When I was in elementary school we used to order books through something like the book-of-the-month club. It was a great time to purchase paperbacks that might be of interest to us.
One of the first books I remember ordering was a biography of the first five inductees into baseball’s Hall of Fame. I do not remember the title but I do recall being fascinated by the stories of these baseball stalwarts: Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth. Little did I know that many of the “facts” behind these legends were simply bogus.
It really is a shame that many of the great stories from baseball’s glorious past are unfounded. They tend to make our “heroes” more dramatic than they need to be. Often it is the players themselves who either embellish or make up incidents to boost their image. Sometimes it’s poor recollections by either a player or one of his contemporaries and then printed as “fact” by a newspaper or author. Confirmation is not part of the equation.
With these discrepancies in mind it was refreshing to receive a title from a local author who debunks many of the great myths of baseball and several of the not-so-great as well. Bill Deane, who lives in Cooperstown and spent eight years working at the Hall of Fame, has written a book called “Baseball Myths: Debating, Debunking, and Disproving Tales from the Diamond.” It clears up a lot of misconceptions about our national pastime.
With respect to the five original legends of the game, Deane proves that the Baby Ruth candy bar was indeed named after the Babe (I heard that it wasn’t), Mathewson did not develop tuberculosis due to inhaling poisonous gas in World War I (he probably already had it), and Honus Wagner did not break several of Ty Cobb’s teeth with a baseball when Cobb attempted to steal second with his sharpened cleats flying during the 1909 World Series (Cobb never tried to steal second). These incidents just scrape the surface.
Deane deserves a lot of credit because to disprove many of the myths of baseball requires detailed analysis of baseball statistics, box scores and historical records of the game. The author clearly is a statistical junkie. He belongs to an organization called Society of American Baseball Research, which includes people like himself who have an extraordinary love for the game, its statistics and its history.
Many of the myths are a relief to know aren’t true. Ty Cobb was one of the least-liked players in the game so it’s not surprising that some of the negative stories about him take on a life of their own. I was under the assumption that he once won a batting title over Shoeless Joe Jackson by deliberately being cold and standoffish to his “friend” and impressionable fellow Southerner to depress Jackson and affect his hitting. Cobb ended up batting .420 that year and Jackson .408. Thanks to Deane’s research of the newspaper accounts of that time he proves that the cold shoulder routine could not have occurred.
The movie “Eight Men Out” about the 1919 Black Sox scandal where some of the White Sox players accepted bribes to throw the World Series implies the rationale for pitcher Eddie Cicotte’s involvement was that White Sox owner Charles Comiskey cheated him out of a $10,000 bonus for winning 30 games by ordering him benched after winning 29. Deane proves that it was just Hollywood taking huge artistic license. There is no evidence that there was some dastardly plot to undermine Cicotte or that there was even a bonus offered at all.
Sometimes a myth can be based on a popular jingle. One of the most famous in baseball is the one involving the Chicago Cubs’ infielders, Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance. A baseball writer wrote a poem that had the famous tag line, “Tinker to Evers to Chance.” It implied they were a great double-play combination, but the records showed they were average at best. Their real claim to fame, other than the jingle, is that they played together for 11 straight years.
I only found three possible flaws with the book.
At one point Deane tries to disprove the idea that the Kansas City A’s were essentially a farm team for the New York Yankees during the 1950s. Deane might be right, but is likely to provoke a debate with another local author. Cooperstown mayor, Jeff Katz, wrote an entire book on the subject, “The Kansas City A’s and the Wrong Half of the Yankees,” and is quite convincing that the A’s were providing players for the Bronx Bombers. After reading both accounts I would have to side with Katz making the more compelling argument.
The second one involves a myth that Deane debunks too well. In trying to prove that the head-first slide is less dangerous than the feet first one, Deane is so determined to make his case that he lists more than 60 examples where a runner hurts himself sliding feet first. Five or six would have sufficed. I lost interest after that.
Finally, in describing probably the biggest controversy in baseball history, whether or not Babe Ruth called his home run in the 1932 World Series, Deane may have got the myth backwards. I always thought the legend was that Ruth pointed his finger to the center field stands for his “called shot.”
Deane says the myth is that he never pointed at all. The truth is that he did point his finger but probably at the Chicago Cubs’ dugout where they were taunting him. It would explain why eyewitness accounts have people both swearing he pointed or he didn’t. Whatever the truth, Deane at least provides a thorough discussion of the incident.
These “flaws” are just minor details or maybe just a “myth.” For anyone who loves baseball this is an enlightening read. It covers so much ground that you are bound to learn something you didn’t know before. Like Babe Ruth’s “called shot” baseball provides a lot of intrigue. Deane just brings it out.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.