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rob neyer Q+A: the art of storytelling

of yesterday’s game, the less said the better; fortunately i have an interview ready to go. last thursday i talked to ESPN’s rob neyer about his latest offering, Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends. neyer is often thought of as strictly a numbers guy, but that's not really true --- witness this book, which is essentially a work of history. neyer delves into dozens of oft-retold baseball stories and tries to sift out fact from fiction. a lot of the stories are ones you’ve heard many times --- there’s a long section on The Babe’s called shot, perhaps the most famous baseball legend ever --- but there are also a lot of delightful ones that you’ve never heard before. you'll find quite a bit of st louis material in the book too, including multiple appearances by dizzy dean and whitey herzog and a refershingly liberal dose of st louis browns lore.

neyer and i started out talking about the book and veered off into discussions of al hrabosky, brian bannister, greg maddux, and other random subjects. i also got the chance to spot-check one or two of neyer’s own memories. thanks to rob for taking the time to chat --- you can find the Big Book of Baseball Legends in the stores or order it online via (and keep on eye on the website; some of the baseball legends that didn’t make the cut for the book may be posted there periodically this summer . . . . ).


What prompted the subject matter for this book?
Well, I had done quite a bit of research when I worked for Bill James back in the early 90s. Bill published "Tracers" --- some of which I wrote and some of which he wrote, but almost all of which I researched ---- we published some of those in all three of the Bill James Baseball Books I worked on [1990 through 1992]. Each of those had a few things we called "Tracers." I always enjoyed that work. That was probably my favorite task that he gave me. I would go to the library --- this was pre-Retrosheet, obviously --- I would go to the library and pore over microfilm literally all day long, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I’m lucky enough that my editor at Fireside gives me a fair amount of leeway in what I write. It wasn’t a situation where we had to try to figure out what the market was for a book of that type. I just decided I wanted to do this book, and we hoped that there was a market for it.

How did you pick out the stories? You mentioned in the foreword that these are favorites of yours --- are we talking about notes written on scraps of paper that you’ve had tucked in a folder somewhere?
Some of them I did have saved up. I had a few saved up from when I worked for Bill; I had an old file folder labeled "Tracers" that I’ve kept for all these years. And when I read baseball books, I tend to make notes on the last page of the book, including notes about possible stories to check. I went through most of the Baseball Digests from the 1950s and 1960s looking for stories. I went through a number of collections of oral histories, which are probably the best source for these sorts of stories. I have a pretty significant baseball library; I could have found literally thousands of stories. At times I would research a story immediately when I found it, but usually I’d just type it into my computer and then look for more stories. And then when I realized I had enough, I stopped collecting and started researching.

In writing your introduction, it seemed like you went out of your way to convey your sense of affection for these stories --- that even though you are debunking a lot of them, you’re doing it in a spirit of respect. I got the sense that perhaps you want to distance yourself from the sort of angry, mocking type of debunking of baseball tradition that is so often found these days, particularly on the Internet. You really empathize with these stories.
Oh sure --- I love a well-told story, and it really doesn’t matter to me if it’s true or not. Maybe because it’s I’m not a great storyteller personally. I can write a story out, but if you and I were sitting in a bar having a couple of beers and I was trying to tell you a good story, I would mess it up about 10 seconds in. I have a real affection and respect for people who can tell a story well. I don’t think the word "debunk" ever entered my head in this entire process. It was really just me being curious about what really happened. As when, as was often the case, the facts didn’t exactly match the story, that’s fine --- let’s find out what did happen. Let’s try to find out where the story might have come from, where the kernel of truth really is. In most of these, there was something there. I don’t think that most of these stories were fabricated out of whole cloth. I think they all evolved from something solid. I wish I could have found that solid thing more often than I did, but I did go to some effort to check out other possibilities, to try to figure out where a story could have come from, what might have actually happened.

The one that pops into my mind is the Whitey Herzog story about Vince Coleman stealing a base in a game the Cardinals led 10-3 over the Giants. Almost every particular of the story was wrong --- and of course this story was published; it wasn’t something Herzog told in a radio interview, it appeared in one of his books --- but he had the year wrong, he had the score wrong, he had the inning wrong. Almost every particular of the story was wrong. But the essence of the story was completely true, and the fact that he had all the details wrong almost doesn’t matter.
What’s interesting about that story to me is that I think it’s just as good a story with the actual particulars. Sometimes when a story changes, the storyteller --- whether consciously or unconsciously --- has made the story better, more entertaining. I don’t know if this one is better the way Herzog tells it than it would be if you told it with all the facts. I think he just forgot all the facts. [Here's the actual box score --- see the bottom of the 5th inning.]

In this case, the real facts are actually better than hazy facts in Herzog’s story. In the process of getting to the truth, the story has become a more rich one.
I hope so. That was the idea generally --- to make the stories even more interesting and more illuminating. I think too that in the course of doing the research and going line by line into these things, we discovered some other things that weren’t mentioned in the original story at all. So I hope there’s some added value there. There’s also a lesson in the Herzog story, which is that I believe his book came out in 1999, and the actual incident took place I think in 1986 --- either 1988 or 1986.

The actual incident took place in 1986, but Herzog remembered it as 1987.
Right, 1987 --- when the Giants were good. And so essentially we’ve got a story that Herzog was recalling 12 or 13 years after the fact, and getting many of the details wrong. Now think of how many stories are told about things that happened 40, 50, 60 years ago. You wonder how many of those details must be way off. I love the stories, but I know people who take their baseball history seriously. And if you take it seriously, then you want to know what really happened.

interview continues after the jump . . . . 

Herzog appears frequently in the book --- not only in the main stories but also in a number of the sidebars. I love the one about Whitey and Satchel Paige [in which Herzog challenges Paige to throw a fastball through a tiny hole in the outfield fence]. Of course, that’s one that could never be verified one way or the other, but it’s an excellent story that stands on its own.
That story has really stuck with me over the years. I first heard it years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. I wanted to put it in the book, knowing I could never check it. There are a number of stories like that in the book, in the sidebars. I try to add something to them --- a little historical perspective. In that case, I used Herzog’s story as an excuse to write about how well Paige pitched for the Miami Marlins in the late 1950s, when he was already over 50 years old, or in his late 40s. All the stories, on some level, were an excuse for me to discover something I didn’t already know. I had no idea how well Paige pitched, and that was an excuse to drop that fact in there.

What are your thoughts about the Internet phenomenon as it relates to this idea of getting to the real truth? Obviously you’ve got huge fact-checking troves out there now like Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference, and you’ve got a lot of bloggers who rely on those sources and really make good use of them. But there’s also a lot of misinformation that gets promulgated on the Internet --- a lot of information gets passed on that really hasn’t been verified, and that turns out to be bogus, in some cases deliberately so. On the whole, do you feel that the Internet is increasing our grasp of the real truth, or do you feel like it’s decreasing it? Or is it just a wash?
I’m not exactly objective on the subject, because I make my living on the Internet, but it seems to me that the ability to find the objective truth is being increased by the Web. It’s true that people can write whatever they want and disseminate whatever they want, but to me Wikipedia is a great example of the power of the truth, or something close to it. Sure, you can go in and change the entry for Mad Magazine, and say that William F. Buckley was the president and publisher for 7 years before he went on to the National Review, but somebody else is going to notice that.

I spend a lot of time looking at Baseball Think Factory’s newsstand, and I read the comments. I usually don’t even bother reading the article. I just go straight to the comments. When somebody writes something that’s patently false or silly, it gets knocked down pretty quick. I think it’s self-correcting. It’s pretty hard to get away with BS for too long on the Web.

The response can be merciless. But I think there’s still a segment of the audience out there that doesn’t want to accept truths that are counterintuitive, or at least counter to their experience --- that rejects the facts when they are too inconvenient to accept.
Well sure, but you’re always going to have those people. And I happen to think that there are fewer of them now than there were five years ago.

One of my favorite stories in your book was almost 100 percent true --- the story of Tommy Lasorda’s final minor league game. [Lasorda, then a pitcher, asked God to help him get out of a jam; the next batter hit into a triple play.] He did embellish some of his career accomplishments, but the individual story pretty much checked out.
That’s right. I think he had the inning wrong, and maybe the bases were loaded instead of just two runners on. We can’t confirm that he said a quick prayer before the triple play, but must of the details that we can check out do check out --- and boy, it sure is a fun story. Tommy Lasorda’s a great storyteller. I could have put a dozen Lasorda stories in the book.

Who is in the game today, particularly among the managing corps, who are gonna be our storytellers 20 years from now? Who are gonna be the lovable old geezers?
Boy, that’s a great question --- I don’t have an answer. I don’t think that the writers are asking the managers for stories, and I think the managers don’t have the same opportunity to tell stories that they used to. Fifteen or 20 years ago, one of the things that you were supposed to do if you were, say, an out-of-town writer covering a Tigers game, was to talk to Sparky Anderson and get him to spin yarns. Nowadays, when are you gonna talk to a manager? Almost every manager now has a post-game press conference where he sits on a dias and answers questions about the game, and there’s not really a chance for a writer to ask him about some incident from his career 30 years ago.

I happen to think that we are losing the art of storytelling. We’ve been losing it for a long time. There was a time 20 years ago when everyone was expected to tell stories. That was part of our culture. And I don’t think it is anymore. My inability to tell a good story is reflective of that ---

Of our generation, perhaps.
I think that’s right. Maybe it’s because of television. Sparky Anderson, who was born in the 1930s, he can tell a story. People born in the 50s and 60s --- I’m not saying they can’t tell stories, but it’s not like it was. The managers today, most of them seem like very bright guys who know a lot about baseball, but if they’re telling a story they’re not telling it for all of us to hear. They’re doing it on the airplane with the coaches. There was a time --- you know, Baseball Digest used to run a dozen anecdotes in every issue. You don’t see things like that anymore. Tell me where to go to find a good baseball story from 1987. It’s very difficult. Sometimes broadcasters will have one, but we don’t value the baseball storyteller anything like we once did.

I think Greg Maddux might be somebody who could spin out some tales. There was even just one in which he appeared as a protagonist, where Brad Penny was the storyteller --- Penny said Maddux basically called his game for him from the dugout, and Penny threw 7 innings of 2-hit ball or something like that. The core of that story is about Maddux’s superior powers of observation --- his ability to read his opponents’ tendencies. I think observation is at the core of storytelling too; maybe I’m overanalyzing, but it seems like he could probably tell some pretty good ones.
I haven’t noticed Maddux being all that thrilled with telling stories. He’s a pretty no-nonsense guy. But I do think he’d probably have some good stories if he chose to tell them. One of the things you discover when you’re looking for stories is that the ones that tend to be remembered are the ones about the greatest players, because we struggle to describe their greatness. And Maddux is very tough that way, because when you watched him pitch even at his best 10 years ago, you weren’t awed by his fastball or his changeup or his cut fastball. It was like he was working on such a different level intellectually than anyone else in the game. So when we can, we’re going to seize upon stories that help explain that and simplify that. I think in 10, 20 years when people are writing books about Greg Maddux, you’ll find a lot of stories like that Brad Penny story.

There is a Maddux story in the book [about the last homer he gave up to Jeff Bagwell]. It didn’t check out, but the essence of the story is that he was smarter than everybody else. And I’ll bet you that someday you can find a few dozen anecdotes of stuff like that. Even though the Bagwell story does not check out, the fact is that someone wouldn’t tell the same story about Sidney Ponson. So it does tell us something about Maddux even if we can’t verify it. It’s certainly illustrative.

I’m curious if you have any memories of your own that might not check out. I’ve got one that I’ve been unable to verify, despite putting some effort into it using Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference and some of the other new tools. Do you have any personal impressions that you’ve tried to check out and haven’t been able to?
It’s funny that you ask. I have this memory of Frank White hitting a home run to win a game in the fall of 1985, and I’ve never checked it out because I’ve clung to the assumption that my memory is perfect. It probably isn’t. I have some memories of White laying down a bunt single late in that season; my memory of Frank White is all about the game-winning home run and the bunt in late September. I have no idea if it actually happened. But I haven’t checked because I’ve trusted myself. And I should know better. [Scroll to the end of the interview for a spot-check on Neyer’s memory.]

I have one in particular that’s been driving me a little crazy. I attended a game in the mid-1970s where Ted Simmons and Bill Madlock, who was then with the Cubs, got into a brawl --- and the brawl was precipitated by Al Hrabosky going into his Mad Hungarian routine behind the mound. Every time he’d get back on the rubber, Madlock would step out of the box. And then when Madlock would step back in, the Hungarian would go back behind the mound and do his psyche-up routine again. And eventually words were exchanged, and Simmons and Madlock started going at it. I’ve gone through the archive looking for any game in St. Louis in which Hrabosky pitched an inning in which Madlock came to bat, and I can’t find the game. But I was there.
One of the stories I do remember from my youth --- and I should have remembered this one before --- also involved Hrabosky. I remember very vividly being at my grandparents’ house on summer vacation in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, which is Cardinals country as you know, and I have this incredibly vivid memory of Hrabosky coming into the game with the bases loaded and I believe even falling behind the first batter 3 and 0, and then striking out that batter and the next two batters. I would have bet just about anything that this happened. Well I tried to check it out a few years ago when I was working on my Baseball Lineups book, and I could not find anything. These things lodge in our heads, especially when we’re young, and once they’re there --- I don’t know much about how memory works, but my guess is it’s self-reinforcing. Things pop in there, and then the next time it pops in, we think about it again and that reinforces it, and that happens over and over again --- and eventually we know that happened. Even though it didn’t. [This memory also spot-checked at the end of the interview.]

So we shouldn’t judge any of these storytellers too harshly for getting a detail or two wrong. It’s gonna happen to any of us. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the gist of a story is invalid.
Oh sure. I’m confident that I saw Al Hrabosky do something, and it made a real impression on me. I’m just not sure what it was.

And I sometimes wonder if the brawl I was thinking about didn’t actually involve Bill Madlock --- but I remember it as Madlock because he was such a combative presence. He fits into that story. Since we’re discussing Hrabosky, he’s one of the Cardinals’ primary TV broadcasters now, and he’ll spin a decent yarn from time to time. I wonder if broadcasters are going to be that link to storytelling for the future.
I think that’s right. Ken Singleton spins a couple of yarns every single Yankees broadcast. They’re paid to do two things: Analyze the game and tell stories about their careers, or stories they’ve heard during their careers. And the analysis is not that rough for the most part. They know things we don’t know, obviously, but you can only analyze a double play so many times until people get it. So I think storytelling is a big part of what they’re supposed to be doing. If I had a guy in the booth who wasn’t a good storyteller or didn’t have good stories, I’d find somebody else who did. Because you need that. A well-played anecdote can really carry a broadcast forward.

Is there one story in this book that ranks as an absolute favorite? Either because the story itself was compelling, or because the detective work you had to do on it was so compelling?
I love all of them. I think the story that leads off the book is the one that’s the most illustrative of the things that can happen to cause tall tales to perpetuate themselves. It’s a story about a bean factory that explodes. And the story, as improbable as it may sound, has been repeated in highly credible sources by highly credible writers, even in just the last 10 years or so. One can only wonder how many stories were published in a book at some point and then picked up and just considered to be the gospel. And most of them aren’t the gospel. One of the things that was surprising to me was just how few of the stories did check out. I didn’t have any preconceptions going in. I knew they wouldn’t all be true; I knew they wouldn’t all be false. But I didn’t really have a feel for what the breakdown would be --- 80 percent true? 80 percent untrue? I had no idea. It was only when I actually started digging into the research that I realized that the percentage of stories that are mostly untrue in terms of the details that we can check is much higher than the percentage that’s true. It got to the point that I began to root for stories to be true, just to balance things out. I don’t want people reading the book just to assume that every story is untrue. There are a lot of true stories in there, but not as many as I would have thought.

Were there any stories that you really identified with, and it kind of hurt to find out that it was substantially untrue?
I have a pretty hard heart when it comes to this sort of stuff. There’s a story about the Red Sox catcher Sammy White hitting a game-winning homer off Satchel Paige in which White, when he gets back to home plate, bends over and kisses home plate. I really wanted that one to be true. And it turns out that it was almost precisely true --- almost every detail was right on. That was one that I sort of was rooting for. But I sort of rooted for all of them.

Let me ask you about the Royals really quickly. How are they doing so far?
They’re off to a good start; I believe they’re 8-6. People are somewhat excited. I don’t think it’s merited, because I don’t think they’re going to score enough runs to be competitive, given how few walks they take and how few homers they hit. I certainly think they have a chance to win 76 games and finish 3rd, and that would be a big improvement for them. But when you look at the lineup, once you get past Alex Gordon and Billy Butler --- and maybe Mark Teahen, but I think the jury’s still out on him --- I just don’t think there’s enough offense there. And that’s going to be an issue. Also, most of their success so far is due to these 1.00 ERAs posted by Zack Geinke and Brian Bannister. I like those guys, but they’re not that good. When they start giving up 3 or 4 runs a start, and the Royals can only score 3 or 4, they’re going to take a nosedive at some point. It’s just a matter of how far down they dive.

Bannister’s an interesting character. He’s starting to emerge as the stat-nerd hero in spikes. This guy really seems to enjoy numbers the way a lot of us non-pro athletes do, and he seems to enjoy conversing with us. It’s interesting.
I actually had a thought the other day about him. We may describe him as the first postmodern pitcher. He can not only do these things --- and I’m sure other pitchers have done them, in terms of getting batters to ground the ball to third base --- Bannister’s the first one who ever talked about it in the same terms that the analysts use. It really is fascinating. I’m actually a little bit surprised that it’s taken this long. This baseball generation is the first that is really conversant with the web. And most of the really interesting baseball analysis that people read is on the web. Greg Maddux probably isn’t going to be reading The Hardball Times. Bannister basically grew up with the Internet, and he’s obviously a very bright guy, so it isn’t surprising that a bright guy who grew up with the Web might ask himself: Hey, I wonder if there’s anything on the Web that can help me pitch? It turns out, there might be. And even if the Web doesn’t help him pitch, it certainly helps him discuss the issues in a way that many of us can understand. I think it’s fascinating, and I feel really lucky that he’s a Royal.

What’s surprising to me is how available he is. He’s talked to a lot of bloggers, and he’ll share what’s on his mind.
In the back of my mind, there’s always that niggling possibility that it’s all going to come apart, and that his batting average on balls in play is going to jump up to .300 like it does for almost every other pitcher in the world, and his ERA will jump up to 4 and a half or 5. He’ll still have a job in the majors, but he’s not nearly as interesting that way.


* * * * * * * * *

so, what about that frank white game-winning homer, anyway?

it didn’t happen in september 1985, i can tell you that. white’s only homers that month came in a 6-0 victory on September 10, a 7-2 win on September 15, and a 4-1 loss on september 27; he also hit a 2-run shot on october 3, the day the royals clinched a tie for first place, but he hit it in the first inning. but white did have a game-winning hit on september 21 --- a 10th-inning walkoff single that drove in george brett from 2d and kept the royals in a tie for first place. that’s probably what neyer is remembering.

as for rob’s memory about al hrabosky --- that actually happened on abc’s nationally televised monday-night game of the week, on may 9, 1977. the big red machine was at its height --- the reds were fresh off their 2d consecutive world title, with bench rose morgan foster et al still in uniform. hrabosky entered the game in the top of the 9th, with the cardinals having just score tied the score 5-5 the previous half-inning; he gave up a leadoff hit to griffey senior, walked morgan, and gave up a bunt single to dan driessen. then he struck out george foster (who was in the midst of his 52-homer season), johnny bench, and pinch-hitter bob bailey. in his entire career, hrabosky only struck out 18 men with the bases loaded ---- 3 of them in that inning. the cards won the game in the bottom of the 10th on a leadoff homer by ted simmons.

i was there. but here's the funny thing about memory ---- i don't remember hrabosky's exploits. i only remember the simmons walkoff. . . . .