King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Rob Neyer's latest "Big Book" debunks some baseball legends and confirms a few, all without spoiling the fun.

By King Kaufman
Published April 16, 2008 2:00PM (UTC)
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So I'm sitting in the Hard Knox Cafe on Potrero Avenue in San Francisco Tuesday with Emperor Norton and Babe Ruth, and we're talking about "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends," the third in the ESPN baseball writer's "Big Book" series, following "Lineups" and "Blunders."

Everybody at the table but me has some pretty good tales to tell, of course. I keep hoping for an opening to drop in my story about meeting James Brown at the Salt Lake airport, but it's just not happening. The Emp's got a million of 'em about eating for free and printing his own money in the Gold Rush days, Ruth has them about speakeasies and dames and hitting adjectival home runs off of indelicacy pitchers who shot their Anglo-Saxon mouths off.

The stories are all good, some of them too good to believe.

That's what Neyer's book is like too. He collects and retells about 75 baseball stories, legends, myths and tall tales, then does some detective work, often through the miraculous, to try to figure out if the stories are true or not.

"This book," he writes, "isn't for everybody. Seriously." If you really want to believe that the Babe called his shot and Tommy Lasorda had a hilarious conversation with God in his last pitching performance, which ended on a crazy triple play, well, I don't want to give everything away, but this book might not be for you.

Neyer writes that he didn't set out to debunk these great stories, necessarily, "but when you pile some literal truth on top of the truthiness? Delicious as frosting on a sugar cookie."

Full disclosure: Neyer and I are friendly e-mail acquaintances.

"I like what Bill James wrote in the foreword," Emperor Norton is saying as his dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, dance the Macarena together.

"Referring to the 'explosion of knowledge' the Internet has put at our fingertips, he writes, 'It's a little sad. Paper-thin lies, once protected by layers of darkness, are now transparent in the glare. We know now that it wasn't Mickey Mantle in the batter's box, it was Roger Repoz, and it wasn't the ninth inning, it was the fourth, and the bases weren't loaded, and the score wasn't tied, and the frog did not become a prince."

It's true. Here are all these terrific stories -- really? Thurmon Munson dropped three straight third strikes one day so he could throw to first base and pass his rival, Carlton Fisk, as the assists leader among catchers? -- and here's Neyer combing through box scores and saying that while something might have happened, that didn't.

Still, like Neyer's previous two "Big Books," it's great bathroom reading, which regular readers know is high praise in this space. The stories are all short enough to be enjoyed in a single sitting, if you follow.

And, as Neyer suggests, if you're not feeling skeptical you can skip the debunking and just enjoy the tales. It's easy to bail out when Neyer starts the investigation, though in that case you'll miss the author happily finding out that this story or that one is at least largely the truth.

I'll ruin only one for you, the first story in the book, a humdinger about the great eccentric pitcher Rube Waddell, who was playing for the Philadelphia A's in 1903 when he hit a long foul ball over the right-field bleachers in Boston. According to a story that appeared in the Aug. 12, 1903, Philadelphia North American, the ball landed on the roof of a nearby bean factory, starting a chain of events that resulted in a steam cauldron exploding, showering the bleacher denizens with scalding beans.

Neyer writes that the story was repeated as fact as recently as 1993 in the well-regarded "Diamonds," a history of ballparks by Michael Gershman. But it turns out none of the Boston newspapers, of which there were many in 1903, wrote about the bean explosion. Wouldn't the blats have mentioned a ton of beans dousing the crowd at an otherwise ordinary August baseball game?

They would have, but it never happened. The original story was written by Charles Dryden, who was well known at the time as a humorist. The whole thing was a joke.

Ruth, as you might expect, is the subject of several tales, including one in which he beat the tar out of his young roommate for stealing his watch when the Babe was drunk. The roomie was a cocky, light-hitting shortstop who was the only guy on the team who could put up with Ruth's carousing and personal habits, which involved a lot of farting. His name was Leo Durocher.

"Oh, it happened, kid," the Bambino is saying as we all tuck into our fried chicken. At least I think that's what he said. Emperor Norton was using his sword to diagram how he'd invented the Bay Bridge in 1872.

Maybe it did and maybe it didn't. The beatdown supposedly took place in a hotel room, so it's not the kind of thing that can be looked up on Retrosheet, but even if it could, would it matter? It's a hell of a tale, two larger-than-life characters squaring off -- or not -- at different stages of their legendary lives.

So it was Roger Repoz at the plate and not Mantle, and so it was the fourth inning and 1-0 and April and not the 13th inning and 18-17 and September. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

We tell and listen to stories because they say things to us. Sometimes they say things about their subjects, sometimes about their tellers. If Leo Durocher didn't really help himself to Babe Ruth's watch after helping the drunken slugger into bed one too many times, well, he was a guy who would have done that, wasn't he? And if the Babe hadn't knocked the stuffing out of him over it, he would have, right?

And more important, these stories remind us that we know things like this about guys like that. They tie us to all the other baseball stories, and all the people who tell them and listen to them. Details aside, they're all about the same thing, about being part of a crowd that cares about the same thing. Because you're not getting past the table of contents if you're not part of that crowd, the crowd that cares about baseball.

It's fun to tag along with Neyer as he plays detective in the pages of his "Big Book of Baseball Legends," mostly because of his breezy, conversational style and considerable wit. And it occurs to me as the Babe and the Emp lead a rousing chorus of "Oh, Clementine," arm in arm atop the Hard Knox Cafe bar, that I disagree with Bill James. All this accuracy isn't sad. The details are fun, and ultimately the details don't matter.

I'm sure you noticed something improbable in my own story about lunch with Babe Ruth and Emperor Norton. You caught me, didn't you?

The Hard Knox Cafe's on Third Street, not Potrero Avenue.

Previous column: When the going gets good, the good turn pro

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    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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