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
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.
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.