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Baseball Dynasties: The Greatest Teams of All Time
by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein
I became a baseball fan in Minnesota in the late 1960s. Not a bad time and place to become a baseball fan. In 1969 the Twins won the AL West going away, Rod Carew led the league in batting (.332), Tony Oliva in hits (197) and Harmon Killebrew in HRs (49), RBI (140) and On-Base Percentage (.430). Killebrew was named the league's Most Valuable Player while the Twins' 790 runs topped the majors.
Ah, but there was a dark cloud over my sunny beginnings. It blew out of the AL East and was named the Baltimore Orioles.
Blessed with great hitting from the likes of Frank Robinson and Boog Powell, great defense from such perennial gold glovers as Mark Belanger, Paul Blair and Brooks Robinson, and great pitching from Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer, the Orioles were a behemoth, the biggest bully on the block. In both 1969 and '70, the Twins faced the Orioles in the best-of-five playoffs and never won a game. It was almost a relief when the Oakland A's won the A.L. West in 1971 so they could be humiliated by the Orioles. As they were, three games to none.
It's some small comfort, then, that this 800-pound gorilla from my childhood is among the contenders for the title "The Greatest Team of All Time" in Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein's new book Baseball Dynasties.
Neyer, a daily baseball columnist for ESPN.com, and Epstein, who has worked in the front office of the Baltimore Orioles and San Diego Padres, admit to the lack of novelty in their quest. However, as they write, "Most of those other books [on great teams] are either based solely on the writer's subjective opinion, or they're based on arbitrary and simplistic statistical analysis."
Rather than the simplistic variety, Neyer and Epstein focus on the type of statistics usually reserved for textbooks. The glossary contains not only such standard baseball fare as OBP and Slugging Percentage but the new standard OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging), not to mention RC (Runs Created), OW% (Offensive Winning Percentage), the Pythagorean Method (how many games a team should have won based on runs scored and runs allowed) and SDS (Standard Deviation Score), which the authors describe as "A measure of a team's performance in a given season, relative to its league, (using) its runs scored and runs allowed totals and how many SDs from the mean (or average) those totals were."
Whew. Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.
On the plus side, Neyer and Epstein are more than stats geeks; they are students of the history of the game. They focus on 15 great teams, from the 1906 Chicago Cubs to the 1998 New York Yankees, and look not only at SDS but questions such as "How Were They Built?," "What Brought Them Down?," "Worst Regular," "Hall of Famers," and postseason record.
In the margins the authors also include what was going on around the majors that particular year, which is fun reading. October 5, 1929, for example, found Met Ott of the Giants and Chuck Klein of the Phillies tied for the NL homerun lead with 42 and facing each other in a double-header on the last day of the season. After Klein hit his 43rd homer in the first game, "Philly pitchers issue five straight intentional (or semi-intentional) walks to Ott, the last of them coming with the bases loaded." You hope that Klein at least bought dinner for his pitchers afterward.
Additional chapters include "The Best of the Nineteenth Century," "The Greatest Black Teams," the teams that just missed making the list ('54 Indians, '60s Cardinals, '88-'90 Oakland A's), and "The Worst Teams of All Time," which shockingly does not include any Mariner squads.
Finally, the two authors go head-to-head before ranking their greatest teams. Both wind up picking the same team as number one. Big surprise, it's a Yankee squad. Interestingly, it's not the '27, '61 or '98 versions.
Occasionally Epstein and Neyer get a little nitpicky with their comments, such as when they argue that Mickey Mantle wasn't a clutch hitter or the '27 Yanks weren't efficient run producers. And Neyer, who's a very good writer, can go off on unexpected and illogical tangents. He criticizes the imbalance of the '27 Yankee line-up, for example, writing "I can't help but wonder what would have happened if Ruth or Gehrig had broken an ankle or something." If Ruth or Gehrig had broken an ankle, the '27 Yankees wouldn't be considered one of the greatest teams of all time. But neither of them did break an ankle. That's why we're discussing them. "If" shouldn't enter into the argument.
My nitpicking aside, Baseball Dynasties is a fun book, well-grounded in statistics and research, and written by two men who obviously love the game. It should provoke as well as settle many a baseball argument.
Oh, and those bullying 1970 Baltimore Orioles? They wind up number two (Neyer) and number three (Epstein) of all time. No disgrace, I guess, to have lost to those guys. In fact, after all these years, I almost see it as an honor.
—originally published in The Grand Salami
© 2000 by Erik Lundegaard