Like a good joke, a good story has to have an element of the unexpected to have any resonance. Baseball stories are no different.
Babe Ruth instinctively knew this, playing coy whenever asked if he really did call his home run off Charlie Root in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series.
Rob Neyer, in his “Big Book of Baseball Legends,” attempts to get at the truth behind Ruth’s infamous gesture, with the help contemporary newspaper accounts, player autobiographies and memoirs—and lots and lots of time devoted to Retrosheet research.
Did it happen? Did some of it happen? Or was it completely made up?
You’ll have to read the book to find out. But you won’t stop there.
Neyer performs a similar exercise on nearly 100 other (mostly) compelling baseball legends, like whether eccentric righthander Bobo Newsom really went undefeated for his career against Hall of Famer Lefty Grove.
Or whether Ted Williams really stepped in against minor league wild man Steve Dalkowski and afterward called him the fastest pitcher who ever lived.
Or whether Billy Martin really outperformed Jackie Robinson, and to what extent, whenever Martin’s Yankees would match up against Robinson’s Dodgers in the World Series.
Or whether Johnny Bench really caught a fastball from Gerry Arrigo barehanded—during a game—in an effort to get the big lefthander to muscle up on the pitch.
Since Neyer has read so many books about baseball and has such a firm grasp of the game’s history, he never lacks for source material. And while the book can get bogged down with details, while Neyer takes the reader down every avenue he traveled to get at the truth, such diversions highlight how much information the modern fan has at his fingertips.
Thankfully for us, he never lets his quest for truth sully a good yarn. After all, exaggerations of fact tell us much about the storyteller.
In that vein, Newsom provides the book’s most colorful quote as he recounts facing Hank Greenberg in 1938, when the Tigers slugger was chasing 60 home runs: “Ol’ Bobo whuffed him three times on ten pitches.”
It seems like a far-fetched claim, and Neyer’s research reveals that it is, in fact, an exaggeration. But how interesting is the fact that Greenberg went 1-for-4 without a strikeout?
“Big Book of Baseball Legends” is the third in a series, having been preceded by the “Big Book of Baseball Lineups” and “Big Book of Baseball Blunders,” and is recommended for fans of baseball history looking for something a little different.