Joe Posnanski’s new book, The Baseball 100, is a triumph

Ostensibly a ranking of the 100 best players in baseball history, Joe Posnanski’s new book is much more than that.

Debating who’s better and who’s best is something sports fans do almost reflexively. However, these conversations often reveal more about the person arguing their case than about the player being defended — a fun exercise that illuminates nothing. Joe Posnanski’s new book, The Baseball 100, which counts down the 100 greatest players in the history of the sport, is an exception to this general rule.

From the infamous to the little-known (Arky Vaughan, Robin Roberts, and Eddie Collins were all new names to me, at least), Posnanski sheds new light in each chapter of his tremendous new book. Throughout its 800-plus pages, The Baseball 100 firmly and repeatedly establishes itself as one of the best baseball books of recent years — perhaps one of the best ever.

While the book is ostensibly a ranking of the game’s 100 best players ever, it is more exploratory than argumentative. There is a general arc from really good to all-time great to legendary as the book goes on, but the numbers attached to the players aren’t really the point. In fact, with some players their ranking has less to do with their overall achievements than a significant part of their legacy. For example, Joe DiMaggio is ranked 56 and Jackie Robinson is at 42. Ultimately, it’s an unconventional and non-chronological history of baseball as much as it is a ranking of players — a chance to explore the evolution of the game through the lives and careers of its greatest players.

The Baseball 100 turns the idea of historical rankings on its head

Despite its length, the book flies by and is compulsively readable. One may easily find themselves telling themselves “just one more chapter” again and again as they realize a section devoted to one of their favorite players is near. In each essay, Posnanski is more concerned with giving the reader a feel for the player, capturing their essence by honing in on a particular attribute of their game or personality, or a moment in time that defines them. This means that for many of the chapters, knowledgeable readers will be able to guess what they’re about to read about. However, each subject is addressed in a way so that even the most well-trod ground is seen anew.

In light of this focus, statistics are employed relatively rarely for a book that purports to rank the 100 best players in baseball history. But when they are utilized, they are used in a very interesting way: not to argue for a player’s greatness, but to showcase what makes them unique, to tell a story.

To give an example, one of the book’s most amusing moments occurs when he spends a page showcasing the absurd lead that Nolan Ryan has in a variety of career statistics, both good and bad. Yes, it’s a testament to the fact that attempting to rank him is a difficult and futile endeavor. But more than that, it shows how uncompromising and distinctly himself he was. Posnanski writes of Ryan,  “He’s incomparable. Anything a pitcher can do, he did better. Anything a pitcher can do, he did worse… Other pitches were going for their thing. Nolan Ryan was going for his thing.” It’s an illuminating use of numbers, one that other writers could learn a lot from.

Posnanski also honors several players whose best years came in the Negro Leagues, or never played in Major League Baseball at all due to segregation. It’s a necessary and much appreciated corrective that acknowledges that these men were not only great Black ballplayers, but great players full stop.

As he notes, if players such as Hank Aaron, Billy Williams, and Willie McCovey had been born two decades earlier, they all would have played their prime seasons in the Negro Leagues, “and their stories would be told as legend.” Outlandish stories about their greatness would be passed down and many fans would, today, be reluctant to accept them. However, having seen them in the Majors, we know such stories would not be outsized myths, but reality, which calls into question the way we think about players like Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Pop Lloyd and the anecdotes regarding their greatness. It’s a fascinating, and convincing, argument. He writes, “I wouldn’t worry about people overrating Negro Leaguers. I’d worry about people underrating them.”

While the book is, of course, about baseball players, it is ultimately about 100 different men, men who succeeded at their craft in a variety of different ways, becoming myths, legends, and symbols in the process. Even as someone who has not watched a full baseball game in over a decade, I devoured this book. And it’s easy for me to imagine those who do love the sport enjoying it even more. The Baseball 100 may not have transformed me into a fan, but while reading its 800 pages, it made me momentarily wish I was one.

Source: FanSided

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