Review: Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders

Baseball books come in four basic categories:

1) References. These are the ones chock full o’ dry facts, tables, and stats. These are your encyclopedias and annual guidebooks and such. They don’t make for the most captivating reading, and the worst of them are at their most interesting when shredded up as bird-cage lining, but the best are indispensable resources, enduring as trusty dog-eared friends.

2) Coffee tablers. Lavishly illustrated, often jumbo-sized. The accompanying text in the worst of these is treacly syrup, while in the best of them (such as the terrific work of Eric Enders) it’s sharp and incisive, but let’s face it: we don’t enjoy these books for the text anyway. They’re all about the pretty pictures. (In this way they’re sort of like some magazines that, um, our friends have told us about.)

3) Actual, you know, book books. Several hundred pages of straight prose, organized by chapters, following a traditional narrative arc, usually chronological. Most often these are biographies, sometimes histories. The master of this form is Roger Angell, though his books are collections of his shorter New Yorker magazine pieces. The best of these get repeat readings, but most of these tomes, let’s admit it, are received as Christmas presents or something, and we read them once (if that), and for the rest of their lives they sit there on our shelves, gravely appearing to be important, while forlornly gathering dust.

4) Collections of short features, including a little bit of everything: some essays, some stats, some illustrations, some sidebars. These books are literary dim sum, or tapas; not a straight full-course meal, but instead a variety of bite-sized goodies, that one can sample as one chooses, rarely the same way twice. Bill James’ Abstracts (both the original annuals and the historical versions) were of this structure.

Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders is an example of the latter type. In fewer than 300 pages, it presents about 40 essays, most of them (obviously) quite short, as well as countless sidebars, quite a few brief tables, and numerous photographs. Neyer incorporates the (explicitly credited) work of several collaborators, even allowing them to write of couple of the essays.

The strength of such a format is its easy accessibility: it’s the kind of a book you can pick up at any time, flip to any page, and quickly jump into this or that topic. However, the approach does have its pitfalls: the variety of pieces creates a risk of extreme unevenness in quality and/or tone, and the brevity of each element creates a risk of superficiality.

The Problematic Predecessor

Blunders is Neyer’s second book in what’s apparently intended to be an ongoing series of “Big Books” of this type. The first was his Big Book of Baseball Lineups, published in 2003. I purchased that one and found myself rather disappointed by it. It was a fun book, no question, but somehow it never quite engaged me the way I hoped it would. It suffered a bit from the superficiality problem, as countless intriguing issues were touched upon but rarely pursued with much vigor, and at any rate the fundamental concept of all-time team lineups is inescapably fluffy. Moreover, that organizational hook—for each franchise, several all-time lineups based on this or that positive or negative or just-for-fun criterion—seemed to work better in theory than in practice. While many of the arrangements of players were enjoyable and occasionally illuminating, the format became somewhat overbearing, the structure sometimes too much for the content. It wasn’t a bad book, by any means, but it hasn’t been one that I’ve found myself picking up and thumbing through very frequently.

So I approached this new one with a certain degree of, shall we say, lowered expectation. I’m delighted to report that it far surpasses my expectation and is indeed worthy of high praise.

Getting It Right This Time

Neyer’s introduction sets it up nicely:

What’s a blunder? Here’s what a blunder isn’t: a blunder isn’t a physical mistake or an error in judgment in the heat of the moment. In other words, in my book (in this book) it’s only a blunder if there was premeditation. Bill Buckner did not blunder when he let that ball squirt between his legs; John McNamara did blunder when he let Bill Buckner let that ball squirt between his legs.

So that’s one requirement: the blunder must be premeditated. Somebody has to have thought, “Hey, this would be a good idea.”

Another requirement: a reasonable person might, at the time, have made a reasonable case for doing something else.

… And thirdly—or rather, ideally, because some of the blunders in this book don’t completely meet this test—the blunder must have led to some reasonably ill outcome.

… Premeditation. Contemporary questionability. Ill effects. That’s the perfect blunder.

We’re on page IX, and he’s grabbed me already. This is a conceptual framework with far more inherently interesting possibilites than the Lineups idea could ever hope to deliver. All of history is, of course, an elaborate tapestry of triumphs and defeats, of shrewd choices and foolish ones. But while we’re generally well-acquainted with the success stories, we’re often less familiar with the failures, so this book promises new discoveries. Besides, failure stories are often the most engaging anyway, perhaps because of their element of heartbreak. So Neyer’s choice to focus on strategic blunders immediately opens up countless avenues for intriguing inquiry, and very human drama.

It’s a brilliant concept, and while Neyer’s delivery upon it isn’t always quite so brilliant, he admirably meets the challenge. Fundamentally, he adopts and maintains just the right tone for a work that deals, after all, with people behaving badly: Neyer never gloats, never assumes a posture of smirking superiority, never takes pleasure in others’ agonies. While his style is good-humored, the book doesn’t laugh at the blunders, and while Neyer doesn’t pull punches in assigning accountability for failures, neither does the book seek to shame or scold. Instead Neyer succeeds at finding the proper element of warm-hearted empathy, while never (well, almost never, and we’ll get to that in a moment) letting a blunderer off the hook. It’s an exercise in taking lessons from the blunders, and he pulls it off with an enjoyable, positive flair.

What About Neyer’s Blunders?

A work of this type is a compendium of opinions, of course. From the choices of which blunders to include, and through the examination of each scenario, Neyer and his collaborators fully open themselves up to challenge from the reader’s differing opinions. Indeed that’s the essential purpose of such a book: the idea isn’t for the reader to always agree with the opinions presented, since the interesting dynamic is the way in which reasonable observers can draw different conclusions from the same set of factual circumstances. So long as the book presents its scenarios fairly and accurately and explains its reasoning, it’s held up its end of the bargain. If Neyer can persuade the reader of the soundness of his opinion, that’s great, but it’s by no means a requirement for the book to be fully illuminating and entertaining. The fun of a book like this is entirely the manner in which it provides the framework for a thousand good-natured hot-stove arguments that will never be resolved.

So while I generally agree with the assessments and conclusions presented, there are more than a few cases in which I don’t see things Neyer’s way. Two in particular come to mind: his treatments of a couple of the most notorious franchise ownerships in history, the Harry Frazee Boston Red Sox of 1917-1923, and the Arnold Johnson Kansas City Athletics of 1955-1960. In each of these essays Neyer is taking an historical scenario which is widely perceived as a blunder and assessing whether it should fairly be seen that way. In both cases, Neyer decides that the owner’s sequence of choices (which most prominently included Frazee’s deal in which Babe Ruth went to the Yankees, and Johnson’s that put Roger Maris in pinstripes) which have been thoroughly characterized by mainstream understanding as foolish at best, and scandalously deceitful at worst, were actually well-intentioned, reasonable, and defensible.

My response to both of these is, well, nice try, Rob. The cases Neyer presents in defense of Frazee and Johnson, while interesting (for instance, Neyer debunks the story that Frazee sold Ruth specifically to finance his Broadway production of No, No, Nannette—I learned something there), fall far short of being persuasive. Nevertheless, while Neyer doesn’t convince me to alter my opinion of these episodes, his examinations are well presented and stimulate me to refresh my thinking.

The book has one sequence which simply gets some facts and numbers wrong: on the opening page of the essay on the disastrous season finish of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, there are a few obvious typos regarding dates and standings. But this is the only such boo-boo I found, and I was purposely looking for them; indeed for a complicated book filled with as many charts and dates and statistics and other factual minutiae as this one, the absence of errors is highly impressive. The fact-checking and proofreading must have been arduous, and they were very well done.

The Bottom Line

This book is an ambitious endeavor: broad in scope, dizzying in detail, and requiring not just painstaking research, but insightful commentary, with a careful eye for stylish and attractive presentation. There are a whole lot of ways in which Neyer might have made himself a prime subject for someone else’s book of blunders, but this book sets lofty goals for itself and largely achieves them. It’s a substantial work of baseball history, which never succumbs to heaviness or tedium.

It’s the kind of book you can randomly flip open and lightly, pleasantly kill five minutes. It’s also the kind of book with which you can get blissfully lost for a whole afternoon. I have every expectation it will also be the kind of book that won’t get dusty on my shelf.

This thumb is way up.

References & Resources
Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders, by Rob Neyer (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

In the interest of full disclosure: Rob Neyer and I have engaged in a small amount of friendly e-mail correspondence over the past few years, though we haven’t (yet) met in person. I’ve sincerely endeavored here to provide as objective a review of his work as I can.

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