Your Lucky Day

April 16, 2016

It came when the university decided to re-paint my office. By pure coincidence, my current office happens to be the office I moved into when I first got here, twenty-six years and three offices ago, so I know for sure it badly needed re-painting then, and twenty-six years of occupants, including me in the early 1990s and the mid-2010s, sure didn’t spruce up the walls any.

They also decided to re-carpet the floors, which looked even dowdier than the walls did in 1990.  This decision meant, of course, that I needed to pack up the thousands of books, and hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper on my shelves and in my filing cabinets, plus several generations of computers, printers, and all sorts of schmutzigkeit (a technical term, from the Yiddish, meaning roughly "substances too dirty for a pig to lie down in.") In boxing this stuff up, a project that took months, I came across parts of a long manuscript on baseball books I wrote in 1991 and ’92, of which I published a few excerpts here. (steve161 had requested the chapter debunking George F. Will’s book on baseball, and I also found a few other bits.) But your lucky day really arrived today, when I unpacked one of the hastily thrown-together boxes and found another 200 or so pages of the manuscript.

For a twenty-five year-old book that I was pitching to various publishers in 1992, it isn’t bad.  Not surprisingly,  given the skeptical eye I tend to cast generally, and in this very critical book particularly,  I tended to focus on writers screwing up, and I wrote some pretty savage passages where they screwed up royally, showing exactly what they got wrong, and often why I thought they messed up the facts. The manuscript (entitled MYTHS OF BASEBALL) was based on the premise that baseball books are almost guaranteed to be seriously flawed.

These flaws fall into a variety of categories: 1) Publishers don’t actually care that much if their books are accurate to the degree I think books need to be, as evidenced by the piddling budgets they allot for fact-checking, and the workload they pile on their editors. If a non-libelous error shows up in print, publishers really don’t care. 2) Most baseball books are written by non-writers.  Although baseball books are history of a sort, they are written by athletes, for the most part, and by other people who are otherwise not trained in the level of historical rigor a serious subject deserves. 3) Many of the best of baseball books, including Bill’s Abstracts, are produced on very tight deadlines (to fulfill such needs as being in print at the beginning of the baseball season), and few writers are as committed to accuracy as Bill is, and was. So some errors will slip through, often glaring ones, especially with writers less driven to accuracy than Bill, which is to say, with most writers. And 4) expectations for accuracy in baseball books is low: until Bill came along (and oddballs like Bill Veeck, or Jim Brosnan or someone like that) baseball books were mostly written for a largely juvenile readership, so if they got their facts a little wrong, big deal. Much better to print entertaining stories than boringly accurate ones, right?  This is the larger problem with baseball literature in a nutshell: people like to BS, and until recently, it was a chore at best to go back and fact-check if something happened in the fourth inning or the sixth, or in one game or another. Often, authors didn’t even try—again, the standard was "Is it a good story told this way?" and not "Did this actually happen this way?" Even on those rare occasions that someone was trying to be as accurate as possible in reconstructing game-situations from decades past, it was very hard to do, and most of the time, they weren’t even trying.

I can’t do much with this manuscript now, because much of the research has been done since, by better writers and far better sabermetricians than I’ll ever be, and there isn’t exactly a clamoring market for my thoughts about various books on baseball as of 1992. Some of it is amusing to me, but not worth reprinting, on lapses in published research at the time, such as TOTAL BASEBALL’s ludicrously flawed system of evaluating defense, to which I devoted many pages and much vitriol.  (Any system that tries to persuade you that Marv Throneberry’s and Dick Stuart’s fielding are helping their teams needs some serious reconsideration before going into print.)  The proliferation of adult evaluations of baseball writing since 1992 has shot through the ceiling—just the publications by SABR alone have dealt with many of the subjects I thought worthy of examination, very few of which I’ve taken the time to read.  I’m sure someone, possibly the authors of TOTAL BASEBALL, have corrected some of their grosser errors by this time. But I was surprised, perusing my manuscript on the subway home just now, that some bits have not been duplicated by anyone, far as I know, and I was pleased to find out that I learned a few things from reading it that I had forgotten over the past few decades.

Which is where your lucky day comes in: I sent the typescript to the IT people who turned it into a pdf, and turned that pdf into something I can edit. (The actual paper copy contains typos, abbreviations, notes to myself, misspellings galore, and the pdf version turns " into 11, stuff like that. It may seem ironic, or even hypocritical, if this article should contain gross errors when I spent much of that manuscript criticizing others’ errors of that sort, but there is a vital distinction between a manuscript and a published book. I hope I’ve cleaned up all of the errors in republishing selections and synopses of my manuscript here.) For me, this is fun, re-reading my own work that I haven’t seen in a long time, and if I can edit out the dross and polish up the gems, it might be good for you as well.

There are chapters that now strike me as overkill, such as the one I called "Airheads of the Air," taking swipes at various inane remarks that broadcasters were (and are) prone to. Aside from quoting error-prone malaprop artists such as Ralph Kiner, the more serious point of this chapter was to show how broadcasters commit systematic errors year after year that perpetuate myths that make it harder for fans to understand the game. As an example, I compiled instances of various broadcasters assuring their listeners that certain pitchers threw fastballs that literally rose as they approached the plate, defying gravity.  Some announcers asserted that such pitches increased their velocity as the pitches got closer to the plate and further from their hands, a physical impossibility as I understand physics. (Which is very little, although logic, which I understand a little bit, tells me that any pitch that managed to increase its volume would, if left unobstructed, never actually hit the ground.) Or similarly groundballs that gained velocity with every bounce. (Again, a physical impossibility.) It’s a semantic point, ultimately, as these announcers were trying (I think) to express the idea that these pitches or groundballs were thrown or hit so hard that they didn’t sink (or slow down) as much as pitches or grounders normally do, giving the illusion of acceleration when they were just decelerating less rapidly. They just weren’t trying as hard as I felt they needed to, and contributing needlessly to a general free-floating ignorance.  But since such remarks were topical in 1992 (most of the offenders have retired long ago) and picky to begin with, and since the standard for accuracy is higher in print than in something as off-the-cuff as the spoken word, I’m going to skip reproducing such quibbles here.

The fairer points I made, in my estimation, occurred when I found assertions in print that built myths on factual inaccuracies.  With only a little fact-checking (or in some cases, a little thinking) on the author’s part, these baseball myths would have self-destructed.  A handy example concerns our old friend Edward Linn, the co-author of Veeck as in Wreck that I took to task a while back for its occasional misleading use of stats.  In 1991, Linn published a mostly accurate and readable book about the longstanding animosity between the Red Sox and the Yankees, The Great Rivalry, in which he sometimes builds arguments on erroneous premises.  One chapter is devoted to the Impossible Dream Red Sox of 1967 (a chapter having very little to do with the Yankees, who were not one of the many contenders for that AL pennant) and the part Carl Yastrzemski played on that team’s success.

Yaz’s 1967 was one of the greatest career years ever, perhaps the archetypal career year. Linn makes the following case that I found mind-boggling, however: 

"For Carl Yastrzemski, 1967 was the Year of Redemption," Linn begins dramatically. Supporting such drama, Linn passes along an amazing statistic: "Although he had hit .321 one year to win the batting title, his lifetime average was only .272" [p. 257].

The mind-boggling stat was, of course, that .272 figure, coupled with the .321 figure, if only because I knew that Yaz was only in his twenties in 1967, and those figures meant that, apart from his one previous batting-title year, he had to have batted no higher than the mid-.260s, possibly in the high .250s, in his other five years. As a lefthanded corner outfielder in Fenway Park, could Yaz have even held his job batting that poorly? I remembered him as a pretty fair young hitter, even before 1967. Even aside from my memories,  .272 just seemed crazy low—Yaz was a damned good player before he blossomed into a world-class superstar MVP Triple-Crown winner in 1967: he had won the Gold Glove twice, had made the AL All-Star team in three seasons, and had gotten MVP votes four times, which added up, to his being a much better player than that .272 lifetime average would indicate.

And he was.

Linn's figure is way off. The morning of Opening Day 1967, Yaz was a lifetime .293 hitter.

That's a tremendous difference, and not only numerically but qualitatively. Far from an unlikely candidate to win the 1967 batting title, Yaz was (I’ll show my reasoning) the single most likely candidate to win that honor. An established .293 hitter is a legitimate contender for the batting crown, as an established .272 hitter is not.

Between 1901 and 1988 in both leagues, there have been 176 batting titles. (Note—obviously, I wrote this in early 1989.)  The vast majority of them have been won by players with well above a .300 lifetime average up to the season they won their titles. This is merely logical: a 12-time batting champion like Ty Cobb or a 7-time champion like Rod Carew must have won most of his titles long after he had staked out a solid claim to a .300 batting average.  Of those 176 titles, 13 have been won by players with fewer than 1000 lifetime at-bats, whom we may consider as non-established candidates. (These oddities include Cobb and Carew, as well as Al Kaline, Paul Waner, Willie Mays and Don Mattingly. For example, Mattingly had a .278 average before he won his first batting title but in only 146 at-bats over parts of two seasons, hardly a representative sample of his ability.)  But 28 titles-- or over 17% of the 163 titles by players who had batted more than 1000 times-­ have been won by players with a lifetime average under .300 at the time of their titles. That means better than one out of every six batting championships have been won by established players batting under .300, as Yaz was in the spring of 1967.  A lifetime average below .300 is not, therefore, an impenetrable barrier to a batting title.

But an established lifetime average of .272 would be an impenetrable barrier.  Most of those established below-.300 lifetime batters were close to .300, and the closer they were, the greater their chances were of winning a batting championship. Seventeen of them hit within five points either way of Yaz's actual Spring 1967 average of .293 (.288-.297). Only seven hit between .278 and .287. Only three hit below .278. And only one had a lifetime average as low as the .272 Linn claims for Yaz as of the spring of 1967. (And that one, Matty Alou, just barely creeps over my minimum hurdle of 1000 at-bats.) If Yaz really had a .272 average before the 1967 season started, he would have had, statistically, much less than a 1% chance of winning the batting title, and Linn cites that fictional batting average to support his moralistic point about Yaz's "Year of Redemption," in which Yaz overcame those long odds to lead the league in batting through diligent off-season exercise, concentration, and serious resolve. He actually dubs him "Yaz the Saviour" at one point [273].

Now, I have no doubt that Yaz did work out seriously, did improve his attitude significantly, and do the rest of all that Linn credits him with doing to lead the Red Sox to a miracle pennant in 1967, but his batting title was not a miracle.  In point of fact, Yaz's career .293 average as of that spring was better than all but four batters in the American League. (And one of the four was Mickey Mantle, then in decline; the other three were Tony Oliva, Frank Robinson, and Al Kaline.) In other words, the only four batters with lifetime averages higher than Yaz's that spring were, like him, all former batting champions. Predicting who will win a batting championship is naturally dicey, but through statistics and methods now available (and, of course, available to Linn in 1991), we can project a field of the likeliest contenders for ·1967's batting crown, and Yaz stands, perhaps with Tony Oliva, at the very top of the list. (Between 1967 and 1991, when Linn’s book came out, Bill James had discovered that age 27 is the optimal year for performance in such categories as batting average. Yaz was 27 in 1967. Oliva, with a higher lifetime average than Yaz, was 28 in 1967.) Aside from Linn's fictional numbers, the actual numbers support the opposite conclusion from Linn's: Yaz was not the "mediocre" hitter (as Linn mislabels him), nor was he a "lousy" hitter in the clutch, nor was he necessarily the deeply flawed and "selfish" player who came out of nowhere to win a title in 1967; he was the league's single most likely batting champion. [257-8]

One factual element in Yaz’s off-season in the winter of 1966-67 that Linn touches on (and dismisses) seems more valid to me than the self-improvement saga that Linn pushes so hard. For the first time in his professional career, Yaz that winter stopped taking college classes between baseball seasons. He was now able to sleep late in the mornings, and I believe all this new-found spare time allowed him to rethink his approach to the game and ramp up his off-season exercise regimen. As Yaz tells it, he had taken college classes every fall after the baseball season from 1960 through 1965, beginning his schoolwork in early October, a few weeks, often a month, into the semester, struggling to catch up to the rest of his classmates. As a professor, I can attest that students who miss even a week at the beginning of a term (and there are always a few) put themselves at a severe disadvantage all semester long. Many wind up failing their courses.  It’s a very time-consuming, full-time job to attend college, especially when a student is driven to succeed, but even for students just seeking to get by, it’s difficult passing courses when you’re playing catchup. I don’t doubt for a second that Yaz, now free to exercise and strategize, did just that, but I also don’t doubt that deciding against taking a full course-load that winter was crucial to the process, though Linn introduces that element only to dismiss it. In Linn’s telling, and most tellings of the story, this isn’t a case of a college dropout with newfound hours of free time, but instead it’s a mythic tale of an athlete who improves his game through sheer force of will and new-found desire.  Yaz’s terrific season (and it was a great leap forward) was, to my mind, neither as mystical, as self-willed, nor as hard to predict as Linn’s mythos has it.

Linn also overstates one other crucial element in the success of the 1967 Red Sox:  new manager Dick Williams imposing his brand of harsh discipline on a crew of laid-back second-division athletes accustomed to going through the motions. Again, I don’t doubt for a second that Williams was vital to the Red Sox’s success, but to emphasize his bona fides as a workaholic disciplinarian, Linn exaggerates how hard a row Williams had to hoe before getting the Sox job:

"Dick Williams, a utility infielder ....had just completed an undistinguished, much-travelled, 13-year playing career in Boston. After working his way up through the highly disciplined, talent-laden Dodger chain, he had been brought up to Brooklyn at the age of 25 and had managed to hang on as a marginal, almost anonymous member of five championship Dodger teams ...By the time he brought his talents, such as they were, to Boston he was 35 years old and moving into his seventh clubhouse in six years" [p. 252].

In order: Williams was not a utility infielder. He was primarily an outfielder, playing more games in the outfield than at any one infield position. (His Wikipedia entry begins "Richard Hirschfeld ‘Dick’ Williams (May 7, 1929 – July 7, 2011) was an American left fielder, third baseman, manager, coach and front office consultant….") And even if we counted his infield positions all added together as one, he still wouldn't be a utility infielder, normally defined as an infielder capable of filling in at any infield position. Williams never played a single game at shortstop, the most demanding of the four infield spots defensively, and he played less than 2% of his major league games, under a game and a half per year, at second base, the next most demanding. Williams' positions were outfield, third base and first base, which meant (and which nearly always means) he was a bat looking for a position to play. A utility infielder is nearly always a position looking for a bat. He only had a few years as a regular, but when he got them, he was a corner infielder and outfielder, peaking as the A’s third baseman in 1959, hitting 16 HRs and driving in 75 runs.

Williams was not brought up at the age of 25. He played his first major league game one month after turning 22.

Williams did not play on "five Dodger championship teams." He only played on five Dodger teams altogether, two of which did not finish in first place. In one of those three remaining Dodger championship years, 1956, he ·was waived to Baltimore in June.

Williams in 1963 was not "moving into his seventh clubhouse in six years." He only played for seven teams in his whole 13-year career. Linn exaggerates Williams' travels (to emphasize his settling into Boston?) with this characterization. When he was traded to Red Sox after the 1962 season, Williams joined his seventh team, but he had left his first team in June of 1956, as I say above. Let's count together: 1) 1956; 2) 1957; 3) 1958; 4) 1959; 5) 1960; 6) 1961; 7) 1962 and finally; 8) 1963.  I get 8 years, total. Don't you?

"His seventh clubhouse in six years" only seems marginally more extreme than "his seventh clubhouse in eight years," but that's giving Linn the best of it, because he doesn't mention that three of those clubhouses are actually one. Baltimore acquired Williams' contract three times in this period (manager and GM Paul Richards liked Williams’s competitive attitude) so he actually moved into only four different clubhouses in eight years.

That's still some travelling around, but not nearly as unstable as seven times in six years, which would be close to a new world's record. (Bob Miller, I believe, held the record for most teams in a 6-year period, serving with eight different teams-- the Twins, Indians, Cubs, White Sox, Padres, Pirates, Tigers, and Mets-- between 1969 and 1974. Miller served 2 extra tours of duty with the Cubs and Padres in that six year period, which was actually a five-year period, since he had played a game with the Mets as of the end of the 1973 season. Bobo Newsom's period of peak activity was 1941-1948, when he played for seven teams in eight seasons-- the Tigers, Senators, Dodgers, Browns, A's, Yankees and Giants, with some double-services. Newsom's six-year peak is 1942 through 1947, losing the Tigers on one end and the Giants on the other, leaving him with five different teams served in six years.) As you can see, it's hard to bounce around quite as much as Linn claims Williams had.

"By the time he brought his talents, such as they were, to Boston he was 35 years old and moving into his seventh clubhouse in six years" --Actually, Williams was 33, not 35, the day he was traded to the Red Sox, and he didn’t even turn 34 until a month into the 1963 season. All of these errors paint a picture of a rookie manager who never was able to hold a job, and an underachieving hitter, both of which are in the general neighborhood of accuracy, but the figures, histories, and stats supporting those characterizations are exaggerated for maximum dramatic effect.

It’s that skewed, and overly dramatic effect that I was trying to argue here—it’s no huge deal if a writer counts a year wrong or lets a typo slip uncorrected into a manuscript: I’ve never published a book without some sort of error slipping into print. But the odd thing about the errors I find in baseball books is that almost all of them tend to support falsely the story the author was trying to sell.  (I make very little of the occasional authorial error that seems unmotivated by an author’s point, an example being the enlightening paragraph just before the one introducing Dick Williams’ joining the Red Sox, concerning the Boston GM who hired Williams, a fellow named Dick O’Connell. I hadn’t read much about O’Connell’s role, which as Linn tells it, was pivotal: he was given unusual latitude in hiring and firing, and the passage about O’Connell states his philosophy and guiding role clearly and well. It’s burnished by a factual error that seems without purpose: "O’Connell was hired before the 1965 season [which he wasn’t, being promoted to Sox GM in mid-September of 1965] when the American League expanded to 10 teams [which it had done in 1961]." Is it a better story if O’Connell takes over the Red Sox’ reins just as the league expands because he has more responsibilities than previous GMs had? Maybe—but this seems mostly a pointless detail for Linn to have gotten wrong.)  But it’s just not as good a story if Yaz is a .293 batter who suddenly emerges as a superstar, is it? And it’s not quite as impressive if Williams rehabilitates the Sox after a decent career as an occasional regular player? Better to make Yaz into a bum, and Williams into a drifter. Most of the errors that appear in baseball books just happen to support the author’s narrative thrust, to an extent I find more than coincidental.

Another example of this not-quite-innocent misdirection, again in another lively and mostly accurate account, appears in Don Drysdale’s autobiography, Once a Bum, Always a Dodger, when Drysdale is trying to make the point that his teammate Sandy Koufax shared Drysdale’s famous proclivity towards plunking batters. (Koufax, like Walter Johnson, was reputed to throw inside fastballs very reluctantly.)  He tells the story of an incident against the Cardinals in which Lou Brock got Koufax angry at him:

…show me a guy who doesn’t like to pitch inside and I’ll show you a loser.

I have to laugh at people who criticize Sandy Koufax for being too perfect, for never throwing inside with the Dodgers. Nothing could be further from the truth, and if you don’t believe me, talk to Lou Brock. [p. 185]

Now, few of are ever going to get the chance to talk to Lou Brock, so Drysdale’s going to presume to present Brock’s point-of-view here, but just note for a second Drysdale’s belligerent tone: he’s laughing at the people who deny that Koufax ever threw an inside pitch (who are these people? I never met one), claiming he is going to reveal to us "the truth" (a very common claim—some of the most prevaricating baseball books, such as Don Baylor’s and Jimmy Piersall’s memoirs, place the words "the truth" prominently in their titles), and is challenging those readers who "don’t believe" Drysdale’s version of the following event:

He’ll tell you about the night he got a walk from Koufax, then stole second and third, and scored on a sacrifice fly. The Cardinals got a run without a hit and Sandy was irate.

Just to be clear, though Drysdale doesn’t say so, this game took place on May 26, 1965, which was easy enough to figure, since Koufax only hit Brock one time in their careers.  In the top of the first, Brock did not get a walk—he bunted the ball, and beat Koufax’s throw to first for a bunt single.  Brock stole second base, and then Curt Flood got an infield single to shortstop (that didn’t move Brock along), and then Brock and Flood pulled a double-steal. Ken Boyer then hit a fly ball to centerfield, scoring Brock.  So, if you’re scoring at home, that’s zero walks in the inning, and two hits for the Cardinals.  Koufax can’t have been pleased, but he certainly couldn’t have been irate that the Cardinals scored a run without getting a hit. They got two.

I was sitting in the dugout with Jim Lefebvre who had just come up to the ballclub.

I don’t know about "just come up," unless Drysdale means that this took place during Lefebvre’s rookie year, since this was the Dodgers’ fortieth game of the 1965 season and Lefebvre had played in all of them. In any event, there must have been some delay between Brock scoring the run and Drysdale’s comment to Lefebvre, because when Brock crossed home plate, Lefebvre had been playing second base.

"Frenchy," I said, "I feel sorry for that man for what he just did."

"Who?" he asked.

"Brock," I said. "Sandy doesn’t appreciate that sort of thing. Sandy gets mad enough when you beat him with base hits. But when you score runs without hits, look out."

Sure enough the next time Brock came up, Koufax drilled him in the back with a fastball. You could hear the thud all over the stadium. Brock went down like a deer who’d been shot. He got up and trotted towards first base, not rubbing, pretending he wasn’t hurt. But he never made it.  Brock just collapsed and they had to carry him off on a stretcher.

Actually, the only stretcher in this story is the story itself. Not only did Brock not get carried off the field on a stretcher, but he went down to first and promptly stole second base again. This wasn’t the only time Drysdale told this moral tale, about Brock’s harsh punishment for scratching out a run against Koufax.  He also told this colorful and dramatic story on-camera, as seen in this Youtube clip.

In the Youtube version, certain details have changed. (The dialogue with Lefebvre is entirely different, and it seems to stress the impossible point of watching the Dodgers’ defense from the dugout when Lefebvre was out on the field.)  Drysdale specifies that not only did Brock collapse a few steps after the HBP, but he missed a month of baseball as a result of it. No doubt a Koufax fastball hurt more than an ordinary fastball, but is there a huge difference between being plunked by a 97 MPH pitch and one thrown by a lesser pitcher like Drysdale or Gibson at a mere 94 MPH? If you’re inventing a myth, I suppose there is.

The whole anecdote seems fishy to me, for reasons apart from Drysdale’s embellishments. Koufax and Drysdale, after all, may have been the beneficiaries of the greatest hitless offense since the 1906 White Sox: the 1965 Dodgers were famous for scoring a run or two a game (that Koufax and Drysdale and sometimes Claude Osteen would turn into a victory) by putting together a sequence of an infield hit, a walk, a bunt, a stolen base, an error, which is precisely what—in Drysdale’s telling—so offended Koufax when Brock’s Cardinals did that to him. If Koufax got riled by Brock’s bunting for a hit, or stealing a base, or walking (or whatever Drysdale is claiming) to the point where he deliberately drilled Brock, isn’t that likely to result in opposing pitchers drilling Maury Wills, Willie Davis, and all the rest of the Dodger speedy and larcenous hitless wonders? I don’t really understand the purpose of Koufax’s purpose pitch, or why he decided to plunk Brock to discourage what his own hitters were famous for doing themselves.

Which brings up another lapse on Drysdale’s part: while it’s true that the 1965 Dodger team (and the 1966 version as well) was known for scoring runs one at a time in dribs and drabs, the Dodgers actually scored runs quite plentifully over the course of Drysdale’s career, despite his claims to the contrary:

our starting pitching during that brief era—Sandy Koufax, Claude Osteen, Bill Singer, Stan Williams, and myself—all fell in the period when the Dodger team didn’t hit a lot. [p. 137]

By including Stan Williams in his list of Dodger pitchers who suffered by the Dodgers’ offensive ineptness, however, Drysdale overgeneralizes and exaggerates the degree to which the Dodger pitchers suffered from poor run support. Williams was traded from the Dodgers following the 1962 season, when the Dodgers’ offense was very far from inept. During Williams’ years with the Dodgers (1958-62) they scored considerably over the league average in runs per game, and in 1962, Williams’ last year with the team, the Dodgers were an offensive juggernaut, scoring over 5 runs per game, barely behind to the 1962 Giants of Mays, McCovey and Cepeda.  The previous season they were also second in runs scored, and in 1960 they finished above the league average. In 1959, they tied for third in the league, and in 1958, they finished only nine runs below the league average, making Williams’ entire Dodger run a very healthy period of Dodger offensive output.

Going back even further to Drysdale’s rookie year, the Dodgers finished above league average in runs scored in every season, making the years from 1956 to 1962 six years out of seven the Dodgers scored more runs than the average NL team, the one exception being the year they finished nine runs off that average; in two of those seasons, 1956 and 1962, the Dodgers finished a very strong second in NL runs scored. Going further ahead in time to complete Drysdale’s career, over the final seven years (1963-1969) the Dodgers finished every year but one below the NL average in runs scored, ranging from just-above average to last in the league, so combining the two parts of Drysdale’s 14-year career, his team scored about as many runs as the average NL team. Can you ask for more than that?

Mike Emeigh’s analysis seems to agree with my ballpark estimate that Drysdale got just about the runs support he should have gotten over his career, though in 2014 there are still assertions being made flatly that "Drysdale pitched for teams that did not offer much run support.")

This is like complaining about other teams starting all their best pitchers against you: most teams have at least two quality starters, some teams have three, so you’re bound to run into a few long streaks where you’re facing consistent quality pitching. And in fact Drysdale does make this complaint:

…It always seemed to me that other teams set up their rotations to give us their best pitchers. Everybody liked to beat the Dodgers and kick us while we were down, which was an indication of how much success we had had. It was forever the Dodgers vs. the top guns. [141]

He has the good sense to preface this passage with "Maybe it was my imagination, but…." And it was his imagination, but that doesn’t prevent him from articulating a position at length that he should know to be untrue.

It’s not as if I didn’t enjoy reading both Drysdale’s and Linn’s books—they’re both well-written, and jam-packed with insights.  I learned some things from reading both books several times. But both are filled with misrepresentations of the way events actually happened, and these misrepresentations serve to support the authors’ moral positions, and teach some instructive lesson, rather than on what happened: Koufax lost his cool with Brock one day, Yaz decided to get in better shape one winter, Williams kicked some ass in his first managerial gig—no need to exaggerate these events into more than they were.


COMMENTS (15 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
That was me, though I hope you had more than one customer.
6:58 AM Apr 20th
Brock Hanke
Steven - That was YOU at the NY con? I remember speaking to you. You were great to talk to. Did you know that I actually sold the book at the con, but the publisher made mistakes so bad that I had to take it back? The publisher in question specialized in textbooks for schools. They were just trying to establish a commercial line. At the time, there were two book distributors: Ingram, which handled commercial books, and Baker, who handled textbooks. The publisher's relationship with Baker was fine, but they owed Ingram some money from a long-ago deal. It took them a while to find that out, and then they didn't want to pay Ingram, and then they finally gave in. But, by the time the were done with all that, it was mid-March, and so the book got released in April, at least 6 weeks too late. Fortunately, I had said NO! to their request for my mailing list. I got my copies to my regulars a little earlier, and so kept most of them. Realistically, thinking about it, I would have probably been better off just staying with mail orders. The books would have cost more per each, because the print run would have been shorter, but my profit on a mail-order sale was something like 3-4 times what it was on a bookstore sale. And I had to order more than I really needed, just in case the bookstore sales took off that particular year. I ended up eating a lot of books.
12:01 PM Apr 19th
.....and I hope that some 'latest' sabermetric stuff might support JoeD's position.

I figure it's pretty much exactly the same as the more recent Mattingly-Boggs argument. I don't know that they ever argued it in person with each other, but they talked about it in respective interviews. Mattingly was speaking specifically about RISP situations, and referenced Boggs; I don't know that Boggs referenced Mattingly, although he did reference himself, in the 3rd person: :-)
i.e. if he took a different approach, he wouldn't be Wade Boggs.
Mattingly thought the issue was pretty simple and dismissed the whole thing with a few words and a shrug: "He'd drive in more runs."

It is said that some pitchers said (I hate when people say something like that; I feel like Donald Trump) :-) .....said they'd rather face Ted than Yogi in a game situation, because Ted was happy to take the walk and leave it up to the next guy, but you couldn't pitch to Yogi.

BTW, while I'm sticking up for the JoeD-Mattingly-Yogi position, I don't understand why, if the pitchers felt that way, they didn't just walk Yogi and the hell with it. And we could say that the fact that they didn't just routinely do that casts doubt on how much they really meant it.
4:26 PM Apr 18th
Steven Goldleaf
Here's a bit of an ad for a future column: I found some stuff on Joe D. and Teddy W. disagreeing on what to do on close pitches that I may able to excerpt from. They had, as you can imagine, diametrically opposing philosophies.
3:22 PM Apr 18th
Brock -- Just to add to what you said about Ted Williams and swinging at the first pitch: There's a further reason why Boswell's reasoning doesn't work.

I gotta believe a big part of the reason Ted's hitting-the-first-pitch record was so good was because he did it so rarely -- and this extra reason had 2 separate reasons behind it:

-- 1st pitches were more likely to be fat because pitchers knew he didn't often swing at them.

-- Presumably there was at least a modicum of selectivity about which 1st pitches he would swing at.

If he swung at more of them, they wouldn't be so fat in general, plus there would be less selectivity.
12:09 PM Apr 18th
Steven Goldleaf
Yes, clearly you came under category 3, above:

"3) Many of the best of baseball books, including Bill’s Abstracts, are produced on very tight deadlines (to fulfill such needs as being in print at the beginning of the baseball season), and few writers are as committed to accuracy as Bill is, and was. So some errors will slip through, often glaring ones, especially with writers less driven to accuracy than Bill."

Your Abstract was among the best, but even the best can't meet the pace demanded of them. Incidentally, you and I met and spoke briefly in the exact period. I was hawking this book to publishers, in the Hotel Pennsylvania on 7th avenue across from Madison Square Garden, probably in the spring of 1992 at a SABR conference, I think. You were hawking your Abstract (I bought a copy from you, which is when we chatted). This is also the only place I ever spoke to Bill in, as well.
10:57 AM Apr 18th
Brock Hanke
Steven - Huh. I had no idea that Boswell was that bad. His reputation was very good for many years. When I read the Williams piece, I thought that Boswell just didn't understand sabermetrics - taking the full results of swinging at the first pitch involves a Markov Chain of all the states before you finally walk, K or put the ball in play. I doubt that Williams could construct a formal Markov chain, but he understood the concept of "if I don't put the ball in play, I'm 0-1."

I made the point about deadlines for two reasons. First was to show just how quickly it became impossible to get a really well-done sabermetrics annual out. The second was to give a real-world example of a situation where the editor was perfectly willing and competent to fact check, edit, and proofread, but just plain did not have the time. If you're not doing an annual, where you really must match the release dates of the competition, you always have the option of releasing at the end of the season instead of the beginning or something.
9:43 AM Apr 18th
Steven Goldleaf
Brock--Boswell was the phoniest "authority" going--my very first chapter was called "Mythifying Tom," in which I used his work to exemplify what I was talking about. He spun BS like no one else--he'd just make up numbers and then write a column based on some moral lesson those numbers taught. It's more than a little passe now, but I'll see if I can find some self-contained passages to re-print here to illustrate my surprise and disgust reading Boswell's books, which (I point out) had three separate chances to be proofed and fact-checked: they were originally newspaper columns, then he printed them in books (one was called How Life Imitates the World Series, or something close to that), and then the books got re-printed in some "classic" Baseball series--and nary a fact was checked. It was crazy.

And you don't need to tell me about the breakneck scheduling of baseball books--believe me, I understand. I addressed that issue in my list of reasons baseball books are such poor quality, but maybe you think I needed to devote more explanation to that one cause? They certainly would error-ridden if that was the only problem, but the other reasons don't exactly help.

5:45 AM Apr 18th
Brock Hanke
Steve - Here are a couple of notes just for fun (and if you'd sent me some of the articles from your book when I was self-publishing in the early 1990s, I would doubtless have printed some of them).

1) Publishing baseball books, especially sabermetric books, in the 1990s was an exercise in getting squeezed to death. It wasn't the number of books coming out, it was the release dates. Bill's 1980s Abstracts had come out in April, around the beginning of the season. But the Elias Analyst, which was basically a computer dump, started releasing earlier and earlier. When I finally gave the book up to Don Malcolm, who had more time, it needed to be at the printer just after New Year's, because the Analyst was reaching the stores by mid February. As a result, my books are full of terrible editing and proofreading, because I had no time to do any. I can proofread for money; looking at those books can be painful.

2) Here's one about a sportswriter who wrote an article designed to make him look good by just plain doing bad analysis. Tom Boswell, in an old issue of Sport, I think, reported a conversation he had had with Ted Williams. He was trying to convince Ted that he should swing at the first pitch, instead of taking all those balls, because his batting average on the first pitch was higher than it was otherwise. Ted was trying to talk sense into Boswell, but Tom failed to report what Ted was getting at. Your batting average on the first pitch is a phony stat, because it only counts your hits against your balls in play. And, if you swing at the first pitch and do NOT put it in play, what is it? It's a strike. You swung at it. So you should factor in both your batting average when putting the first pitch in play and also your eventual batting average when you start 0-1 in the count. Boswell dodged completely around this, although it was obvious, if you knew baseball, what Ted was trying to teach him. Trying to build your reputation by telling Ted Williams how to hit is generally a poor idea, I would suppose.
5:11 AM Apr 18th
Steven Goldleaf
I think maybe the Pharoah had the dream, and Joseph just interpreted it. It's been a long time since I've read the Bible.
10:32 PM Apr 17th
The difference being, of course, that you can't stick the excess run support into a silo, to haul it out when you need it a couple of years later.

Anyway, good stuff. I hope you'll favor us with more from this archaeological find.
7:29 PM Apr 17th
Steven Goldleaf
That's exactly what I was trying to say, raincheck--not that Drysdale or Ed Linn are evil, or bad writers, or anything of that sort, just that they're giving their impressions, which may or may not always conform to the facts. A human trait, for sure--an admirable trait, I'm less sure.

If I'd thought of Drysdale in this way when I wrote this piece, I would have worked in an allusion to the story of Joseph's dream in the Old Testament, the one about the seven fat kine, followed by seven lean kine. ("Kine" is cows.) He interpreted that to mean that Egypt would have seven good years, followed by seven bad years, in terms of crop production, so the Pharoah stored up grain for when the lean years would come. Drysdale's 14-year career broke almost exactly like that, seven years of strong run support, followed by seven miserable years.
2:16 PM Apr 17th
Thanks, this was great.

I think when players tell anecdotes like Drysdale they are working in an impressionist art form. Over the course of a number of 162 game seasons, lots of stuff runs together. But Drysdale doesn't wasn't people to think his friend Sandy was less than manly, and he remembers Sandy could get mad or frustrated and his a guy on occasion. After that it is an assemblages of remembered images and incidents, filled in with invention to bridge the gaps or emphasize the point. The base stealer has to be Brock, right, he is THE BASE STEALER of Drysdale's era.

He didn't go back and look up what happened. He created, whether consciously or not, a sort of historical fiction. A kind of Koufax parable.

But then, we all do. Human memory does these things. When I get together with old friends, our memories are all quite different, incidents get combined and jumbled, and eventually we can't remember, "was I there for this one or have I just heard it so many times I feel like I was?"

The central point of a story can be true, even if Brock didn't score by taking first on a passed ball on Sandy's 20th strikeout with two down in the ninth, stealing three bases, and then wasn't carried off in a stretcher and forced to gave up baseball and buy a florist shop.
11:39 AM Apr 17th
Drysdale's characterization of himself as someone who would drill a hitter is pretty accurate--he led the NL in hit batters 5 times, and hit 17 in another season without leading the league. He hit 18 or more in a season twice. (about 0.4 HBP per 9). Why did I specify that he hit 18 or more twice? Because Koufax hit 18 *in his career.* 1965--the year of DD's story--was Koufax's high-water mark--he hit 5 that season, in 335.2 innings...1 every 67 innings...0.07 HPB per 9 IP for his career.
3:57 PM Apr 16th
I imagine when you see a comment by me, you figure it's going to be some bitching :-) but not here. I love stuff like this, and if you write the whole book, I'll buy it. I love it in the same way that I loved Bill's "Tracers" and wished he'd do a whole book of them. I don't get mad at the mistakes, just find them so interesting, and funny -- often hilarious.

When I was a kid, and really all the way until Bill did his Tracers, I took for granted that baseball stories were accurate. The tracers brought out how unusual it is for even most of the details to be right -- and I soon realized that this applies to most retellings of any kinds, on any subject. It's not just a thing of whether a person is 'honest' or not; never assume details of fact from even the most honest person in the world.
1:25 PM Apr 16th
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