Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bill Deane Sets the Record Straight

Bill Deane is a baseball crusader, always has been and always will be. In the mold of Bill James, he takes nothing for granted just because some expert or eyewitness said it's the case, or because it has been an accepted truth for a century or more, or because so many people have repeated a story that the general public believes it must have happened. For more than two decades, he has been trying to separate truth from myth in the murky realm of baseball history. He happens to be excellent at what he does--unflinching analysis based on comprehensive, dogged research. The result is his long-awaited and fascinating new book, Baseball Myths: Debating, Debunking, and Disproving Tales From the Diamond (Scarecrow Press).

Deane divides his book into five sections--Baseball's Infancy, The Truth About Ruth, The Lively Ball Era, Timeless Myths, and The Expansion Era--covering 91 issues, starting with the biggest myth of all, that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, a piece of hokum long since discredited, though announcers occasionally slip up and Commissioner Selig stubbornly clings to it. The final myth here is the current wisdom that shorter fences have aided current home run hitters, a notion he refutes by showing that home run distances have hardly changed since the 1960s. In between, he tackles everything you ever thought might be questionable, and plenty of things you thought were etched in stone.

In countless hours spent digging through microfilm and primary sources, Deane has compiled mountains of evidence both statistical and anecdotal, which he filters through a common sense approach to history. Is 90 feet between bases the "perfection" Red Smith and others claim it is? No, he says. Softball players do just fine with 65 feet to traverse, and if the bases were 85 feet apart it wouldn't result in every ground ball being a base hit because infielders would play in closer and have shorter throws. Was Joe DiMaggio one of the best center fielders ever? How could he be, Deane claims, when he wasn't even the best fielder in his own family? That's what the numbers tell us. Did Sandy Koufax suddenly learn how to pitch in time to put together as dominant a five-year stretch as any pitcher? No, what happened was that his team moved to the most pitcher-friendly ballpark of his era at the same time that the strike zone was expanded, turning the same stuff he'd been throwing all along from borderline effective to unhittable.

Many of Deane's puncturings are simple matters of whether something happened or didn't. Here are some of the ones that didn't: Ty Cobb didn't psyche Joe Jackson out of a batting title; Charles Comiskey didn't gyp Eddie Cicotte out of a bonus for a 30-win season; Harry Frazee didn't sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees to finance "No, No, Nanette"; Enos Slaughter did not score from first base on a single to win the 1946 World Series; and Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs never had an asterisk attached to it.

Other suppositions take more analysis to dissect, for instance the popular belief that "The Catch" made by Willie Mays in the 1954 was on a 480-foot drive by Vic Wertz in the Polo Grounds. Deane makes a persuasive case that the ball traveled no more than 425 feet, quite a discrepancy. Was Ted Simmons, whose record for career hits by a catcher was only recently surpassed by Ivan Rodriguez, quickly eliminated from the Hall of Fame ballot because he was a lousy defender? Take a look at the evidence presented here and you'll be hard-pressed to think that he hasn't been screwed. How about today's controversy about the dangers of headfirst slides? I'm not sure that Deane needed to detail every one of the dozens of serious injuries suffered by runners attempting conventional slides, but it's impossible to argue with his conclusion. In fact, it's difficult to challenge any of his conclusions; that's the point of this definitive book. For the record, I only dispute one out of 91 (his assertion that the Yankees really didn't get the best of the Kansas City Athletics in their numerous trades in the 1950s).

Do you think the Honus Wagner T-206 baseball cards is worth millions because of Wagner's opposition to tobacco? Do you buy the accepted scenario that umpires devised hand signals to accommodate Dummy Hoy, the deaf-dumb star of the 1890s? Do you accept that Curt Flood "pioneered" free agency by filing a lawsuit challenging the reserve clause? Was Fidel Castro a major league prospect? Was Jackie Robinson the first black player in the major leagues? Think twice. Not one of those popular beliefs is true.

One of Deane's favorite subjects will serve here as the rationale for why this book is so necessary. Most of these subjects are of interest to all baseball fans--casual, impassioned, biased, and expert alike. There are things we want to believe about baseball that simply are not true, no matter how many people tell us otherwise. Isn't it great that writers and broadcasters are in the Hall of Fame? Or aren't they? They add so much to our enjoyment and appreciation of baseball and its history, surely they must be Hall of Famers. Why else would there be the writers' and broadcasters' wings at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown? We've all heard announcers call each other Hall of Famers for winning the annual Frick Award, and writers do the same thing, so it must be true, right? Well, it isn't. There are no such wings and there never have been. This myth is perpetuated by announcers who hope that they might be call Hall of Famers someday if they win that award. But it's just an award, not enshrinement. Deane tackles this myth head-on here, as he has been doing in person for many years. He recounts one Spink Award winner asking him where his plaque was. He even notes my experience with fighting this myth on pages 112-113. Once and for all, there are no wings, and nobody has ever been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame for being a broadcaster. But don't take my word for it. Take the word of Bill Deane, who has gone to the trouble of determining the inventor of the hotdog, the originator of the designated hitter, the driver in Billy Martin's fatal car crash, and so much more. His new book has something for everyone--if you can handle the truth.

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