would be like asking George Foreman to choose his favorite son ... One story that I particular enjoyed writing is the one about William "Buck" Lai, who way back in 1928 came very close to becoming the first Asian-American player in major-league history. Lai, born in Hawaii and the son of Chinese immigrants, seems to have been on the Giant\'s active roster for a few days early in the \'28 season, but didn\'t get into a game before being shipped back to the minors. And his pro career ended shortly afterward. Until running across a vague mention of Lai in a 1945 issue of Baseball Digest, I\'d never heard of the guy. Even with all the work that\'s been done by baseball researchers, especially in the last 20 or 30 years, there\'s still an amazing amount of stuff still worth finding.
RL:And what did you find out about the way baseball creates and embraces myth? I know you\'re familiar with the line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Is there an element of that in baseball, and, if so, why?
Rob Neyer: Sure, and for a simple reason. Actually, two simple reasons. One, a lot of stories are more fun without all those pesky "facts". And two, most stories are repeated in good faith; the storyteller simply doesn\'t have time, or care enough, to find out what really happened. I\'ve written many, many things over the years that weren\'t 100 percent true. Not because I wanted to perpetuate a falsehood, but because at that moment I felt it was more important to finish whatever I was doing than to make sure I had all my facts straight. (By the way, this is less true in my books than in my other work, where I always feel like I\'m under the gun.)
RL: You allowed Scribbly Tate to make an appearance in "Lou Gehrig and the Imposter," a story that brought out the David Lynch in you. I\'ve read several blogs by readers who took the account seriously. A writer on Amazon wrote that he found the story "disturbing." Are you surprised that not everyone got the obvious joke?
Rob Neyer: Not at all. There will always be someone who doesn\'t get the joke. How many people were fooled by Sidd Finch? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands?
RL: Do you realize that Tate and that story may make it into some writer\'s own book of baseball myths 50 years from now?
Rob Neyer: I sure hope so.
RL: Once upon a time, you worked for Bill James. How did your background prepare you for this book?
Rob Neyer: Working for Bill more than prepared me for this book; it primed me, as I\'ve wanted to work on more "tracers" ever since the first one, all the way back in 1990. Less directly, spending so much time around Bill -- both literally and figuratively -- heightened my curiosity and my skepticism, both necessary impulses when plowing through all the old stories and legends.
RL: Sources are the key to a book like this. Which were your "go-to sources" and how many different sources did you need to confirm a version of a story? After all, one reason that a story attains myth status is that it gets repeated by so many "reliable" sources.
Rob Neyer: The facts are out there if anyone cares to look for them. I spent a great deal of time with Retrosheet, and the New York Times archives. Also, I ordered a number of player game logs from the Hall of Fame, for "pre-Retrosheet" era seasons. Not always, but usually finding the truth was relatively easy. The hard part was shaping the information into some sort of concise narrative.
RL: We\'re both movie fans so we appreciate "out takes." Which stories didn\'t quite make the cut, the ones you debated about using until you finally put this to bed? And were their any stories you would have included if only you had gotten the confirmation you needed?
Rob Neyer: Not many, but I did compile five or six wonderful stories about (and usually told by) longtime American League umpire Billy Evans. He was quite a famous figure for a number of decades, though of course he\'s now been forgotten. The problem with Evans\' stories, from my perspective, is that many of them just weren\'t verifiable, or at least not via the sources I had at hand. But someday someone\'s going to write a good book about him.
RL: I detect a fascination with John Berardino? Besides his career as a B-movie actor and soap opera star, what led you to devote so much space to him?
Rob Neyer: Actually, it wasn\'t so much my fascination with Berardino/Beradino. What really happened was, before writing Legends I spent a great deal of time researching Bob Feller\'s 1946 barnstorming tour, and found a great deal of information that nobody has previously published. My ambition was to write a book about the tour, but I just couldn\'t figure how to make that work. One of the results of all that research, though, was the story about Berardino. And putting it in the book was just a way to make me feel better about all that research I\'d done, most of which will never see the light of day.
RL: What did working on this book teach you about baseball that you didn\'t know before?
Rob Neyer: To be very, very, very leery about every story every old baseball player has ever told.
You can access Mr. Neyer’s blog and order “The Big Book of Baseball Legends” or his other books by clicking this link: Rob Neyer Website