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May 4, 2000

Review: Baseball Dynasties

Rob Neyer and Eddie Epsteinís New Book

by Greg Spira

The upcoming end of the 20th century has inspired a great deal of reflection and list-making. Baseball fans have been subjected to Major League Baseball's "All-Century Team" as well as Top 100 player


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lists from every publication this side of Good Housekeeping. From a team standpoint, there was no doubt that the New York Yankees, who capped the 1900s with their 25th world championship, were the dominant baseball franchise of the century. But the more interesting, and more difficult, question is where the recent Yankee teams--especially the dominant 1998 edition--rank against the other great teams of the century.

Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein's new book Baseball Dynasties looks at the greatest baseball teams of all time and seeks to sort them out. The authors focus on 15 individual great teams from the 20th century, starting with the 1906 Cubs and ending with the 1998 Yankees. The primary question of how dominant each team was is addressed by using standard deviations. This basic statistical tool, which has been used sparingly by serious baseball analysts, is ideal for analyzing the greatness of teams. It points out how superior each great team was relative to its peers. This tool is used by the authors not just to examine individual seasons but to examine periods of up to five years in order to determine the dominance of the dynasty around the individual great teams.

It would be a mistake, however, to describe this book as a solid block of serious analysis driving towards its inevitable designation of a greatest team ever. It is anything but. The authors are determined to go off on tangents and have some fun with the topic. The book's style is reminiscent of the Bill James Historical Abstracts in the way the authors explore the teams from a variety of angles and tell compelling short stories. Keep in mind that there's nothing terribly offbeat--no ugliest player of the dynasty--to be found here.

The book thankfully doesn't ignore the teams that aren't fully measurable statistically. A short section on Negro League teams makes reasoned selections as to what that league's greatest teams were, while a chapter on 19th-century baseball uses the available statistics to choose the greatest teams of an era in which the rules of baseball were still evolving. Perhaps the most fun section for readers--though seemingly not for author Eddie Epstein--is the selection on the worst teams of all time. Here, too, the authors use standard deviations to identify the true dogs of the century.

The book's flaws are minor. The biggest problem is the final chapter, in which the authors make their way to their announcement of their greatest team through an awkward dialogue. Neyer's part in this conversation is often so silly (asking Eddie Epstein questions like, "Well, do you want to talk about their pitching, or should I?" and "Can you refresh our memories regarding the SD scores?") that it totally threw me. Also annoying is the sprinkling of "Rob" and "Eddie" throughout the book to identify the author of specific selections. This also has the effect of interrupting the book's flow.

Overall, though, this is one of the most intelligent new baseball books of the spring. While most new baseball books serve niche audiences, this book should appeal to a broad base of baseball fans. The central argument serves as a framework for both top-notch analysis and engaging storytelling.

Some reviews have criticized the book for being bland compared to the writings of Bill James, but that's an unfair comparison. Neyer and Epstein have produced a work that is probably more thorough and comprehensive than anything James has ever written, and it belongs on every baseball fan's bookshelf, both as an entertaining read and a permanent reference.

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