Mythifying Tom: Tom Boswell and the Creation of Myth

June 25, 2016

As requested in the "comments" section here, I’m pleased to present the very first chapter of my 1992 manuscript Myths of Baseball, entitled "Mythifying Tom: Tom Boswell and the Creation of Myth," which I used as one of three sample chapters in my original proposal to publishers. (The story behind my giving up on this project after I had written several hundred pages is complicated and interesting only to me, perhaps, and to others interested in the worlds of publishing and academe, which sometimes collide. This was quite a collision of worlds, and the remnants of the manuscript represent a survivor of this fatal explosion.) Because I was showing it off as a sample of my proposed book, this chapter was relatively polished, and I’m presenting it here in only lightly edited form.


Cleaning it up, as opposed to changing any of its content, however, was a bear. Suffice to say, the computer I typed it on in 1990 and 1991 was massively incompatible with contemporary technology, so most of the last few weeks have been taken up with getting it in a form that BJOL can use. It probably would have been quicker to retype all 43 pages of this chapter by hand, but now I think I can use the same techniques to make other, less polished chapters, accessible.


Some quick prefatory comments: I’m amuzed (and amased) by how closely my tone here tries at times to replicate Bill’s belligerent sarcasm of the 1980s Abstracts, which attitude he has mostly abandoned in recent years—clearly, Bill’s style was my great inspiration. (Since I was also trying to write a serious academic book, suitable for getting me tenure, though, sometimes the tone here gets a little rarefied. I never wrote out the MLA-style notes, but I have left the in-text page citations for your convenience, if you own any of Boswell’s books in paperback.) It’s also somewhat noteworthy that I needed to explain some things that now are colossally obvious, thanks to Bill’s efforts, or taken for granted: much of this essay is devoted to explaining such concepts as "Stolen bases have an unseen downside in the form of ‘caught stealings’," and to debunking obsolete stats such as the crude "Total Average" stat that Tom Boswell invented in the 1980s.


So think of this as an historical document—in the second paragraph, you may be amused to find me boasting of my great pleasure in having available, at long last, "videotape" on which I can review broadcasted games. Sadly, I still own these videotapes, now deteriorating in my linen closet, and I plan to re-watch these games from the 1980s, that I recorded on my first VCR, as soon as I retire with absolutely nothing better to do with my time or after I die, whichever comes first.

It’s also funny (and sad) to me to read passages in which I speak of tediously adding or subtracting various sums, sometimes in my head, other times on the solar calculator I refer to, using the state-of-the-art technology of the early 1990s, printed versions of the Baseball Encyclopedia. I’m not particularly skilled at arithmetic, so I apologize in advance if I’ve miscalculated anywhere—I tried to be careful, but I have not re-calculated any of the numbers I used here with current technology that now allows me to push a few buttons on baseball-reference.com and calculate, for example, Reggie Jackson’s HR total for his first 14 seasons in about a second and a half with complete accuracy.

There are a few spots that I’ve left intact in which I see that I actually got taken in by Boswell’s rhetoric: at one point, he very inaccurately opines on the contemporary (1980s) players who he thinks will certainly be elected to the Hall of Fame, which I took (correctly) to be a very conservative opinion. I criticized the conservativism of his judgment, but I did not notice that he included in his very short list of sure-shot Hall of Famers one guy who still hasn’t been elected, and may not be in my lifetime, Dale Murphy. Everything after this point comes from the first chapter of Myths of Baseball:

As our national pastime, baseball lets us pass the time, diverting us from the hardships of our lives. Oddly enough, baseball is often compared to those very hardships, usually by middle-aged men as they wax philosophical, often as they are watching-- or broadcasting--a game on national TV. But to me the attractive part of baseball is that it is nothing like life, at least nothing like my life. Baseball is life made rational.

If your team scores more runs than mine then, by gum, your team will win, whether I like it or not. In life, cause and effect isn't nearly so clear. Life doesn't add up, not in the rational way that baseball does. In my life, I'm often puzzled by the reasons events have happened quite the way they have, and I long for some reliable record to make events fall into some recognizable pattern. In an ideal world, I suppose, I could summon up such records and see patterns I missed at first glance. In baseball, I have all the records anyone could ever want. And now I have videotape, too. I review games, I re-read accounts, and slowly I clear up my misunderstandings, see old patterns take on new shapes, become wiser as I get older. That's how I wish life was.

Not everyone admires rationality, of course. Most baseball fans, in fact, are what I would call irrational mythifiers. Instead of striving to remember better what they saw happening on the field, they invent new versions of what happened. New, improved versions they might say. Mythifying is fun. I think we all start out as mythifiers, because it helps make sense of complex events. Think back to your first understandings of any process--what your dad did for a living, how wheat seeds become supermarket loaves, anything-- and compare it with your understanding of the same thing now, and you'll see how over-simplified and how hopelessly naive it is. In baseball, the difference is that nothing forces you to abandon your early views. You can just spin more and more elaborate fantasies explaining how and why baseball events happen and, since no cares about your fantasies, you'll be safe from contradiction.

Unless you write a book. If you publish your baseball fantasies, I can tell you exactly where I disagree. That's what I'm doing here. I'm explaining where other writers have gone wrong, where they have fantasized in public. When little kids fantasize about hitting homeruns, for example, they might suppose that they can hit the ball five hundred feet. Why not? Announcers and writers assert batters can hit a ball that far.

One Chicago sportswriter fantasized in print that a certain ex-Cub boor could hit them 600 feet. Maybe some batters can hit a ball seven hundred feet, or two thousand. I really have no idea how far a human being can hit a ball. But the Physicist to the National League, appointed by Bart Giamatti, a rational physics professor named Adair (not Jerry--I think his name is Robert K. Adair), in The Physics of Baseball sets the outside limits in the real world at around five hundred fifty feet. A tailwind might push it another foot or three, but beyond that point, these two views--the mythified and the rational--come into irreconcilable conflict. I side with Adair, and I'd like to waste a few hours of your time, if that's all right with you, exposing other people's baseball myths and showing you how they conflict with reality.

 

Take a writer named Tom Boswell. He writes for the Washington Post, and according to the blurbs and other matter on his books, has won the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ prize for the best sports journalism. Newsday calls him "perhaps the best baseball writer around," and George Will likes him, and many people seem to admire his writing. I could quote his blurbs for quite a while-- apparently, Boswell's baseball writing is widely beloved, and widely available. The Penguin Sports Library (whose general editor, Dick Schaap, claims it reprints ''some of the finest books that have been written about sports") reprints his hardcover books, which in turn have reprinted his newspaper columns. His writing is stylish enough--it's certainly readable-- but I discovered something about him that none of these savants have noticed.

He's a mythifier.

Oh, he gets his facts right for the most part. That's what makes guys like Boswell so pernicious. Mostly, they're accurate, but when they come up with a whopper, a reader is likely-- because of all the preceding accuracy-- to say, "I didn't know that!" "That!" is what I'd like to show you. In the early 1980s, Boswell observed that pitchers who consistently win fifteen games or more per season are rare:

"Of baseball's active pitchers, how many have won 15 games for more than 5 seasons in a row?" Boswell asks rhetorically in How Life Imitates the World Series [191].

"Plenty, one would think, since the list of hitters who have amassed 20 home runs or 75 RBIs or .280 batting averages--or any other comparable middle­echelon statistic-- for 10 seasons in a row is as long as your arm.

"The answer is four--Gaylord Perry (12 straight years), Don Sutton (8), Tom Seaver (7), and Ferguson Jenkins (6)."

These stats are so skewed I hardly know where to begin. There's a small textual problem in Boswell's book, for starters, that makes it hard to figure out the exact year he wrote this passage, so it's hard to know which pitchers he considers ''active." (In this article Boswell refers to "Tommy John [and]...Randy Jones of New York," which city these two soft-tossers didn't play in until 1979 and 1981, respectively; but the four pitchers he names all had their streaks before the 1978 season, and Perry actually won 15 games for the 13th straight time in 1978, suggesting Boswell wrote the passage between 1977 and 1978.)

But whenever Boswell wrote those lines, there were more than four active pitchers who had won 15 games five years in a row: as of 1977, Mike Cuellar (6 straight years) and Catfish Hunter (7) must be added. If the list was made in 1978, Hunter stays on the list, and in 1979 Phil Niekro, Mike Torrez, and Steve Carlton join him. Hunter retired after the 1979 season, so the list stays at seven pitchers through 1981, when the strike hit and everyone's streaks of fifteen or more wins had to begin again.

But Boswell's failure to draw up a complete list only touches on the real problem here. Boswell claims, and most readers blindly accept, that winning 15 games is roughly equivalent to hitting 20 home runs or driving in 75 runs or batting .280. Where did Boswell get his figures? He just made ‘em up.

How do those batting stats compare to the figures Boswell gives for pitchers? If his argument is to hold any weight (or carry any water), the pool of .280 batters must roughly equal the pool of 15-game winners. Otherwise, we're comparing a truckload of oranges to a bushel of apples, and asking which one yields more juice. In 1980, 58 National League batters qualified for the batting championship; only 39 pitchers qualified for the earned run average title. So Boswell's pool of fulltime batters is almost 50% higher than his fulltime pitcher pool. No wonder he can find more people who bat .280 than win 15 games.

Okay, he's comparing a pool of 58 batters to 39 pitchers, and he's pretending there is an equal number of swimmers in each pool. (In 1990, that proportion was significantly higher, 62 qualifying batters to only 36 pitchers, but I'll stick with the 1980 stats since they're the figures Boswell probably was using.)  He's only started to skew his stats.

Of the 58 batters, 25 (or 46%) batted .280 or better. Of the 39 pitchers, only 8 (or 21%) in 1980 won at least fifteen games. So Boswell is actually comparing these eight pitchers to a group of 25 batters. And then he's coming out with the big shocker that the 25 batters are achieving statistical goals more consistently than the eight pitchers. This thesis gets filed under "W" for "Well, Duh!"

Boswell came up with the number fifteen, of course, because it is a high level of wins. It is by no means a "middle-echelon" level of success. Winning at least fifteen games for six or more years is a very big deal. How big? The National League's four big pitching stars in the pitching-rich 1960s were Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, and Juan Marichal. Using Boswell's standard, how many of these sure-shot Hall-Of-Famers do you suppose would have made his list, at any point in their careers? Two or three? Maybe all four?

Exactly zero. Check it out. None of those four superstars ever achieved Boswell's minimum standard for mediocrity.

To make equal-sized groups, Boswell would have had to lower his pitching standard below 12 wins a year (or raise his batting standard to around .303).  Either adjustment weakens his argument beyond absurdity.

Sixteen NL batters in 1980, by the way, hit 20 or more home runs, and 23 knocked in 75 or more runs. In all three examples--batting average, RBIs, and HRs-- Boswell has chosen statistical levels at least twice as hard to achieve as 15 wins, and then he marvels over pitchers' failure to achieve it.

One final shot before leaving this error-ridden passage (I count six errors in only eight lines of text): when Boswell says the list of people who have hit 20 or more home runs for 10 seasons in a row is as long as your arm, you don't imagine he's writing for an audience whose mothers were heavily dosed with thalidomide, do you? That's one very short arm he's writing about: among batters active in 1980, the list is only three names long-- Reggie Jackson, Lee May, and Willie Stargell. Homerun champs Dave Kingman and Carl Yastrzemski, with about 900 lifetime homers between them, don't make the grade, not even by adding together their longest streaks. And if Boswell means to compare only active pitchers to every batter since the 1800s, he's making another error of truckloads and bushels, a common error, one we'll be seeing other writers make.

Boswell is an entertainer. His stories all have a neat point. But sometimes to make his point seem neater than it is, he misuses numbers, or distorts baseball history, or uses misleading rhetoric. In short, he mythifies. I'm picking on him not because he's worse than other writers, but because he's better--that is, he writes so clearly, people can easily mistake his myths for the truth.

In his preface to Heart of the Order, Boswell explicitly-- and correctly-- states the Journalist's Credo: "'That's right' is what we're after, more than 'that's beautiful.'"  The beauty part ought to happen by accident, once in a while, but accuracy is what journalists aim for. Making orderly stories out of chaotic events is hard enough without worrying if you've found your quota of beauty in any given story. "In a sense," Boswell goes on, "a daily sportswriter is like one of those monkeys chained to a keyboard trying to write Shakespeare by accident. It's not a bad methodology for those prone to coffee and facts, rather than wine and imagination."

The question I'm asking here is why can't Boswell, and other writers, seek what they say their goal is: facts instead of imagination, "That's right" instead of "That's beautiful." Baseball writers tend to indulge themselves by creating myths whose factuality or rightness can't be checked, since their readers tend to expect and even to encourage such distortions. In sports, particularly baseball, there's a lot of talk that doesn't go anywhere. In a sense it's designed to go nowhere, because the participants are talking about two or more utterly separate subjects at the same time. Their arguments are proceeding from different premises. To a rhetorician, which I sometimes am, the effect is comical, but to a baseball fan, which I always am, it can be maddening.

At the very highest levels, the work of Tom Boswell, David Halberstam, Bill James, all writers I've admired, these rhetorical and argumentative errors sometimes creep in, and I'm going to show you where they do. I don't really want to spend much time dissecting the true dumbkopfs of the trade-- I'll do a few representative chain-yankers like Pete Franklin, Bill Starr, Joe Garagiola, later on, mostly for laughs-- but I want to concentrate on the respected and admirable writers who—mostly because they were once six years old and discussing baseball with great passion and limited information—occasionally revert to telling stories that are more simple and beautiful and mythical than they are true.

Part of this discussion is just Amateurism vs. Professionalism. Bill James said it harshly and well in his 1981 Abstract, [135] when, criticizing the first trickle of the statistics flood his own work has helped create, he noted that the time had long since come "for the amateurs to clear the floor."

He went on:

"If, like most of the nation's sportswriters, [Boswell] had never developed a single idea about how baseball games are won, if he had never done a half-hour's research to check his idea, then I would not be criticizing him. It would hardly seem wise or fair to single him out for criticism because he did have a single idea, and he did do a half-hour's research, give or take ten minutes."

James is one of the big boys, telling the little kids their time on the field is up.

Boswell, by Jamesian standards, is a nice enough little kid, certainly one of the cleverest younguns, but one who still has a lot of learning to do. Boswell has invented several statistical notions, chiefly the Big-Bang Theory of Baseball, and Total Average. James has poked a huge hole in Boswell's Big-Bang Theory. (Simply, it doesn't work, which many people consider a negative.) James views Boswell's concept of "Total Average" with the appropriate skepticism. In Boswell's defense, he isn't writing his columns for Bill James, he's writing them for all his readers, and they're obviously satisfied with what they read. But Boswell's readers are being satisfied with mythical nonsense written as though it made sense.

The Big Bang Theory of Baseball goes like this: in a ballgame, the winning team will score more runs in their biggest inning than the losing team will score in all their innings. That nugget of information surprises most fans, and it would be valuable to know--if it were true. But James has shown [1981 Abstract, 133] how it's false. Boswell made a crucial error--he used World Series games as his database (doubtless because Series linescores were easily accessible) and World Series games rely more on big innings than regular season games do. Also, shutouts are more common in the Series, and shutouts are by definition games in which the winners' biggest inning produces more runs than the losers' entire total. But as Boswell's readers looked over his column on the morning he revealed the Big-Bang Theory, they simply murmured, "I didn't know that!" And one of the reasons they didn't know that was because it's not so.

The Total Average problem is more of the same:

Each base is one step closer to home plate. Each out is a single step nearer the end of the inning. That's Total Average--a ratio between the bases a player accumulates for his team and the outs he costs his team.

To illustrate, take George Brett, the best Total Average player in baseball in 1980. Brett had 109 singles, 33 doubles, 9 triples, 24 home runs, 58 walks,15 stolen bases and was hit by 1 pitch. That comes to 372 bases. Thus, the heart of Total Average: All bases are created equal [my italics].

Calculating Brett's total out for 1980 is even easier. Subtract his hits (174) from his at-bats (449) and you get outs (274). Tack on the 6 times Brett was thrown out stealing and add 11 for the double plays he grounded into (since each cost his team an extra out.) Now divide his total bases (372) by his total outs (291) and you get his Total Average: 1.278. [Life, 137]

The problem with Total Average is simple: the sentence I put in italics above is wrong. All bases are created unequal. A walk is worth far less than a base hit. (Have you ever heard of some pitcher deciding to give up an intentional hit? Pitchers gave up 1384 intentional walks in 1990.) Although both a single and a walk will advance the batter to first base, a walk can't advance other runners more than one base, and often a walk won't advance them at all. So, although a walk clearly has some tangible value, it's equally clear that a single has more value. Boswell's TA skates over this rather prominent point.

Another larger example is the way Boswell misapplies stolen bases. Simply put, virtually any attempt to steal a base builds Total Average. Why? Because a .500 average, while unspeakably good for a batter, is intolerably destructive for a basestealer. In Boswell's system, both count the same.

Take Ozzie Guillen, who in 1990 had 223 TB and made 395 Total Outs, for a Total Average of .565. Guillen is a good example because he tried stealing so many bases after he proved he ought to be kept on a short leash out there (13 steals in 30 attempts) it's easy to imagine him trying to steal more bases with the same rate of success. Let's say he tried stealing 90 bases at that rate: just add 26 more steals and 34 more unsuccessful attempts to each side of the ledger. Obviously, such poor judgment would hurt Guillen's team, but lo and behold-- his Total Average actually goes up to .580. If, on the other hand, Guillen had not tried to steal a single base, a wise decision, his contribution to the White Sox would be greater, but his Total Average would have been .009 points lower, at .556.

The reasoning-- or lack thereof-- is simple. A .433 average (13- for-30) is great for a batter, terrible for a baserunner. Boswell counts them both exactly the same.

This is not so irredeemable an error-- for an amateur statistician noodling around in his den with a solar calculator. For a professional to daydream like this in public (much less to reprint his dream diary, first in the newspaper, then in hardcover and finally in paperback) is embarrassing. It's exactly what James meant, I think, by requesting the amateurs to clear the floor.

The funny part is that Boswell decries the proliferation of amateur "sabermetricians [who] cross swords with 500-page tomes, debating the exegesis of comically obscure stats." Casey Stengel, Boswell posits (safely, Stengel being unavailable to contradict him), "would have never understood Sabermetrics-- the new pseudo-science of baseball stats. Today he might have to pass a test on the Elias Baseball Analyst or The Bill James Baseball Abstract" [Heart, xi, 336].

You could make a case that Stengel helped to invent sabermetrics, and that he would have understood it perfectly, and applied sabermetrics where he found it useful-- that is, you could make this case if you thought it proper to attribute opinions to dead people on subjects that never came up when they were alive. I don't find this self-interested type of speculation interesting when applied to the founders of the U.S. Constitution and I don't find it holds any more water when applied to the founding fathers of baseball strategy. It's just smug rhetoric. (I just looked over the list of Society for American Baseball Research chapters, and there's only one named for a major league manager--the Casey Stengel Chapter. SABR is where the term "sabermetrics" derives from.)

While ridiculing the sabermetricians, Boswell makes mistakes that would disqualify him from their ranks. The quick fix for his TA problem described above, by the way, is devising a simple formula to find the number of useful stolen bases a baserunner has. It's almost a truism among sabermetricans to set the failsafe point for a basestealer around .67 percent. If a runner steals more successfully than that, his steals help his team more than his caught-stealings help his team's opponents. So all Boswell would need to clear that problem up would be to count what I call "net steals" (SB-2CS =  net steals) and add that number to total bases (if it's positive) or add it to total outs (if it's negative). But the problem with Boswell's numbers runs deeper than that.

Boswell's fundamental evidence for the quality of TA is to list names of players who rank high in TA. Looking over his all-time TA leaders (Ruth, Williams, Foxx, Greenberg, etc.), Boswell points out that

perhaps the most persuasive argument for Total Average is the way the cream rises to the top. TA invariably singles out great performances, which no other stat does. For instance, the best Total Average performance of the past decade was by Joe Morgan in 1975-76 when he won back to back landslide MVPs despite the fact that he didn't lead the NL in any glamour category. In 1976 Morgan's .320 average, 27 homers, and 111 RBI didn't come close to any of the Triple Crown titles. But because of his 60 steals, 114 walks, and .576 slugging average, he had a total average of 1.346--highest of any major leaguer in the 1970s [140].

There are several misstatements here, some of them resulting from loose language (characterizing Morgan's MVP awards as "landslides"-- they were a little better than the median MVP point totals a decade in either direction), some of them resulting from hyperbole (finishing second in RBIs, 10 RBIs behind the leader, certainly counts as "coming close" to me--as Groucho said while dancing with Margaret Dumont, "If I hold you any closer, I'll be in back of you!''), and some resulting from the introduction of diversionary stats. How can Boswell justify his claim that Morgan didn’t lead in a "glamour" category by citing another category, slugging average, that is mostly made up of two glamour categories: batting average and homeruns? Other than batting average and homeruns, the only significant stats that go into slugging average are doubles and triples, categories in which Morgan ranked lower than he did in the stats Boswell downplays. In combined doubles and triples, Morgan finished behind Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Ken Griffey, tying Dave Concepcion and Cesar Geronimo, for fourth place --on his own club! He ranked thirteenth in the league.

If we invented a crude MVP election scale, awarding points only for ranking in the three Triple Crown skills, the ones Boswell maintains don't give Morgan proper credit the way TA does, with the lowest score being the best (the lowest possible score, of course is 3, first in each category), Morgan ranks first in the league.

1976

BA Rank

+

HR Rank

+

RBI Rank

=

Total Rank

Morgan

5

5

2

12

Foster

9

4

1

14

Luzinski

12

8

5

25

Madlock

1

10

18

29

                     

 

and so on. I might have a left a name off this short list, because it's not worth doing carefully. Why not? Because it's a really dumb idea to award an MVP trophy by using only the Triple Crown Stats. I'm just using this formula to show how Morgan, in fact, ranked superbly using the Triple Crown Stats in 1976.

Actually, using virtually any significant stats from 1976, Morgan will come out near the top of any list, so it shouldn't be any wonder that he does well using Boswell's methods. For example, let's make up another stupid stat, one that has no compelling rationale at all behind it. How about, um, this formula for the Ultimate Stat: doubles x walks.

Rank

Player

D x BB Lifetime Total

1

Yaz

1,191,870

2

Musial

1,159,275

3

Speaker

1,095,133

4

Rose

1,052,700

5

Williams

1,059,975

6

Ruth

1,040,336

7

Cobb

904,276

8

Aaron

874,848

9

Morgan

837,385

10

Ott

833,504

 

While this particularly clumsy and pointless stat doesn't prove anything at all, you've got to admit I've got a pretty strong bunch of players on it, one that certainly will win the approval of the Polish-American Baseball Fans’ Association. You could argue that this list represents the ten best hitters of all time. You'd have no reason to, of course, because there's no good reason to think multiplying doubles by walks should produce the Ultimate Stat, but it worked out pretty well, didn't it?

You could even multiply negative stats together and come up with a pretty fair list of names: if you multiplied batters' strikeouts by caught-stealings, you could come up with a pretty good team, or if you multiplied pitchers' walks by pitchers' losses, you'd end up with a pretty good staff, I'm sure. Those lists are a little too dumb for even me to run, but I'll toss some names at you that would show up on that last list: Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Cy Young, Warren Spahn, Early Wynn, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver, Red Ruffing. Walter Johnson would probably lead that list. So simply listing names that come out on top of your stat list, impressive though those names might appear, doesn't begin to validate your stat.

The argument that we could validate a stat by listing its leaders, as Boswell does with Total Average, is called the Argument by Example. It's a favorite fallacious argument of the genus sportswriter americanus. Other fallacies are the Argument from Authority (supporting some asinine opinion by finding a ballplayer or manager who tosses a few supporting quotes off the top of his empty head), the Ad Hominum attack (the Argument from Authority in Reverse--this one attacks the ideas of people who haven't played or managed, and skirts the idea itself), the Argument from Analogy, Quoting Dead People hypothetically, etc.

Reading through this list of arguing errors sportswriters use, it is well to remember a caveat invented by Roger Kahn's mentor on the New York Herald-Tribune, Stanley Woodward: "A good column should be entertaining and short of libel." Nothing in there about "accurate," "fair," "scrupulous in methodology"--just entertaining and short of libel, and Boswell and his brethren certainly fit that description. If you want accuracy, fairness, scrupulous methodology, you must look elsewhere.

One way to know you're at the mercy of a sportswriter's whim is when you're reading someone who freely contradicts himself from day to day and never seems to notice it. The unit of measurement for a sportswriter is the column. Usually they'll take a little care to see they don't contradict themselves within any one column (I say "usually"), but beyond that limit, anything goes. Within the same collection, How Life Imitates the World Series, for example, Boswell informs his readers that Ted Williams's Total Average in 1941 was head-and-shoulders above George Brett's in 1980 and concludes sternly "Let's not have any more Williams- Brett comparisons." Forty pages later in the same book, he's back to comparing them, but now he's equating them again, concluding "given the luscious choice of picking the Williams of '41 or the Brett of '80, [a general manager] would have to think hard."

Writing an encomium to the late Thurman Munson, he reduces Munson's rival for the affections of George Steinbrenner, Reggie Jackson, to "a slugger of few all-around baseball skills" [Life, 228]. But elsewhere, in an encomium to Jackson, who has always held his own talents in the highest regard, he showers him with hyperbole: "with each year, with each new accomplishment, it becomes more obvious that Jackson is, and always has been, everything he claimed" [259]. Considering Jackson's self-esteem, what higher praise is ·there?

Boswell exaggerates, as most good sportswriters do, because he's writing for effect, not for accuracy or for consistency. Boswell on Jackson aggrandizes his subject more than any other writer since perhaps Boswell on Johnson. Through ambiguous wording, he makes Jackson's achievements seem greater than they actually are. Look at the word "his" in the next sentence and tell me to whom that word refers, "Reggie Jackson" or "any man":

Reggie Jackson hit "more home runs than any man in baseball during the first 14 years of his career (424 from 1968 to 1981)"

Like you, I assumed "his" referred to the most immediate antecedent, "any man in baseball," and I was duly impressed, thinking the sentence meant Jackson, alone among all sluggers, had begun his homerun hitting career the fastest. I thought exactly what Boswell hoped his readers will think: "Wow! I never knew Reggie was quite that good!" I remembered Jackson hitting 47 homeruns very early in his career so the stat made a little sense. But then I remembered a few other power hitters, like Hank Aaron, who had a pretty fair first 14 years to their careers.

I totaled Aaron's first 14 years, and found that Aaron had in fact hit 491 from 1953 through 1967. Further I discovered that Aaron's teammate, Eddie Mathews, had also way out-homered Jackson with 479. And that Lou Gehrig (463), Mickey Mantle (454), Willie Mays (538) had, too. I stopped looking.

Then I looked at Boswell's sentence one more time, and decided what Boswell meant was that no batter during Jackson's first fourteen years had outhomered him--in other words that the word "his" referred to Jackson and not as logic and grammar would have it to "any man." Instead of comparing Jackson to every player in baseball history, as his sentence suggests, Boswell is limiting the comparison to the handful of power hitters who entered baseball simultaneously with Jackson and were still active fourteen years later. What this comes down to, in effect, is comparing Jackson's power to Bobby Bonds' and Johnny Bench's, two power hitters whose careers overlapped more or less precisely with Jackson's.

Also overlooked in these comparisons is the fact that Jackson’s rookie season, 1967, is simply being ignored in Boswell’s calculations, exactly as if it never happened, which for most practical purposes, it didn’t, in the sense that Jackson had an awful first season. Playing his first game on June 9th, Jackson batted .178 with 1 HR in 118 ABs. Of course, including such stats in Jackson’s record would have further blown holes in Boswell’s already Swiss-cheesy argument, so he just starts off with Jackson’s second season.

Many great power hitters have hit more homeruns than anyone else in almost any given period of their own careers, so Boswell’s argument here boils down to "Reggie Jackson was a great hitter of home runs," a point fewer would dispute and even fewer would find worthy of including in an article. Only those great sluggers whose careers began simultaneously (like Mantle and Mays) ever faced much competition. Another way of putting it is to say that, in ninety-odd years of modern baseball, probably over forty men fit Boswell's conditions.

Perhaps an example would clarify this point: if a political writer, in a puff piece-- on let's pick Congressman Gephardt-- had written that "No member of the House has had his name attached to more pieces of legislation than he has in his first five terms in the house (four major bills, from 1978-87), "  no one in his right mind would imagine that the comparison was to only those Congressmen elected with Gephardt in 1978 who stayed in office through 1987. "No actor entering films has ever appeared in more movies than Elliot Gould in his first five years (12 films from 1968 through 1972)."     Got it? Now you're ready to appreciate Boswell.

Still on Jackson's greatness, and exaggerations thereof, Boswell has pointed out in another essay [Life, 278] that Jackson's "best season since [1968] was dampened only by the fact that the vast majority of his 41 home runs and 111 RBIs came before the Ides of August." While it's certainly pedantic to note that the Ides of any month in the Roman calendar usually occurs on a date earlier than the 15th of that month, August 13th (which is the Ides of August) occurs when the season is nearly three-quarters over. It would be astonishing if any ball player had not accumulated the vast majority of any statistic by this date. In 1968, as well, Jackson tailed off in his homeruns. In fact, generally, as the cooler September weather begins, slugging in general tapers off, so this shouldn't be at all remarkable, except that Boswell's trying, despite the facts, to make the case that Jackson excels when the weather cools off.

In his second book, Why Time Begins On Opening Day (similarly given at least three chances to be proofread and copy-checked), Boswell invites his innocent reader to "Compare the '80 and '82 St. Louis lineups and you will find that, through trades and position changes, Herzog improved his team's range at every position" [244]. (Emphasis Boswell's. He further stressed this sentence by printing it as a separate paragraph.)

Most readers will just cluck their tongues and marvel, "I didn't know that," leaving it to their more suspicious peers to haul out the record book and learn that, as Whitey Herzog phrased it in White Rat, "[o]ur starting lineup had only two players in it-­ George Hendrick and Keith Hernandez--who'd been there" both in 1980 and in 1982. Other than ignoring Herzog's right fielder and first baseman-- a full quarter of the Cardinals' everyday lineup-- Boswell pointed out the facts accurately. Hernandez and Hendrick had been regulars since mid-1978, so three-quarters of the lineup had turned over in 5 years, a perfectly ordinary turnover rate.

Or should I write:

A perfectly ordinary turnover rate!!!

In the next two sentences, which also occupy a single paragraph, Boswell observes, "In '80, St. Louis allowed the most runs in the NL. In '82, the least." In 1980, the Cubs allowed 18 more runs than the Cards did. Boswell is never one to let the facts interfere with a strongly worded point.

Boswell's lionizing essay on catchers, "Half Guru, Half Beast of Burden," brings up another common affliction of sportswriters, perhaps more common to them than the rotator-cuff injury is to pitchers: uncritical reliance on sources. Simply, athletes often spew nonsense at every pore. And when they spout statistics wildly out of whack with any rational view of reality, the writer's job is to quote them accurately while distinguishing reality from self-serving fantasy. That way, we might get to know both the reality and the skewed perspective that comes from being too close to a subject. Both the skewed perspective and the reality are interesting, but we rely on the writer to draw a line between them; that is the writer's job. Without it, all we get is bamboozled.

Boswell, like his admirer George F. Will, loses credibility when he quotes athletes at their densest with nary an authorial demurral. Without that authorly dissent, a reader must assume the journalist approves or at least is taken in by the source's observation, as when Boswell quotes Johnny Bench: "One game at catcher has as much wear and tear as five at any other position" [163].

If this were actually a numerical truth, as Boswell seems to think, then the record for games caught ought to be around one­fifth the games for the next-hardest position, shouldn’t it? In fact, the correct proportion between games played at catcher and games at any other position is nothing close to 1:5. It's around 4:5. Of course if Bench had said, "Four games at catcher has as much wear and tear as five at any other position," Boswell's essay would have lost a little color and gained some accuracy. Like Ted Turner, Boswell clearly prefers to add color to subjects more clearly seen in black-and-white.

In a hurry to spew out a column, Boswell is often forced into generalizations that, at best, only seem screwy. I'm not about to dispute his contention [Time 164] that contemporary catchers throw better but are smaller than catchers of the past:

the word is out that smaller, more nimble athletes are in. "With all the emphasis on base-stealing in the game now, you're seeing better athletes become catchers," says [manager Jeff] Torborg. "Smaller, quicker guys who can deliver the ball to second faster." Gun arms like those of Dempsey, Alex Trevino, and [Rick] Cerone are showing up attached to bodies that are no more than six feet and 185 pounds.

While it's Torborg's job to praise his players (he was Rick Cerone's coach at the time Boswell quoted him) there's no compelling reason for Boswell to buy whatever hogwash Torborg was peddling. In fact, as I see it, it's Boswell's job to reveal the managers' and coaches' and players’ and owners' hogwash, not to deodorize it. Sometimes Torborg's agenda (in this example, building Cerone up) coincides with Boswell's agenda (supporting a fallacious argument about the renaissance of catchers in the 1980s), but neither agenda serves the fan, who just wants the straight scoop.

Torborg says catchers are now better? Better than whom? The baseball people George V. Higgins interviewed for The Progress of the Seasons uniformly but "politely resisted invitations to comment on the deficiencies of others" at least by name and for print. So if a fan is going to hear anything critical about specific players, it's got to come from someone outside that select fraternity.

I can say that for every Cerone (5'11", 192) he names I can name two bigger, heavier catchers who have caught twice as many games, but I'd rather stick with the principle here. Namely, what standard is he using? He hasn't measured catchers, say, from 1980 and compared their size to catchers from 1930. If he did that, he wouldn't even have much of a point unless he then compared his findings to the differences in size between other people, particularly players at other positions, in those fifty years. This sort of research may be dull to some people, but why isn't it more dull to them, as it is to me, to read Boswell's speculations on subjects like catchers' size? Anyone can speculate about such matters--what do we need Boswell for?

In fact, the data on catchers' throwing arms as of 1980 happens to appear in James' 1981 Abstract, which lists the names and opposition basestealing records of 26 catchers who had started over 300 hundred games at catcher. I would have liked to set a higher standard than 300 games, but doing so would have eliminated Dempsey, Cerone and Trevino, and I thought that would be unfair to Boswell's argument. The long and short of my research (and the thin and fat of it) is that 13 catchers in 1980 allowed over .67 steals per start, and 13 under. The good catchers (by this standard) had a median height and weight of 6'1", 193, the bad catchers 6' 01", 190. (Cerone and Dempsey, Boswell's examples, are on my good list; Trevino had only started 114 games as of then, but he would have made my bad list in any case. Doesn't it look embarrassing, by the by, to see Alejandro Trevino's name on anyone's list of terrific young catchers?) The point is that had Boswell looked he would have found zero evidence to believe that good defensive catchers were smaller than bad defensive catchers, and readers who believe Boswell's idle speculations are getting cheated.

"From the days of Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane," Boswell goes on, "through the more recent times of Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella, there always seemed to be just one or two famous star catchers at a time and many nonentities." This bit of revisionism contains the wiggliest of wiggle words--like Hamlet, I know not "seems." Since Boswell wasn't born when Dickey and Cochrane were playing, and since he hadn't turned 10 years old when Campanella retired, his perceptions of what seemed to be so in those periods don't mean a lot to me. He is committing a fundamental error of sportswriting: comparing the present to the past, and basing his comparison on purely subjective standards.

Hall-of-Famers Gabby Hartnett, Ernie Lombardi, and Rick Ferrell were almost exact contemporaries of Dickey and Cochrane, so the ignorant revisionism in that comparison is instantly apparent, but the Hall-of-Fame is a very high standard. A catcher could easily fall short of the Hall's standards (most Hall-watchers, in fact, suggest that Ferrell, properly, does fall short) and still be way above Boswell's designation of 'nonentity.' But as history moves along, we only remember the big stars from any era, and every player less than a Hall-of-Famer runs the risk of having Tom Boswell reduce his career to nothingness. This particular travesty merely exaggerates the unfairness ordinarily visited on such ballplayers.

Catchers from the fifties other than Berra and Campanella may be deservedly outside the Hall-of-Fame, but their exclusion doesn't signify any upsurge in contemporary catching skills. Without thoroughly evaluating catchers of the 1950s and comparing them to more recent catchers, we can quickly check out one of the more easily quantifiable measures of ability: homerun hitting.  Starting catchers in 1955, Berra's and Campanella's twin MVP year, averaged more home runs than their 1980 counterparts.

Year

Avg. HR

HR/# of Catchers

AB

Avg. AB

1955

12.7

203/16

5926

370.3

1980

9.2

240/26

9957

383.0

 

In other words, catchers from 1955 hit about 40% more home runs per at-bat than their 1980 counterparts. (Subtracting Berra's and Campanella's totals from 1955 while subtracting the totals of 1980's big two, Carter and Parrish, yields the same exact proportion, if you're interested.) Another, faster demonstration of showing how Boswell is inventing classifications to suit his article's convenience is to note how, two paragraphs after describing Berra's and Campy's contemporaries as 'nonentities,' he has occasion to quote Jim Hegan, a contemporary of both Berra and Campy. Does he identify his new authority as "Jim Hegan, a complete nullity"? Not exactly. Now Hegan is "once one of the best."

By the way, I happened to note the heights and weights of the four old-time catchers Boswell gives as counter-examples to today's lighter, shorter new catcher, and guess what I got: six feet, one eighty-five.

 

In another essay, he strives to prove that modern third basemen have brought a "revolution" to the game: "Turn on the television in October and there, suddenly, was a succession of protagonist third basemen. It seemed you couldn't be a world champ without one" [Time 170]. Well, yes, your opponents would tend to hit a lot of doubles down the line if you neglected to send a third baseman onto the field.

He then went on to list some star third basemen of the 1970s: Brooks Robinson, Sal Bando, Pete Rose, Graig Nettles, Bill Madlock, Mike Schmidt, George Brett, all of whom got post-season publicity. But this is Argument by List, all over again. You could counter this argument by naming some world-champion third basemen in the post-war period Boswell cites as a dark age: Eddie Mathews, Kenny Keltner, Gil McDougald, Jackie Robinson. Or you could cite some world champions in the period he's discussing whose third basemen have been pathetically weak: the 1968 Tigers or the 1969 Mets.

Plenty of the post-season series in which Boswell cites a "protagonist" third baseman also featured an opposing third baseman who was completely inadequate: in 1969, Brooks Robinson faced the aging Ed Charles and rookies Wayne Garrett and Bobby Pfeil (combined stats of 4 hr, 67 RBI, .226 in 780 at- bats); the division-winning Reds of 1973 had at third base the estimable Denis Menke (3, 26, .191), who was so skilled he lost his job during the year; the classic 1975 Series that Rose's Reds were in, his third base counterpart was Rico Petrocelli, (7, 59, .239), only 51 hits away from retirement; and Schmidt's Phillies overcame the 1980 Houston Astros, with the journeyman Enos Cabell at third (2, 55, .276). Obviously, it was quite possible to win divisions, leagues and even, in the case of the 1968 Tigers and the 1969 Mets, the World's Championship with a far below average third baseman. By oversimplifying, Boswell fails to present an argument that stands up to any counter-argument.

Boswell's arguments rely on a trusting reader. If he asserts that third baseman in the 1940s and 1950s were no good, you might assume he's perhaps compared the post-war third basemen's records to today's third basemen and found them wanting. Comparing the present to the past, he knows how unlikely his readers are to recall thirty-year-old facts as easily as they remember yesterday's newspaper. He can always give facts supporting his side of the case, anyway.

The test for Boswell's use of a stat or list is not that it is right, but that it's arguable. This is where sabermetricians draw the line. If it's arguable, go argue it, sure, but if the argument goes badly for you, then you must change your argument or change your mind. Boswell just bulls on through any walls of fire that spring up, holding onto whatever shreds of evidence remain intact. Any convenient semi-accurate fact impresses Boswell: trying now to support the case that it's catchers who form baseball's most underrated position, he asks, "Need a volunteer to go over the top? Look for a catcher. When the Players' Association wanted to take the union's message to national TV during the strike, who stepped forward but catcher Bob Boone." Do you really suppose that the players selected their spokesman on the basis of the position he plays? Neither does Boswell, but if it helps him make his case, he's for it. The point to arguing, after all, is arguing.

Boswell's baseball ignorance often shows itself in small matters. There are things that I think many fans know that Boswell doesn't seem to. In Heart, he gives the etymology of the phrase "Miranda line," named after (he says) 1950s shortstop Willie Miranda. I would like to see an example of a reference to the Miranda line dating from the fifties--in fact, I'd like to see any reference to any such imaginary line dating before the career of Mario Mendoza, a 1970s shortstop who posted sub-.200 averages in four of his first six years, after whom the Mendoza line was named. Going into his seventh year in the majors, Mendoza had a .201 average; Miranda never sank below the .221 lifetime average he retired with. What I'm saying is that 1) Boswell is off by at least 20 years and one human being in his etymology and 2) more important, it isn't a very logical mistake and he could have easily known better by looking into the matter.

Boswell writes some passages you'd swear couldn't have been written by a baseball fan, much less a baseball expert. For example, he seems to be under the delusion that uniform numbers have some kind of positional significance, as in football: Don Mattingly, he tells us, "wears an inconspicuous infielder's number--23." Oh, really? I thought 23 was a defensive back's number myself.

In his Mattingly essay, he likens Mattingly to Stan Musial, in part because of a Musial trademark: "Not too many walks," Boswell asserts [Heart, 68]. Stan Musial? The Man ranked #5 on the all-time walks leaders list when he retired. Now, he's somewhere around #8 or #9. Boswell was writing about Mattingly after the 1985 season--projecting his at-bats then out to Musial's career at-bat total, Mattingly would end up with around 837, which I don't believe would make the top 100 on the all-time walks leaders list. And here there's some indication that, when it suits his argument, Boswell knows how to use the record books to look up numbers, because in the next chapter of Heart, he specifically cites Musial's skill at drawing walks: "Who last had 200 hits and 100 walks in the same year before Boggs did it in 1986? Answer: Stan Musial, 1953."

When acclaimed writers draw such overstated analogies, they raise expectations of what's possible. Eric Davis suffers from such hyperbole more than most: being compared--and favorably—to Willie Mays dooms Davis to some degree of ultimate failure, because our images of Mays are fixed in amber. We can see all of Davis's shortcomings precisely because writers have assured us he doesn't have any. Boswell describing an infield single by Davis:

His routine three hop grounder directly at second baseman Wally Backman was the shock of the night, however: the Met took two quick steps in, fielded the room-service bounce and fired hard and fast to first base. Davis beat it cleanly for what could only be scored a hit.

Now, think about that. Look at the care Boswell takes to assure us Davis beat out a normal ground-ball to second base, fielded normally: "Routine three hop grounder," "directly at ...Backman," "room service bounce," "fired hard and fast." If this were what happened, of course, Davis could beat out virtually any groundball. In 1986, the season before Boswell's article, Davis made 300 outs, exactly 100 of which were strikeouts. According to the Stats Baseball Scoreboard, about 54% of Davis's non-strikeouts are ground balls, and 46% flyouts, yielding 162 ground balls. So if Davis beats out only half of these groundballs, his average jumps from .277 to .395. If Davis falls short of that figure, people will be disappointed. Plainly, something happened to allow Davis to beat out that particular infield hit. Knowing Backman, and I do, I suspect he was playing Davis in short right field, and he probably took extra time getting the ball out of his glove. By definition, unless the defensive team’s manager has decided to concede a single, any hard-hit grounder to a fielder that gets beaten out is a positioning error. Fielders have a choice where they want to stand. Backman in some sense was almost certainly playing Davis too deep-- that's a less magical explanation, of course, and one that would encourage fans to keep their expectations for Davis within reason.

Boswell supports his unrealistic expectations for Davis by quoting baseball people at their least reasonable: the low-key Davey Johnson "tries hard not to overstate" Davis's potential, but in the next breath, Boswell quotes Johnson overstating severely: "[Davis m]ight hit one six hundred feet." In The Physics of Baseball, Robert K. Adair, Physicist to the National League, shows at length that a four-hundred foot homerun is rare, a five-hundred foot one almost impossible, and a 550-footer cannot be achieved without a galeforce wind behind it. (Mickey Mantle's supposed 565-foot shot off Chuck Stobbs in 1953 was, if you're interested, assisted by a powerful wind; according to Mark Gallagher's Explosion!, the distance was crudely paced off by a Yankee p.r. man, not the most reliable of methods nor of measurers.) Baseball hyperbole being what it is (sportswriter Rick Talley asserts that an unidentified jerk--presumably Dave Kingman-- has actually hit a six-hundred foot homerun), it's a wonder no one has suggested Davis could hit one eight hundred feet.

On the practical side, the Stats Baseball Scoreboard 1990 measured the length of homeruns in 1989: 13 men hit 450-footers, but only five hit 460-footers, and only Jose Canseco hit one as much as 470 feet, bearing out Adair's theoretical limitations. Davis's longest shot in 1989 went 440 - feet, according to Dewan and Zminda.

On page 328, Boswell speculates about reasons that athletes of a certain era, those born 1948-58, weren't any damn good. Oh, he concedes airily, a few big names like Murray, Carter, Murphy, Schmidt, Brett, and Rice will make it to the Hall of Fame, but he wants to know, "Why [are] the guys in the twenty-eight to thirty­ eight-year-old category so weak?

In the event any Boswell reader wants to know why, I'd suggest:

1)      Plenty of those guys twenty-eight to thirty-eight in 1986 were either better than Boswell thought or else young enough to have made some serious moves towards Cooperstown. I'd say, conservatively, that four players Boswell did not list--Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith, Carlton Fisk, and Wade Boggs-- are dead certain to be elected, and numerous others--Quisenberry, Sutter, Winfield, Hernandez, Gossage--are better than odds-on.

…and…

2)      Boswell's real mistake, other than speaking too soon, is assuming there are significant crests  and troughs in general athletic ability. In fact, he concludes by noting "the modern ballplayer is simply bigger and more gifted than his predecessor." Let me note here, not for the last time, that since all ballplayers are getting bigger and faster at the same time, size doesn't much matter in competitive sport. Boswell notes when his argument is over, "Okay, so it's hopelessly broad-brush and maybe you couldn't prove it. But it feels nice'' [328-9]. That's a far cry from "facts instead of imagination."

Boswell and writers like him set the tone for arguments among fans. He asserts he is dealing strictly in facts, and yet he delivers fanciful, imaginary speculation that's often wrong. In Why Time Begins ... (106), he accuses Whitey Herzog of deliberately losing the 1983 All-Star Game:

Herzog thought (and said) that it would be good for baseball if the American League, after losing nineteen times in twenty years, won the ...game in 1983. So Herzog, managing the NL team, did his best to make sure the other guys won.

With a yawn, Herzog left Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and [Bruce] Sutter off his pitching staff, while sending nervous kids Atlee Hammaker, Pascual Perez and Lee Smith to the mound, where all were shelled. No one will ever prove Herzog tanked an All-Star game, perhaps with the blessing of the game's brass, but his sly postgame smile was a cheerful piece of incriminating evidence.

 

As Whitey's self-appointed lawyer, I would argue

1)      Did Whitey actually think, much less say, those things? Prove it.

2)     Believing something would be good is not nearly the same as trying to achieve it. If I believe that it would be good for baseball if Tom Boswell were to have his typing fingers amputated, would that make me guilty of assault?

3)      Why would Whitey decide to blow the game by picking inadequate ballplayers for the squad? Having so many invisible ways to blow ballgames, why would a manager choose the most visible and frequently argued decision in the All-Star game? To call attention to his crime? Herzog merely had to make the opposite choice he thought was the right one at various points throughout the game-- sending up pinch-hitters, putting on the hit and run, ordering steals, etc.-- and no one could have argued with any of his choices. But the most damning evidence against this claim is

4)      Herzog chose better pitchers, not worse ones. Just compare Boswell's two groups of pitchers:

 

 

Wins

Losses

Percentage

Saves

Seaver/Ryan/Carlton/Sutter (1983)

47

49

.490

21

Perez/Hammaker/Smith (1983)

29

27

.518

29

 

On top of that, the group Herzog chose actually had a much better E.R.A. as a group, something like 2.50 as compared with about 3.35. Smith ended up leading the league in saves (Sutter tied for fourth place), and had a 1.65 E.R.A. (Sutter's was 4.23), and Hammaker led the league in E.R.A. among qualifiers. And significantly, the second group (doesn't this sound like an old Colgate commercial?) pitched in mostly terrible ballparks for pitchers like Atlanta and Wrigley, while the first group pitched in great pitchers' parks-- including the Astrodome, Shea, and Busch, so their true E.R.A. edge was probably over a run a game better. But if you read Boswell, you might think this scenario was at least plausible. Sensational, yes. Plausible--no way.

In Heart, pp. 274-5, Boswell writes about "The Jinx," an affliction affecting quality pitchers since the year 1976: He lists 17 "pitchers who, in the last decade have come to spring training ...[having]... either (1) won the Cy Young Award,(2) [been] the ace and postseason hero of a pennant winner or (3) set such incredible statistical mark at such a young age that the Hall of Fame looked like a logical expectation." Actually, the airwaves have been so full of such idle speculation on this subject, it's not really fair to bash Boswell for inventing this batch of nonsense. But, since he did argue it at length and in print, the demolition of this argument will come here.

Simply, pitchers have always been frail. Sore arms have always ruined pitchers' careers. As it happens, if we go back exactly 20 years, we can find a parallel to each of Boswell's modern star- crossed pitchers:

Boswell begins in 1976, when Mark Fidrych led the majors in ERA and complete games while winning 19 and losing 10 fewer. That was his last good year. Twenty years earlier, in 1956, Don Newcombe won the Cy Young award and won 20 more games than he lost, and was quickly washed up. His other nominee was Randy Jones, whose subsequent lack of success I'll gladly put up against either Herb Score's or Johnny Kucks'. Score and Kucks combined for only 15 more wins than Jones from that point on.

In 1977, Boswell cites John Candelaria and Frank Tanana, both of whom pitched over another decade more with moderate success.

Since Boswell couldn't find a sore-armed pitcher from 1978, I'll cite my choice for 1958 here, Bob Turley, who went 21- 7, while turning 28 late in the '58 season and winning the Cy Young Award. After 1958, Turley went 26-33 in the big leagues.

Other nominees from 1957-58 include Tom Sturdivant, who went from consecutive 16-game seasons for the AL Champion Yankees at ages 26 and 27 to an average of 4 wins a year over the next seven seasons, and Frank Sullivan of the Red Sox, a former league leader in victories who after age 28 went 30-47 over the next five seasons.

Boswell next hits on 1979's J.R. Richard and Mike Flanagan. As I write this, Flanagan is still pitching eleven years later, having won 16 games once since 1979 and 15 games another season, so I can hardly see how his career has gone down the tubes. I would offer as parallels Bob Shaw, who like Flanagan was a World Series star (Shaw threw a 1-0 shutout against a young Sandy Koufax in 1959, after winning 18 games and leading the AL in percentage that year at age 26) and Glen Hobbie, a 23-year old who had a 16-13 record for the woeful Cubs. Hobbie put together a 36-67 record over the rest of his career.

1980: Steve Stone and Mike Norris. 1960: Chuck Estrada and Frank Baumann, the AL's winningest pitcher and ERA leader, respectively, never heard from again.

1981: Steve McCatty. 1961: Don Schwall, the rookie of the year.

1982: Pete Vuckovich (Boswell, you notice, has stopped providing pairs of ruined pitchers.) 1962: Ralph Terry, 26 years old, who went from 23 wins, plus 2 more in the World Series, to a record of 36-38 over the next five seasons. I'd also offer Joey Jay, who won 21 games twice in a row (for the 1961 champions and '62 98-game winning Reds). After age 27, Jay went 33-45 over his four remaining years, and then vanished. (Jay apparently has genuinely disappeared, by the way. A guy who searches for lost ballplayers, a kind of Mr. Keen of baseball, claims no one has seen Jay since the late 1960s and Jay's own mother won't even fess up as to where her boy might be.)

1983: Lamarr Hoyt and John Denny. 1963: Ernie Broglio, 28 years old, had averaged a 15-12 record for four seasons, culminating with an 18-8 record in 1963. From '64 on: 10- 24, then an early retirement. In the AL, Bill Monbouquette, 26 years old, went 20-10 for the Red Sox, afterwards averaged 8-11 for the rest of his career.

1984: Sutcliffe and Boddikker. 1964: Jim O'Toole and Jim Bouton, average age 26, O'Toole coming off 4 years in which he had averaged better than 17-11, Bouton coming off his first two years in which he averaged better than 19-10. Bouton and O'Toole had also pitched well in combining for an under-2.00 E.R.A. in over 36 World Series innings.

All of these cases add up to deny Boswell's contention that "in the free agent era of big money, big pressure, big media and big temptation, the tendency toward an Icarus syndrome has risen radically."

Nothing of the kind has happened. I suspect that if you looked ten years earlier, or 20, or 30, you'd find the same pattern, all having nothing to do with the causes Boswell finds responsible for the problems of his day. It might seem true to think "We don't have pitching stars anymore. They're more like meteors," as Boswell quotes Frank Cashen as saying. But Cashen, in 1987 vexed by a complete collapse of the most acclaimed pitching staff in the world, is like most fans, in that today's problems seem as if they're much worse than any ever faced before. That's simple solipsism. Pleasing as it may be to think today's problems are without precedent, it is, demonstrably, not true.

All of these examples show Tom Boswell's deceptive and subjective methods of arguing, though he appears to be arguing the objective and known facts. How can baseball be so over-run with statistics-- as Boswell claims when he runs down sabermetrics--and at the same time honor writers like Boswell for fudging his facts?

If a scientist wanted to study the tendency of people to impose their imaginations on the world, he couldn't pick a better experiment than baseball. Give people thick books with rice-paper and tiny print, all filled with minute statistical observations, and they will still insist that reality is as they would like it to be, not as the facts say it is. People mythify.

Baseball writing mythifies more than any other type of writing I can think of. In the first place, baseball writing covers a subject that fundamentally doesn't matter: with subjects like how many nuclear war-heads the Russian republics are hiding, or how many abortions took place before Roe v. Wade, well, you might expect some fudging of figures because people would have reason to mythify about things affecting their lives in serious ways. You might think that, since baseball is only a pastime, people would have no reason to distort the truth. Whose life could possibly be affected if modern pitchers are more injury-prone than they once were? Even pitchers would like accurate figures. Does it improve your life to have misinformation about something you're interested in for fun stuffed down your throat? I don't think so. And yet it is. All the time.

The statistical nature of contemporary baseball adds to this oddity: bemoaned by many fans and writers, including Boswell at great length, the many obscure and even trivial facts on record mean that we have the tools to verify the facts. Since many fans own these thick books of baseball records and baseball isn't worth lying about, why doesn't baseball writing exceed other types of writing in adherence to the facts?

The scary part is that, for all we know, baseball writing may well exceed the other sections of the newspaper and other books in accuracy. Let's look at a few more examples of this ideal scientific experiment on how people insist on mythifying about baseball.

 

 
 

COMMENTS (25 Comments, most recent shown first)

Gfletch
Regarding the claim that winning teams score more runs in one inning than their opponents do in all nine (in the majority of games) was addressed by Bill James in one his early, self-published Abstracts.

Bill said it was wrong, but that the "Big Inning" philosophy of baseball suggested still carried a lot of weight. He thought Boswell based his analysis on a study of World Series games only, not on a larger study of regular season games.
10:04 PM Jul 5th
 
DEK1966
Great article! I noticed you resisted commenting on the ridiculousness of Boswell's selection of Rick Sutcliffe as a pitcher who tanked after 1984, so, as a Cubs fan, let me pile on. Isn't that the same Sutcliffe who went 18-10 for a last place team in 1987, just missing his second Cy Young Award? Or who would win 16 games in '89 (the year "Heart" was published) and again in '92?
12:43 PM Jul 4th
 
MarisFan61
P.S. It's no big deal -- both ways that we look at it indicate it pretty well. I'm guessing that the different ways we chose might reflect a general differing preference between "career" and "yearly," similar to the differing preference between 'career' and 'peak' that we often see between different ones among us when looking at all kinds of things.
10:59 PM Jul 2nd
 
MarisFan61
All I meant was that it's not a definitive thing, for the 2 reasons I noted.

And, I think the other thing is definitive, and not at all "overcomplicating"; actually it was quite simple. When there's a quite simple thing that's definitive, vs. a different simple thing that's not definitive, which one you gonna take? :-)
10:41 PM Jul 2nd
 
Steven Goldleaf
I understand how you get from "#5 on the all-time BB leaders when he retired" to "doesn't mean he was one the greatest walkers ever", though I don't actually buy it. If you discount his BBs because of all his ABs, and downgrade Musial to #20 or #30, he's still a pretty good BBs guy, just not one of the greatest ever, and I don't downgrade him that much.

I DON'T understand how you get from there to "didn't take that many walks," which is what Boswell argued.
8:45 PM Jul 2nd
 
MarisFan61
Steven: I don't agree that merely saying he was #5 on the all-time walks list addresses it very well, for 2 reasons:

-- His at-bat and plate-appearance totals were so high, so being that high on the all-time list doesn't necessarily say his rate was high; and

-- Walks numbers have had different meanings in different eras and decades.

All of that is why I put in in terms of yearly rankings.

The fact of someone putting it differently than how you thought of it doesn't make it superfluous or overcomplicated. :-)
3:31 PM Jul 2nd
 
Steven Goldleaf
You guys are overcomplicating the question of Musial's walks, and this is where simple counting stats come in handy: when Musial retired, as I note above, he ranked #5 on the all-time BB leader list. That's sufficient for me to conclude that you just can't say Musial didn't get many walks. When you get into the area of his walks in proportion to his HRs, or anything else, you're introducing a whole new element into the discussion, which neither Boswell nor I considered.

Marc--yes, that's right, Boswell is a decent writer but a lousy logician and sabermetrician. I haven't actually read him in decades (haven't lived in Washington DC for over 30 years) so he may have grown and gotten wise since I wrote my critical piece on him in the early 1990s.

I did read the recent SABR bio on Joey Jay, and no longer remember who the Mr. Keen was who couldn't find him in the late 1980s.
7:40 AM Jul 2nd
 
Marc Schneider
I used to think that I was the only person that thought Boswell was a lousy writer. I'm glad others agree. I guess I should clarify that to say that he is a good writer but that what he writes is nonsense, which is the point of the article. These days Boswell purports to accept sabermetrics but he cherry picks from it to prove his points. In recent years, he has taken to citing OPS as if it is the definitive stat in all of sabermetrics. He constantly makes conclusions designed to make himself sound like an expert with very little basis and, in fact, with very little logic. He is much better when he is just writing nostalgically about Washington baseball history without trying to make baseless generalizations about baseball.
12:49 PM Jul 1st
 
MarisFan61
Brock: I knew that it's what you had specified (BTW you've got a typo in that last post which would make it hard for someone to get what you mean without having seen the prior one, but I know what you mean) -- and I was fully taking it into account, and in fact in two ways:

-- He wasn't a power hitter in the way that those other guys were. They were POWER HITTERS; he was a hitter-hitter who hit fair numbers of home runs, sometimes very good numbers. Of course this is an arguable point, but anyway I don't think it's key for this discussion here, because of this next thing:

-- He had lots of walks for any kind of hitter, as seen from those yearly rankings that I noted.

Also how about we put it this way: His yearly rankings on walks were higher than his yearly rankings on HR's.

I promise you that you're mistaken about my having missed that point. :-)
12:32 PM Jul 1st
 
Brock Hanke
Maris - Thanks for the compliment, but you managed to miss one of the main points. I said that Musial did to take a lot of walks FOR HITTERS WITH HIS POWER. Then I compared him to Williams and Mathews as examples of people who had Musial-type power (actually, higher in those two cases). The league average was not what I was after. If you want to check against the league average, I have a trick for estimating. The league average of walks, almost always in baseball history, is about 1/10 of the number of AB. That is, AB + W = 1.1 x AB, which will approximate PA. In practice, for estimating, just drop the last digit off the AB, and you have a good estimate of the BB. Right now, BB-Ref won't give me any data for Musial other than pitching and fielding, but Musial has something like 1 1/2 times as many walks as this average. Don Mattingly has about 5/6 - 588 BB vs. 7003 AB, or 588 / 700. Mattingly took very few walks for someone with his power. If you want an example of a high-end power hitter who REALLY didn't take walks, take a look at Ted Kluszewski.
8:23 AM Jul 1st
 
rjlesch
Looking forward to more in this vein. Thanks.
11:43 AM Jun 30th
 
MarisFan61
Just a tangential thing: I was curious if anything more has become known of Joey Jay since when you wrote this (he had sort of disappeared), and apparently it has. There's a SABR article on him, written 2 years ago http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/9f043e5c whose last 2 paragraphs have a lot about his life after baseball -- including quoting him as indicating that he wanted to remain scarce. Apparently he's still living, age 80.
10:32 AM Jun 30th
 
MarisFan61
Brock: Just a detail about your very good comment:
Musial took plenty of walks, by any standard....OK, not by 'any' standard I suppose. Sure, less than Ted, and less than Ed Mathews but not that much less, if you look 'relative to league.'
Check out his yearly rankings in the NL on walks. I don't need to cite them -- they're right there for anyone who wants to look. I'll just say that he was among the top few in the league almost every year, and was #1 twice.

BTW, I don't go and check something unless it 'smells' wrong -- and this did, for one main reason: I remember hearing him mentioned as one of the few players who had 200 hits and 100 walks in the same year.​
11:52 PM Jun 29th
 
raincheck
I will lightly defend Boswell. He was writing about baseball, a tradition at the time in which many of the greats had much less interest in facts and far more in myths. Read the great Putnam team histories, Asinof on the Black Sox, The Glory of Their Times.

Boswell was a transitional figure. He was interested in stats, in proving things. But the tools available to him and the discipline with which he used those tools fall far short of our standards today. Still, as you say, "he gets his facts right for the most part." You see pernicious in that. I see a guy who moved the ball down the field. I read him in the 80s. He opened my eyes to some things about the game that few mainstream sources writers were noticing at the time. He could be an entertaining writer.

Now his work is sort of useless. It can be fun to read the old myth makers, enlightening to read the modern, rigorous analysts. Boswell is neither fish nor fowl. As I said, a transitional figure. For a major newspaper writer in the 80s pretty modern. But we don't want or need that at all anymore. The real work at that time was being done by guys like Bill.
9:54 AM Jun 29th
 
Brock Hanke
I don't know what Boswell was thinking, but when I first started following baseball, in 1953, Jim Hegan was very famous, and had been on several All-Star teams. He was famous for his glove, which was apparently surreal. He couldn't hit a lick, but everyone talked about his defense. He was one of the first catchers whose name I knew. I live in St. Louis, where they don't play Cleveland all that much.

On Herzog's early Cardinals. I looked them up. In left field, the 1980 Cards had Bobby Bonds. In 1982, they had Lonnie Smith. I'm not sure that Smith had more range than Bonds. Bonds could really run, and got a lot better jump than Lonnie did. In center, it's Tony Scott in 1980 and Willie McGee in 1982. Tony Scott had, without any doubt, more range than Willie McGee. Scott couldn't hit any more than Jim Hegan; the only reason he was in the game was his CF glove. Whitey traded him because of the bat - and because the Astros were offering Joaquin Andujar. At catcher, the 1980 Cards had Ted Simmons; in 1982 they had Darrell Porter. Simmons ran fast for a catcher; Porter did not. To the extent that we are talking about "range" at catcher, Simmons had more range.

Also, Stan Musial did not take a lot of walks - for a player with his power. He didn't walk like Ted Williams or Eddie Mathews, but he took good walks. Mattingly didn't take walks. It's not the same thing.​
9:42 PM Jun 28th
 
Steven Goldleaf
What Boswell wrote is that there were "famous star catchers" and a lot of non-entities. What I showed was that 1) there was a third category, then and now, containing the largest number of catchers, and 2) in areas that could be quickly measured (HRs) the groups of catchers seemed about equal, then and now. To go into more detail would have been overkill.
11:29 AM Jun 27th
 
those
I don't think you actually refuted Boswell's conclusion about famous catchers. You can hit home runs without being famous (Rick Wilkins hit 30 one year), so a graphic showing that 1982 catchers hit more than a year from the 1950s does not prove that 1982 catchers are more famous.

Same thing with the Jim Hegan comment. You can be "one of the best" and not famous (Darrell Evans is a good example).
10:35 AM Jun 27th
 
doncoffin
I guess I'd put it this way: Sportswriters generally have a conclusion, and they may look for data to support it. Analysts have a question or a problem to solve, and look for data that helps them answer the question or solve the problem.

(I would, by the way, be a little less harsh on Boswell's base-out analysis. I think that was a genuine attempt to say something meaningful. The fact that the construction of the answer was wrong is not a big deal; we often come up with wrong answers. But this one is qualitatively different from the other problems with his work.)
10:58 PM Jun 26th
 
flyingfish
OK, I stand (slightly) surprised. I just looked at 23 final box scores from baseball games today and yesterday and in 11 of those games, the winning team scored more runs in one inning than the losing team's total number of runs. In 12 cases, the winning team did NOT score more runs in one inning than the losing team's total number of runs. That is less than 50%. I know it's a small sample but it's good enough for me, given all the other things I have to do. :)
9:20 PM Jun 26th
 
Poincare
I thought I was the only one who had the misfortune of reading Bill Starr's "Clearing the Bases"--easily the single worst baseball book that I have ever read. I know he would never subscribe to this site but for my own sake I will say based on what I read I think he is the single biggest imbecile ever associated with baseball and I wish I could tell him that to his face. Among the gems he has in his book are that "statheads" like us think Gene Tenace was a better player than Roy Campanella because he had a higher OBP. I also loved how he used George Pipgras as an example of the superior pitching of the 1920s relative to today and how the higher batting averages in the past prove that hitters of the 1920s were superior to the hitters of today. He doesn't justify a single one of his positions like "Why Computerball stats are bull shit," why a strikeout is more harmful than a regular out, why the players from the past were clearly superior to players of today because baseball is more like golf than football or basketball beyond basically saying "and this is true because I say so" in many different ways over and over again. It still makes me angry even thinking about that complete piece of garbage that he published. It actually makes me feel better knowing somebody else out there also had to go through the absolute torture of reading all his simple minded sophistry for hundreds of pages. Needless to say, I really hate (and I mean hate) Bill Starr and everything he respresents. OK, rant over--for now.
8:10 PM Jun 26th
 
Brock Hanke
Heh. Maybe 15 years ago, I read a Sport magazine article by Boswell where he recounted trying to tell Ted Williams how to hit better. Yes, Ted Williams. Boswell's concept? Williams should always swing at the first pitch, because his batting average was higher when swinging at the first pitch than otherwise. Boswell managed to obfuscate Williams' response, which seemed, digging through Boswell's self-congratulation, to amount to 1) batting average isn't all there is to offense, 2) Williams might have hit well when swinging at the first pitch because, on the first pitch, he only swung at cripples, and 3) if you swing at the first pitch, your batting average may be high, but that's only when you put the ball in play. If you swing at the first pitch and don't put it in play, it's either foul or a swing and miss, and you're 0-1 either way. Boswell needed to factor in what Williams hit when he started out 0-1. That's the last time I read anything by Boswell.
6:56 AM Jun 26th
 
mauimike
Professor, I'm in the middle of reading, "City On Fire." Over 900 pages.

Let me know when this article gets the Reader's Digest condensed version.
2:30 AM Jun 26th
 
wdr1946
According to William Jenkinson's well-researched book on Babe Ruth's home runs, the Babe hit a home run that went 650 (sic) feet, in an exhibition game at Wilkes-Barre, Pa. just after the 1926 World Series. It was reported in the local paper and Jenkinson interviewed two old men who saw it hit when they were kids, both pointing to the same spot, exactly the same as the newspaper account. The game just stopped at that point- no one could believe what they saw. Jenkinson also says that Ruth hit a home run that went 570 feet- the longest ever hit in a Major League game- in a game at Navin Field in Detroit in 1921.
11:09 PM Jun 25th
 
flyingfish
Hi, Steven. I have two comments, for now, the first of which corrects a huge error you made.

1. You wrote that "baseball writing covers a subject that fundamentally doesn't matter." Oh, how could you be more wrong?

2. This is very nice: "Boswell on Jackson aggrandizes his subject more than any other writer since perhaps Boswell on Johnson."

And two observations. First, I have carried around in my head Boswell's claim that the winning team usually scores more runs in one inning than the losing team scores in the entire game. I haven't done the arithmetic, but I'd be surprised if that weren't true at least 60 percent of the time. But I have better things to spend my time on.

Second, your chapter seems to me--an academic--like a very academic endeavor. It thus has some appeal to an academic like me as a demonstration of just wrong Boswell is how much of the time. I think a non-academic might say something like this: "Boswell? Oh, he's full of shit, but he sure is fun to read."


5:10 PM Jun 25th
 
MarisFan61
Nice article -- and please forgive me for pointing out the very little thing (about Aaron) that 1953-1967 is actually 15 years, not 14, but that you still got the number of years right because the start year was actually 1954; and that it was 481 HR's, not 491.
(It doesn't affect your point at all, though.)
4:00 PM Jun 25th
 
 
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