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March 8, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Baseball, the Internet, and the Ease of Accuracy

by Sam Miller

This is an article about three different types of tall tales that the internet threatens to make extinct.

The Honest Mistake
The next year, I moved from New York to New England, and it made all the difference. For in September of 1957, in the same situation, the story was reversed. Mantle finally hit .365; it was the best season of his career. But Williams, though sick and old, had run away from him. A bout of flu had laid him low in September. He emerged from his cave in the Hotel Somerset haggard but irresistible; he hit four successive pinch-hit home runs. "I feel terrible," he confessed, "but every time I take a swing at the ball it goes out of the park." He ended the season with thirty-eight home runs and an average of .388, the highest in either league since his own .406, and, coming from a decrepit man of thirty-nine, an even more supernal figure. John Updike, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, 1960
 

There are few greater credits to the journalism industry than the New Yorker fact-check department. It’s a staff of 16, fluent in a wide range of foreign languages, who essentially re-report every piece. In The Art of Making Magazines, fact-checking director Peter Canby wrote about a pair of fact-checkers spending two months on a single piece. On the radio show On The Media, he explained the department's process:

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  He says New Yorker fact checkers do reporting in reverse.

PETER CANBY:  In other words, we take pieces apart and put them back together again. We talk to the writer’s sources. And we also try to get to the people who were mentioned in the story who maybe the reporter didn’t even speak to. If we have a second-hand characterization of somebody else’s activities then we will try to either get the reporter to go to that person or go to that person ourselves, just to get their perspective on things.

This isn’t a recent development, either. In The Art of Making Magazines, Canby singles out the era when the magazine was edited by William Shawn, which began in the early 1950s. That era includes 1960, when John Updike wrote "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," which might be the most famous sports-related magazine article ever.

And yet, just three years after Ted Williams’ incredible feat—four consecutive pinch-hit homers—supposedly happened, the New Yorker’s fact-check department was unable to sniff it out as false. Surprising, considering how absolutely absurd an accomplishment it would have been: Not just mathematically unlikely—roughly 1 in 40,000 chance of it happening—but almost impossible to top for unforgettable drama, like if Kirk Gibson had won all four games in the 1988 World Series with four crippled home run swings.

Here’s what really happened: Ted Williams did get sick with “a heavy chest cold” that confined him to a hotel room in 1957. He appeared in a game on Sept. 1 and a game on Sept. 17 but nothing in between. He did homer in his first appearance back, tying the game in the eighth inning on a 2-1 pitch slugged 10 rows back in right field. He did pinch-hit in four consecutive appearances, though one of the four was on Sept. 1 and, therefore, before his hibernation at Hotel Somerset. He did homer in two of those pinch-hitting appearances, though they were non-consecutive. And he did—and this is probably the nugget that got distorted—homer four times without making an out in between, though only two of those home runs came in pinch-hitting appearances and they were actually spaced out over five games and nine plate appearances. From his first post-sick appearance, this was what Ted Williams did, at the age of 39, while recovering from an illness than knocked him out for more than two weeks:

Game 1: Pinch-hit home run
Game 2: Pinch-hit walk
Game 3: Pinch-hit home run
Game 4: Started. Intentional walk, home run, walk, walk
Game 5: Started. Walk, home run, single, walk
Game 6: Started. Single, walk, walk, walk, HBP

Six games, 16 plate appearances, no outs. Six games, 16 plate appearances, and a 1.000/1.000/3.000 line. He finally grounded out in his first plate appearance of his seventh game back, but also homered that day.

The truth is less mathematically curious but probably more impressive than what Updike wrote (and, at roughly 1 in 60,000 odds given Williams' talent level at the time, less likely). So there’s not necessarily incentive for Updike or the New Yorker to get it wrong; it might have just been hard to get it right. Certainly, I don’t want to imply that in 1960 there were no records kept and that it would have been impossible to get this information correct; but what would take perhaps 100 seconds to find today would have taken perhaps hours in 1960. Williams did return from illness as a pinch-hitter, and concurrently he did start a streak of four consecutive home runs (in official at-bats). Getting more specific than that would have taken actual research, even just three years later.

The Big Fish Story
“I went to fifteen thousand on Alfredo Edmead. I saw him and Alberto Lois at the Pan-American Games in 1975, and about fifteen scouts were there from other clubs and the Pirates just knocked ‘em out of the box. … And get this: Edmead in his first year of pro ball hit .331, and by August 15 he had sixty stolen bases, thirty-one doubles, fifteen triples, and eight home runsand that night he runs in from the outfield for a fly ball, dives for it, hits his head on the second-baseman’s knee, and it kills him! He may have been the best ballplayer I ever signed.”Howie Haak, scout, as quoted in Dollar Sign On The Muscle.


The story of Alfredo Edmead is part of a long monologue by Haak, an 11-page passage that, in a continuing theme of the book, is at its core an unwitting reflection on the subjectivity (for good and ill) of the individual. That is to say, it’s a lot of tall tales. The story of Edmead’s death is, tragically, true, and truly tragic:


That article includes this superlative:

"Kinder quoted Harding Peterson, director of the Pittsburgh farm system, as saying Edmead was the best young hitter he had seen in his tenure with the Pirates."

So it isn’t as though Edmead’s greatness was just a trick of the memory. He was one of just four position players younger than 19 in the Carolina League that year, and he had a .396 OBP, so he was clearly an elite prospect. As Sports Illustrated said at the time, “He was not yet a Roberto Clemente, but the promise was there.”

That article above, though, also includes a very different batting average than Haak quoted: .313. Baseball-Reference lists it at .314. The rest of Haak’s numbers are similarly off.

Haak: 60 stolen bases, 31 doubles, 15 triples, eight home runs.
Real: 61 stolen bases, 18 doubles, seven triples, seven home runs.

It’s such an odd collection of numbers Haak claimed. So specific. Not 30 doubles; 31 doubles. Not a .330 average; a .331 average. And the triples and doubles numbers aren’t just substantially wrong; they’re wrong by margins of nearly 100 percent.

But that’s what big fish stories are. They’re so impressive as to defy belief, but so specific as to encourage it. And though Edmead might really have been the best prospect the Pirates’ staff had ever seen, the numbers he put up in such a short period of time aren’t absolutely conclusive. There were two teammates who were around his age and played full seasons that year, and the three of them were (statistically) very similar:

  • Edmead (age 18): .314/.396/.429, 61 steals
  • Steve Nicosia (age 18): .304/.359/.496
  • Miguel Dilone (age 19): .333/.414/.424, 85 steals

(Nicosia and Dilone each had journeymen careers in the majors.)

Maybe Edmead really was far, far superior. That’s what scouts can know about 18-year-olds that we, looking at batting lines, can’t always know. Haak’s story is a lot more convincing with his numbers than the real numbers, is all, and 30 years ago the better story had no natural predator.

Also: It’s a crime that Edmead doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.

The Nobody-Will-Check-Anyway Lie
“There is one all-time greatest moment in the history of sports and it happened in the 1932 World Series. The story goes that in the bottom of the ninth inning, with two outs, a full count and the tying run on base, Babe Ruth raised his arm and pointed to the center field bleachers. No one believed it because nobody had ever done it before, but the Babe was calling his shot. On the next pitch, the Great Bambino hit a towering 400-foot home run, and although he'd been a hero before that, that's pretty much how he became a legend.” The Sandlot


Such a pointless fib. Yes, Ruth hit that home run, and yes it’s one of the all-time greatest moments in the history of sports. But it was in the fifth inning, and it was on a 2-2 count. This is such a small lie, small in sin but also so unmeasurably small in value that I’m not sure any movie with a budget would try to slip it past us today, when it’s just so easy to check these things online.

The lie was not in the first draft of the movie. From an early script for The Sandlot Kids, we see how the movie was originally to open:
 

NARRATOR (CONT'D)

          To understand how it all got started,
          you have to go back...
                        
         WE PULL BACK FROM THE MOON - like a baseball in the sky.
                        
                         NARRATOR (CONT'D)
          ...to the all-time, hands down, complete
          and undisputed Legend that ever lived.
                        
         A BASEBALL in someone's hand. WE PULL BACK FROM IT.
                        
                         NARRATOR (CONT'D)
          In any language, in any country, in
          any world. The Sultan of Swat. The
          King of Clout. The Great Bambino.
          You have to go back to...
                        
         BABE RUTH is holding the baseball.
                        
                         NARRATOR (CONT'D)
          ...The Babe.
                         (BEAT)
          There's never been anyone greater than
          The Babe. And when he called his famous
          full count homerun in the 1932 world
          series, he made sure he'd live forever.
                        
                        THE BABE
                        
         hits a homerun. Settles into his signature, locomotive
         basepath chug.
                        
                         NARRATOR (CONT'D)
          And it's a good thing he became
          immortal, because without him, what
          happened that summer, absolutely never
          would've happened. Weird thing was,
          before I moved to the neighborhood, I
          had no idea who he was. And he played
          a game I knew nothing about.

The full-count error is in that draft, but the ninth inning isn’t. Somewhere along the way, either the director of the movie or some studio executive apparently decided that the description of that home run needed to be more dramatic. What’s more dramatic than the ninth inning? Guess we should count ourselves lucky that they didn’t set it in the seventh game of the World Series.

Interestingly, the movie actually undercredits the distance of Ruth's home run. A towering 400-foot flyball wouldn’t have come close to fulfilling Ruth’s pledge. From Wikipedia:

Root's next pitch was a curveball that Ruth hit at least 440 feet to the deepest part of center field near the flag pole (some estimates are as high as 490 feet). The ground distance to the center field corner, somewhat right of straightaway center, was 440 feet. The ball landed a little bit to the right of the 440 corner and farther back, apparently in the temporary seating in Sheffield Avenue behind the permanent interior bleacher seats. Calling the game over the radio, broadcaster Tom Manning shouted, "The ball is going, going, going, high into the center field stands...and it is a home run!" Ruth himself later described the hit as "past the flagpole" which stood behind the scoreboard and the 440 corner.

But, of course, the exact distance is still open to some dispute. So is Ruth’s intention when he pointed out toward center field. There are, and will always be, plenty of questions that Baseball-Reference can’t answer.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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