More than a decade ago---heck, almost two decades ago---Bill James' long-time assistant, Rob Neyer, would supplement James' works with sidebars known as Tracers, short features that delved into the historical record to track (and often correct) the recollections of old ballplayers and sportswriters. These were excellent entries, always fascinating, and Neyer carved a certain niche in my mind as a result of them. About five years ago, approximately five years after Neyer landed a columnist's gig at ESPN.com, I noted in an email exchange with a friend in the baseball analysis community---himself the author/contributor of several books---that a book centered around the Tracer concept would make a worthwhile read.
The Big Book of Baseball Blunders is Neyer's fifth book (as a solo author or in tandem), and it comes the closest to a sustained Tracer effort. A previous "Big Book," the Big Book of Baseball Lineups, was, by Neyer's admission in the introduction to his new book, "essentially three hundred pages of tables." A previous collaboration with Neyer's aforementioned mentor, James, the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, was essentially 250 pages of lists, with fifty pages of essays thrown in. (Neyer's first effort, Baseball Dynasties, co-authored with Eddie Epstein, did feature quite a bit of Tracer-type material, and upon reflection, probably provided the motivation for my email comment.) Insofar as I generally prefer prose to tables and lists, I would be inclined to enjoy Blunders more than Lineups or Pitchers. And I am happy to report that Neyer's latest work is his most interesting yet.
Like most of Neyer's books, Blunders is not meant to be read sequentially---well, nothing is stopping you from doing so, but such an approach is certainly not a requirement to appreciate the book. It is essentially three- or four-dozen essays---Tracers, if you will---assembled around a common theme. The vast majority of the essays are discrete entries (accompanied with sidebar mini-Tracers), and if you want to skip ahead and read "October 15, 1925: Big Train Runs Out of Steam," or "Summer of '40: Yankees Eat Crow" (always a great topic, mind you), or "Spring 1922: Runnells Shifts Wallach," go right ahead. This book is proudly a member of a lesser-intensive genre that encourages sporadic reading while listening to a game on the radio, or late at night when you can't sleep, or while riding public transportation, or . . . well, you know.
The theme binding all of the essays together is the concept of a "blunder." While you sort of know one when you see (or recall) it---as Potter Stewart might say---Neyer takes great lengths distinguishing his "blunders" from common mistakes, "bloopers," or boners (of Merkle's variety). In other words, Bill Buckner's inability to scoop up an infamous groundball, although a blooper (of tragic import), was not a blunder; John McNamara's decision to leave Buckner in the game, might (and does) qualify.
Essentially, Neyer identifies three qualities common and relatively necessary for a decision or non-decision to classify as a "blunder":
Premeditation: Sort of a strange way to phrase it, but what Neyer means is opportunity for sufficient forethought. Or, as Neyer clarifies, "Somebody has to have thought, 'Hey, this would be a good idea.'"
Contemporary Questionability: This is a reasonable person under the circumstances analysis; in other words, could someone "have made a reasonable case for doing something else"? If not, the "blunder" would solely be the product of hindsight, which would invalidate it as a blunder.
Ill Effects: That is to say, actual harm. As Neyer explains:
You're not going to find much in this book about the St. Louis Browns or the Boston Braves or other similarly woebegotten franchises, because their fortunes were far beyond the reach of just one move, good or bad. In fact, many of the blunders were committed by good teams and good managers and good general managers. Their blunders are generally the ones that mattered.
Essentially, what Neyer seeks to capture is baseball negligence, and "harm" is the last element of a negligence analysis.
And those are Neyer's aims: "Premeditation. Contemporary questionability. Ill effects. That's the perfect blunder." By Neyer's admission, a few of his selections fall short on the last element, but the vast majority do---and, often, when they don't Neyer is on hand to refute contemporary wisdom as to what did cause the ill effects.
In 1944, the Browns won the pennant---their only pennant---by one game. They came reasonably close to a repeat the following season, finishing in third place, six games back of the Detroit Tigers. The query of the Gray chapter is whether the one-armed man, who couldn't hit a pinata with a butt the size of Livan Hernandez, cost the Browns the pennant.
And this is where we see an interesting double-play by Neyer: In vintage Tracer fashion, Neyer questions (and perhaps refutes) a statement by an old ballplayer, Babe Martin, and argues the position that Gray did not cost the Browns the pennant---in other words that Gray's rather extensive playing time for the Browns (seventy-seven games, 234 at-bats) wasn't a blunder.
Which isn't to say that Neyer champions the memory of Pete Gray (who, incidentally, passed away in 2002). He doesn't argue that giving Gray playing time was a particularly wise move. But Neyer's research uncovers that the Browns had on their 1945 roster not one, not two, but three of the ten worst hitters in the American League among players with at least 150 plate appearances. Gray ranked sixth-worst in the AL in on-base plus slugging. The worst figure belonged to another Brown, catcher Red Hayworth. And Gray's buddy Babe Martin, who said in no uncertain terms that the Browns would have won the pennant without Gray? That same Babe Martin ranked eighth-worst.
In fact, while Neyer imagines Gray would have been a significant liability on groundballs into the outfield that he handled, the record indicates that the Browns were eleven games above .500 in games where Gray had three or more plate appearances. The Browns, by the way, finished eleven games above break-even overall.
In other words, Neyer asserts that, whatever Gray was (and it certainly wasn't great), the one-armed outfielder wasn't the cause for the Browns' failure to capture the pennant. Consequently, Gray did not represent a blunder. (If anything, his reputation suffered from an icy disposition and from debuting at a time when marketing opportunities where few, unlike Jim Abbott.)
So, Pete Gray is something of a non-blunder-blunder. But there are plenty of other blunders out there. Some of them seem debatable (sticking with Walter Johnson in Game Seven of the '25 World Series, for instance), and some of them seem to lack a certain importance or clear causation (switching Tim Wallach to first base as the symbol of Tom Runnells' downfall in Montreal). But many of Neyer's selections are no-doubters, and quite a few of those are emphatic What the hell where they thinking?! selections: The Cubs' "College of Coaches." Robinson-for-Pappas. Spike Eckert. Denny McLain to DC. Don Zimmer, '78 stretch drive. Maury Wills, manager. Collusion. Bagwell-for-Anderson (though Lou Gorman is allowed a spirited defense). And, yes, Grady Little.
It is my belief that no one writes about baseball history with as much creativity, clarity, and wit as James does---or, at least, used to; as sportswriter Bob Ryan once noted, the beauty of James is that the guy can really write. By comparison, Neyer is utilitarian and his humor is forced. But this is not intended as an insult. As noted, Neyer has carved a special niche for himself in springtime baseball literature, and Blunders is his best effort to date. Like James' Baseball Books of old, Neyer has provided baseball fans with an engaging and accessible work---one that will be there for you weeks, months, and years from now.
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[editor's note, by Basil] For those scoring at home, I have diverted from my original review schedule; this weekend was supposed to be Mind Game weekend. But I purchased the Neyer book recently, and it's more timely. Furthermore, the subject of next week's review will be Tom Adelman's Black & Blue, which is both timely and features Frank Robinson as a major figure. The review for June 4 will remain, as scheduled, Alex Belth's Steppin' Up. Mind Game will be combined with another Baseball Prospectus book, Baseball Between the Numbers, at a later date, and the original selection for next week, Steve Stone's Where's Harry?, will be reserved for a rainy day. I plan of posting links to all reviews on the sidebar in the near future.