April 2, 2013
Every sport has its oddities. There are the football players who ran the wrong way, scoring a touchdown for the opposing team. There is the legend of Rosie Ruiz, the pseudo-marathon runner who tried to win the New York City Marathon by hopping a ride on the Subway, then attempted a similar trick in Boston. But baseball seems to wear the green jacket in the winner's circle (to shamelessly mix our sports metaphors) for generating an abundance of misconceptions and mythology. The National Pastime is filled with reports of relief pitchers who won a game without ever actually throwing a pitch, or of three baserunners -- one of whom just hit a triple -- all holding up on third. Of course, some of the best stories are true: in 2008 second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera of the Cleveland Indians executed a rare unassisted triple play, then (really!) tossed the history-making ball into the stands. But often the tales are hatched and circulate for years, like the pre-1915 home run that only flew 65 feet before landing in an umpire's pile of baseballs, indistinguishable from the balls not in play, while batter Grover Land circled the bases. Neat story, but it never happened.
To set the record straight (and probably to settle some long-standing arguments) there is now a book called "Baseball Myths: Debating, Debunking and Disproving Tales From the Diamond." It was written by Bill Deane, author of six books, former senior research associate at the Baseball Hall of Fame and former managing editor of Total Baseball. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and is the recipient of several SABR awards. He lives in Cooperstown, where baseball wasn't invented. Indeed, Deane opens "Baseball Myths" by clearing away the misinformation about baseball originating in one small village on Otsego Lake and tells about the mistakes, egoism and general confusion that led to the Baseball Hall of Fame settling in Cooperstown, an honor the community has respected since 1939. The game of Base Ball evolved over several centuries and the reference library at the Hall of Fame is an excellent resource for tracing that evolution and the recent history of the game.
Having a feel for the folklore is as important as knowing where to start tracking down the truth. For instance, in "Baseball Myths" Deane takes on the claim that the 1927 New York Yankees team was so powerful that a World Series practice session at the Pittsburgh Pirates ballpark just psyched out the home team so badly that the Pirates never had a chance. In fact, Deane points out, although the Yankees won the Series the record shows they did so with just a one-run edge in two games. The great 1927 Yankees (and it was a great team) sparked by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, was the same squad that had lost the Series a year earler. The '27 Pirates were likely just fatigued. And then there's the report that Ted Williams almost lost out on finishing his 1941 season with the Boston Red Sox with a .400 batting average, risking a record that still stands by playing in the last game of the season. Deane's close scrutiny of the statistics -- down to a potential .4004 had Williams struck out -- proves that "there was no real gallantry or risk in what he did on the season's final day."
Babe Ruth receives an entire chapter, including an investigation into whether the Sultan of Swat really stepped up to the plate and pointed to the spot where, a few seconds later, he would smash another mighty home run. Deane consults both written accounts, still photography and motion picture footage and no fewer than twenty-five quotes to arrive at something of a conclusion.
Bill Deane joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to review some of the most notable myths and to share stories, true or dubious, with listeners. To join in the discussion call during the live 1:00 PM broadcast to 888/359-9754 or e-mail OffThePage@WSKG.ORG.