- Purchase/rental options available:
NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 12.2 (2004) 155-157
[Access article in PDF]
Allen Barra. Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2002. 261 pp. Cloth, $23.95.
Author of "By the Numbers" for the Wall Street Journal andThat's Not the Way It Was (New York: Hyperion, 1995), Allen Barra has collected twenty-two of his articles, primarily about baseball, ranging from about eight pages to almost thirty. Most of the pieces are provocative and are grounded in statistics with which most readers are familiar. The book is good, but it should be much better.
The problems begin on the cover, as the primary title is identical to a work by Bill Starr (New York: Kesend, 1989). They are exacerbated when one turns to the contents and finds that the hyperbolic subtitle is positively misleading, for along with sixteen articles on baseball, Barra has included five on pro football and one on pro basketball. These articles contain much to like, but one reader may find them serendipitous while another may feel cheated.
Then there are the myriad errors, stylistic and factual. It's difficult to say which ones are more disturbing. The stylistic gaffes (including subject-verb agreement, wrong forms of past tense, and typographical errors) are incredible coming from a writer for theWall Street Journal. The factual missteps make it appear that Barra hasn't reviewed his research, and they undermine his credibility. [End Page 155] However, Barra often shows himself to be a solid stylist and careful researcher, leading the reader to wonder if editors, proofreaders, and fact-checkers are extinct. Such sloppiness has become a disturbing trend in baseball books from a variety of publishers.
Among the factual errors, several are especially galling. In discussing competitive balance Barra identifies 1948 as "the year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier" (p.89); moreover, in the chart he has constructed to prove his point, Barra has the Dodgers playing in Brooklyn in 1959 and gives them the team's winning percentage for 1955 (p.184). The worst, though, appears in the essay "Minnie Minoso: The New Latin Dynasty," wherein Barra argues correctly that Minoso was the first great black Latin player and that he has never received the recognition he richly deserves. He notes that trouble began in Minoso's rookie year of 1951, when Gil McDougald of the Yankees received the Rookie of the Year Award ahead of him. Being a Yankee undoubtedly helped McDougald, and race probably played a part. The injustice did not go unnoticed at the time as Baseball Stars for 1952 printed an article under the byline of Paul Richards, Minoso's White Sox manager, titled "Minnie by a Mile!" Minoso had a superb season, outhitting McDougald .326 to .306 and posting superior power and speed numbers. Barra, however, undercuts himself irretrievably by noting that McDougald hit only .263 in 1951 (p.178), when in fact he did so the next season when he underwent a sophomore slump. Minoso also slipped a bit in 1952. In truth, McDougald had a fine rookie season and went on to a productive career, playing several positions and contributing to the Yankees' string of pennants and World Series titles through the decade. But Minoso had a better rookie season than McDougald and went on to a longer, more productive career on inferior teams despite being five years older than McDougald. All of this is obvious at a cursory glance.
Making these errors particularly distressing is that Barra is superb and convincing in many of his articles, never resorting to statistics not available in standard references likeTotal Baseball. A handful of examples that won't unfairly reveal Barra's findings will show just how good he can be. In the essay "Getting Tough with Babe Ruth," he effectively debunks the myths that Ruth saved baseball, brought about the live-ball era, was a great all-around ballplayer, or was a dominant team player. He takes apart the idiotic...