Book Review: The Baseball 100

The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski

I’m going to start with melancholy. On the antepenultimate page of The Baseball 100, I started feeling a profound sadness. Now, you don’t get 820-odd pages into a book if you don’t like it; it wasn’t a sadness of disappointment. It was a feeling that has accompanied me a handful of times in my life (near the end of the Harry Potter books, during the movie Black Panther, right near the end of Pride & Prejudice, the end of Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography… surely there’ve been others, though) when I start to mourn the loss of a thing that’s not yet over. I was reading those words about the #1 ranked player, and I was sad to leave the world of the book. I didn’t want to stop reading Posnanski’s prose. I didn’t want to stop hearing the stories of ballgames and childhoods and the way the game has changed and the ways it’s remained the same. I wanted just to be in the moment… which took me, rather profoundly, out of the moment.

But, damn it all, I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t shut the book to let it drag out. Posnanski’s writing is just too good.

OK, so all the mea culpas here – I’ve been pretty absent from the site for a few months. Life is busy, what can I say? Sometime after the World Series, I will get some season-end awards vote posts up. But first, I want to share my review of this book with you all.

I read The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski. I read it all. Every word on every page. Cover-to-cover.

This alone would be an accomplishment.

Of course, had I not contracted COVID last week* and spent the past five days quarantining separately from my wife and son, I’d probably only be halfway… but that’s life. Here’s my review of the book.

*I’m feeling fine; thankfully, I was double-vaxxed (Moderna) and have had very mild symptoms. My wife and son are negative, though, so it’s making for a weird home environment right now!

The Baseball 100 might not be the best baseball book ever written, but it’s certainly the best one I’ve ever read. Whatever your angle on baseball, there’s something for you. If you love stats, you’ll be pleased to know that Posnanski regularly relates stories about his friendship with Bill James, and Tom Tango was a consultant on the book to help Posnanski clarify his rankings. If you love history, you’ll appreciate Posnanski’s insights into the early days of the 20th century. He did a huge number of tracers on stories and quotations to dig to the bottom of where they came from. Spoiler: a lot of people didn’t say the things they said. (That’s a spoiler for the Yogi Berra section; I assume you recognize the bastardized quotation.) If you are a father or a son, you’re going to meet the best and the worst of both, because that might just be the theme of the book, as, other than the game of baseball, stories of players’ fathers may just be the most common thing mentioned in the book.

The book includes nuanced takes on race in baseball (which, next to fathers and sons, may be the next-most frequently-mentioned topic of conversation; it’s unavoidable when you tell baseball’s history). Other books have done nuance on race and baseball; other books have done nuance on fathers and sons. But did you want to read a nuanced take on Alex Rodriguez, or Roger Clemens, or Barry Bonds? Have you ever wanted to know how someone takes the story of Ty Cobb and tries to find a real person, not just a caricature? Are you young enough, like me, to think of Pete Rose as a fat and bitter old man who was once a singles hitter that Baby Boomers inexplicably love? Well, get ready to see all the shades of these players.

Because, more than anything else, what Posnanski does is tell stories about players. He makes you connect to them. He pulls you in to players you’ve loved and makes you look beyond the legends. He pushes you to connect with the guys you’ve hated – whether because of their conduct, or just because they happened to be drafted by the wrong organization – and empathize with them. That doesn’t mean, in Posnanski’s book, that you have to root for them, or excuse them, much less like them. But he begs you to understand them. In the course of 100 essays (roughly 8-pages each, which doesn’t sound like much until you hold the dang book in your hands) on these players, each of whom is worthy of (and nearly all, if not all, of whom have actually had entire) biographies, Posnanski makes you feel them all. He takes you to the game that we all love, and brings it alive in print – a talent not everyone possesses.

The worst moments of the book are when Posnanski decides to stop being Posnanski. Every once in a while, he goes off on a Bill-James-like tangent. I always love James’s tangents. You’ll think you’re reading a story about Craig Biggio, but it’s actually about how valuable the “little things” of baseball are. But Posnanski is always best when he’s on-topic. The only other complaint is that it’s too long. Honestly, Posnanski himself recommends against reading it the way I did – cover-to-cover. Read the stuff that interests you. Skip over guys if you want. I do think the first quarter of the book or so is not quite up to the level of the rest… but it’s all good stuff. The only other flaw, really? No Table of Contents. Posnanski didn’t want people to stand in a book store, read the list, and figure, “I got what I wanted. Now I don’t need to read it,” which is fair. But it’s a little annoying as a reader. Of course, you can use the index in the back – that alone is 33 pages long, which kinda tells you all you need to know about the book.

He’s at his best when he’s telling Buck O’Neil stories. (If you’ve read Posnanski before, you already knew that.) When he’s trying to sell you on a Negro League player for whom we have only sketchy statistics, Posnanski really gets you to buy in completely.

To make the recommendation complete, I was going to pick out a couple of favorite essays in the book. I figured, you can always go to a book store, read one of the good ones, and decide if you wanted to read the rest. The problem is, there’s no way to make a shortlist; they’re all good. (For what it’s worth, Posnanski himself said the book really came together for him when writing Carlton Fisk, pg. 124.) If I had to call out one essay, I would say that the Alex Rodriguez touched something in me that I would never have expected. Many of them shared stories I’d somehow never heard before – including one in the Johnny Bench essay that will now be a staple of storytelling for me. So if you want to check out the book, I would encourage you to do it. Best 15-ish hours I’ve spent in a while.

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Doug
Doug
1 month ago

Thanks Doom,

Sounds like a worthwhile read.

Get well soon.

Paul E
Paul E
1 month ago

Doom,
Thanks for the review and get well. Just have to ask: It appears that George Will, in a foreword, mentions a few factoids, including “Willie McCovey did something Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Barry Bonds never did – hit .300, score 100 runs, take 100 walks and drive in 100 runs in seven consecutive seasons.” Did Posnanski state as much? Just saying….cause it didn’t happen. Maybe it was removed from later editions?

Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
1 month ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Good question, Dr. Doom. With so many of the greatest players falling short of seven such years in a row (including Mays, Musial, Aaron, and Mantle), I figured there must be a few extenuating circumstances keeping the answer from being obvious. Otherwise, with this being the player’s first seven full seasons, he would have accumulated enough WAR that Mike Trout would have had trouble keeping pace with him; instead we had Trout setting new standards for most WAR to start a career every season. So, it seemed likely the answer was someone who played a non-premium position (DH? 1B? RF?),… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
1 month ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Kind of funny….I checked Bagwell but not Frank.
Is Mathews the greatest player to never win an MVP (in the BBWAA era)?
Mel Ott?

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul E

I though this was interesting.
By MVP Vote Shares:

  1. Eddie Murray, 3.33
  2. Mike Piazza, 3.16
  3. Manny Ramirez, 3.06
  4. David Ortiz, 2.95
  5. Al Kaline, 2.93
  6. Mel Ott, 2.87
  7. Derek Jeter, 2.77
  8. Bill Terry, 2.72
  9. Kirby Puckett, 2.56
  10. Bob Feller, 2.49

If you don’t want Feller at #10, the next position player is Gary Sheffield at 2.48. Mathews shows up at 1.61; there are probably 30 more players between Feller and Mathews.

But yes; I would say it’s got to be either Mathews or Ott in the BBWAA era.

Doug
Doug
1 month ago
Reply to  Scary Tuna

Those 113 games are, of course, the fewest in a 100/100/100/.300 season. Second fewest is surprising – it was George Selkirk in 1939 at 128 games but only 537 PA, just 20 PA more than Thomas. Mark McGwire (1996) and Babe Ruth (1919), both in 130 games, are the only others to do so in fewer than 550 PA. Mike Trout’s 134 games and 600 PA in 2019 are the fewest in a 100/100/100 season batting under .300.

Doug
Doug
1 month ago
Reply to  Doug

Looking at Ruth’s 1919 season, surprising how similar it is to Ohtani’s 2021 campaign. Surprising, that is, considering how much has been made of Ohtani’s season being “unprecedented”. Ruth’s HR total was the most in a season all time, and most of his other batting totals were league leading (actually, all his black ink led both leagues). So, a league-leading season at the plate for Ruth vs. an outstanding one (but not league-leading) for Ohtani. Both pitched about the same innings and faced similar numbers of batters, but Ohtani definitely gets the edge, as reflected in their ERA+. Ruth’s SO/BB… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Doug
Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
1 month ago
Reply to  Doug

I came up with a couple tonight in Fergie Jenkins and Wes Ferrell. Jenkins had 10.1 WAR pitching and 1.7 batting for an 11.8 total. Ferrell had two – maybe three – seasons similar to 1919 Ruth: 1935 (8.2/2.4), 1930 (8.3/1.1), and 1931 (6.2/1.8). I look forward to reading about other ones that you find, Doug.

Doug
Doug
1 month ago
Reply to  Scary Tuna

Probably best place to start is Walter Johnson. Every season from 1912 to 1918 was 7+ pWAR (6 of those 7 seasons were 9.9+ pWAR) and 0.9+ bWAR. Others of note: – Dwight Gooden 1985 (12.2 + 1.1) – Hal Newhouser 1945 (11.3 + 0.9) – Pete Alexander 1916 (11.0 + 1.0) – Bob Gibson 1969 (10.4 + 0.9), 1970 (8.9 + 1.2) – Smoky Joe Wood 1912 (10.1 + 1.3) – Dizzy Trout 1944 (9.3 + 1.6) – Jose Rijo 1993 (9.2 + 0.9) – Babe Ruth 1916 (8.8 + 1.6) – Babe Adams 1913 (8.3 + 1.0) –… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Doug
Richard Chester
Richard Chester
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul E

Per my consecutive seasons spreadsheet the top 4 are Frank Thomas (7 seasons), Ted Williams (6), Lou Gehrig (4) and Jason Giambi (4). If Williams had not been injured in mid-1950 he would have had 8 consecutive seasons.

Doug
Editor
1 month ago

Fox has bombarded us in the first two games of the WS with a host of firsts, but many are so heavily qualified that they really lack any meaning or interest. A few tidbits of note. – Soler being first player to homer as the first batter of the World Series was an interesting Fox reveal. – Only the third time both game 1 starters lasted fewer than 3 innings, the others happening in 1923 and 1966. Both of the 1966 starters started a second time (in a game lasting only 1 hour, 45 minutes), despite being only a 4-game… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Doug
Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
1 month ago
Reply to  Doug

I wonder what the general frequency of games to start with a homer is. 1/118 sounds low to me… but I could be wrong. There are about 118 games in a little over a week…. maybe 8 or 9 days. Do games lead off with a homer only a little less than once a week? Maybe that is right. I don’t know. If anyone has the research, I’d be intrigued.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
1 month ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

I hope I understand your question. In 2021 there were 70 lead-off HRs in approximately 2430 games or 1 for every 35 games. From 1916 to 2021 there were 2553 lead-off HRS in approximately 184000 games or 1 for every 72 games.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
1 month ago

Thanks, Richard. That’s the info I was looking for. So if we go with the long timespan, giving us 1/72 games, we’re probably still within a standard deviation. So it’s not that unusual that the World Series has never led off with a homer before. That’s what I wanted to know. Thanks for the reseach!

Doug
Doug
1 month ago

Ian Anderson’s 5 IP in game 3 is second longest WS start (after Don Larsen) when allowing no hits. There are only three other hitless WS starts, all under 2 IP.

CursedClevelander
CursedClevelander
1 month ago

Doom, do you know how much material has been added since these essays were posted on The Athletic? I read all 100 as they were released but would gladly read them again if there’s even a tiny bit of new stuff.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
1 month ago

Did he finish all 100 of them on The Athletic? I never followed him over there. I read the first 60-some when he blogged them… but that was ages ago, and he stopped in the middle. I didn’t read them at The Athletic, so I couldn’t tell you. I guess I’d recommend checking out a chapter or two that you remember quite well at your local library, before deciding to purchase (or not).

CursedClevelander
CursedClevelander
1 month ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

He did, yeah – honestly even if it has 0 added material it’s worth it for the ease of access, and since I’ve let my Athletic subscription lapse since then I can’t go back and re-read them.

Doug
Doug
1 month ago

Some short WS lists. – Pitchers making first ML start in World Series: Dylan Lee (2021) – Pitchers starting in WS who did not start during regular season: Dylan Lee (2021), Jim Konstanty (1950) – Pitchers recording one out or none in WS start: Dylan Lee (2021) is the 24th, but the first since 1984 – Pitchers with a WS pinch-hit: Zack Greinke (2021), Jack Bentley (1923 twice), Clarence Mitchell (1920), Claude Hendrix (1918) – Pitchers with a hit in consecutive WS games: Zack Greinke (2021), Jack Bentley (1923), Jack Coombs (1910), Deacon Phillippe (1903) – Starting Pitchers batting higher… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Doug
Doug
Doug
1 month ago

9 runs by the Astros in game 5 tied the WS record for teams with 12 or fewer hits without a HR. Done four other times, but not since 1979.

Doug
Doug
1 month ago

Congrats to the Braves! They become the first WS champion to come back from a sub-.500 start 100 games into the season. Atlanta’s game 6 triumph was the 24th team shutout in a WS clincher, and the 17th by the visiting team. Ten strikeouts and zero walks (of course) were both tied for the best mark among those 24 games; it was the first time a team did both in a clinching shutout win. Max Fried becomes the first pitcher with a WS clinching start allowing no runs or walks, as many K’s as IP, and fewer hits than IP.… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Doug
Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
1 month ago
Reply to  Doug

The last team to clinch a World Series victory in their home stadium was the 2013 Boston Red Sox. True, it’s only because last year’s World Series was played in a neutral park… but still. That’s a long time!

Doug
Doug
28 days ago

Came across a 19th century outfielder by the name of Tom McCreery. Nothing jumps off the page of a 10.7 WAR career over 9 seasons, except the fact that he played 140 games in a 132 game season in 1897, thanks to a mid-season trade. Have to believe that is the most games played “above schedule” in a season. The other notable from McCreery’s player page was leading his league in triples and strikeouts in 1896. He and Harry Stovey are the only players with that double in the 19th century, and only seven have done so in the modern… Read more »

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
28 days ago
Reply to  Doug

Most home games in the modern era is 98 by Buck Herzog in 1916. Traded from Reds to Giants. Most road games is 92 by Cotton Tierney in 1923. Traded from Pirates to Phils.

Doug
Doug
27 days ago

You could get home/road anomalies like that in the old days when teams had month long homestands and road trips.

Herzog’s last game with the Reds was their 84th of the season and his first game with the Giants was their 79th, helping him to play in 156 games that year.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
26 days ago
Reply to  Doug

Jimmy Barrett played 162 games for the 1904 Tigers. The team played 10 ties in a 154 game season, but they “officially” only played 152 (b-r and every encyclopedia lists their final place in the standings as 62-90). So he also played 8 “above schedule,” and actually ten above the number his team played… and that was without a midseason trade making things all tricky.

Doug
Doug
26 days ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Nice find, Doom. Crazy number of tie games.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
4 days ago

Given that we are in a bit of a lull I thought I would bring up a subject that I have been interested in. Back in 1985 Rickey Henderson reaching base and Don Mattingly driving him home seemed like an everyday event. Checking Mattingly’s 1985 game log on baseball-reference indicated that he drove home Henderson 56 times. Wondering if that was a record for a player driving home a particular player that many times was a record I decided to do a bit of searching. The only way to do it was on an individual player basis. Knowing that the… Read more »

Doug
Editor
3 days ago

Joe Medwick drove in Pepper Martin 68 times in 1936.

Kirby Puckett drove in Chuck Knoblauch 44 times in 1994, a 63 run pace for a full season.

There are a number of pre-expansion Tigers I wanted to check, but the Tiger PBP data coverage is abysmal. Case in point is the relatively recent 1949 club: Stathead has only 92 of Vic Wertz’s 133 RBI for that season. By way of comparison, Stathead has all 127 RBI for Frank McCormick in 1940, and 184 of 191 RBI for Hack Wilson in 1930.

Last edited 3 days ago by Doug
Richard Chester
Richard Chester
3 days ago
Reply to  Doug

Medwick’s BR Game Log for Most Driven In reads as follows:

P. Martin 45
S. Martin 21
F. Frisch 18
Self 18
T. Moore 18
D. Garibaldi 8
C. Fullis 5
R. Collins 1

Those numbers add up to 134 which is 4 short of his actual 138 RBIs. You may have combined both Martins from your source.

There is much missing data for the early years of the 20th century. You could also search players with a lot of runs scored and few HRs under their Most Driven In By listings.

Doug
Doug
3 days ago

Thanks for the correction, Richard. Didn’t realize Cards had two Martins. I was looking for “Martin scores” in the Stathead Event Finder for Medwick’s RBI events. Only the last name is shown in the play description.

Is there a “Most Driven In By” reference on B-R?

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
3 days ago
Reply to  Doug

Yes there is, on the player’s game log listing for a given year.

Doug
Doug
2 days ago

Well, that makes it easy. Here are a few with some decent totals.

55 – 1996 Twins. Paul Molitor driving in Chuck Knoblauch.
52 – 1945 Dodgers. Dixie Walker driving in Goody Rosen (1 missing RBI)
45 – 1953 Senators. Mickey Vernon driving in Eddie Yost.
43 – 1930 Cubs. Kiki Cuyler driving in Footsie Blair (19 missing RBI)

BTW, the 53 total for Williams driving in Dom DiMaggio in 1949 was despite having 24 of his RBI missing from the PBP data.

Paul E
Paul E
2 days ago
Reply to  Doug

Going back even further, where there aren’t any game logs to corroborate, someone had to be knocking in Billy Hamilton an awful lot in the mid-1890’s when no one was hitting double digits in homers.
I guess the record (post-1900) would most likely be Barry Bonds knocking in himself 73 times? How about Campanella knocking in Snider or Robinson? Foster knocking in Rose, Griffey, or Morgan? Tommy Davis in 1962 only hit 27 HRs (IIRC) and Wills scored 130 (IIRC)?

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
2 days ago
Reply to  Doug

Of course, Barry Bonds drove in Barry Bonds 73 tims in 2001, and Mark McGwire drove in Mark McGwire 70 times in 1998. But that’s probably not what you meant. 😉

A couple more notable totals:

46 – 1997 Astros, Bagwell driving in Biggio
49 – Hack Wilson driving in Kiki Cuyler

I’m surprised, Doug, that you didn’t notice the latter. Cuyler must certainly be the only player in history to have both driven in another player 40+ times, AND been driven by another player 40+ times. What an odd circumstance!

Paul E
Paul E
2 days ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Doom,
my point, regarding Bonds, was that it doesn’t appear that anything is going to approach that number (73). I guess this exercise may be useful in another respect: If a guy is knocking himself in more than his teammmates and not knocking any of his teammates more than himself, he is either a home run hitter and/or has mediocre teammates.

Doug
Doug
1 day ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Wilson also drove in Woody English 46 times. Most likely the only player to drive in two teammates 40+ times each.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
2 days ago
Reply to  Doug

Using a different method I found that Williams drove in Dom DiMaggio 58 times in 1949 with 12 RBI not accounted for.