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12/2: “The 25 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time”

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12/2: “The 25 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time”

Sports journalist and Marist Poll Contributor Len Berman has stirred up a little controversy in his new book, The 25 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time.  Find out what the fuss is about in his interview with the Marist Poll’s John Sparks.

Listen to the interview or read the transcript below.

Len Berman

Len Berman

John Sparks
Len, you had to have opened up a real hornet’s nest with a book titled “The 25 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time.”  That’s a pretty tall order. What kind of responses have you been getting from the book?

Listen to Part 1 of the Interview:

Len Berman
Well, it’s …   I probably should’ve given this some more thought before I decided to do it, but what happens is people are passionate about their local teams.  So anybody who gets left off the list, they think I’m nuts.  How could you possibly leave off Sandy Koufax or Nolan Ryan or Yogi Berra or Roberto Clemente?  So I’m in the weird position of talking about my book, and most authors get to talk about what’s in their book, I have to spend half the time talking about what’s not in there.

John Sparks
Now, since I’ve read the book, I know, of course, that you didn’t come up with the list all by yourself.  I can’t blame you for not wanting to take all the heat.  In fact, you had a Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel. You had Bernie Williams and Jeffrey Lyons and Ralph Branca and Frank Deford, just to name a few. How did you go about selecting your partners in crime?

Len Berman
Well, first of all, when you’re trying to do something, you want to reach out to people you know and will get a response from, so clearly I looked for initially people I knew and journalists I knew and respected, and then I asked the Hall of Fame for a suggestion. I knew they couldn’t get involved. That wouldn’t be proper for them to vote, and the Director of the Hall of Fame suggested Roland Hemond, who’s a longtime baseball executive in Arizona who’s seen it all. So, I tried to spread it around as much as I could to different ages and generations. People have seen a lot of ballplayers and seen a lot of games, and I told them just vote. Give me 25 names, and you don’t have to say what position they play or what era they played in, and that’s how we got who we got.  And I don’t think I agree with all of them, but I do agree with most of them.

John Sparks
Well, let me follow-up. You wrote that there were 11 unanimous choices. How did you settle on the other 14?  Was there a weighted vote?  Was your vote the only one that mattered?  Did you ever get outvoted by your own panel?  Did they change your mind on anybody?

Len Berman
I didn’t vote at all, and the 11 unanimous choices were Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Walter Johnson, Mickey Mantle, Christy Mathewson, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams, and I can’t argue with any of them.  The other 14 were just whoever got the most votes.  And, since I had seven panelists, luckily it broke down where four votes got you in and three didn’t.  Well, listen to this collection of ballplayers who got three votes and just missed: Grover Alexander, Barry Bonds, Lefty Grove, who some considered to be the greatest pitcher ever, Satchel Paige, and Roberto Clemente.  So, those were the people that just missed.  The shocking thing to me was Yogi Berra got one vote out of seven, just one that came from Bernie Williams, and yet there’s ten World Series rings.  I mean somebody had to catch all those pitchers.

John Sparks
You know, the book’s been out a little while, is there one player that readers have taken the most exception with?

Listen to Part 2:

Len Berman
Well, sure. That would be the only active player who made the book, and that’ll be Alex Rodriguez, who’s controversial for any number of reasons. Number one of which, he took performance-enhancing drugs and admitted to it. Number two, there are active players, such as Albert Pujols, who, if this book were written 10 or 15 years from now, might receive even more consideration. But Alex Rodriguez got four votes, and what I found most interesting was not only did he get a vote from Bernie Williams, which you’d expect, I mean Bernie Williams also voted for Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, but I mean — but he also got a vote from Roland Hemond.  So, that tells me that there’s widespread belief that his talents just rise above anything he may or may not have done. And the truth be told, if it weren’t for Derek Jeter playing shortstop, Rodriguez would be ensconced at shortstop and would be considered the greatest shortstop ever this side of Honus Wagner.

John Sparks
When going through the book, I couldn’t help but think about that age-old controversy about whether ballplayers should be considered role models.  You mentioned about A-Rod and the steroids, some of your other 25 had their personal demons. Cobb was snarly. Ruth was a drinker and carouser. Mickey Mantle wasn’t a saint, and Pete Rose liked to gamble. Did you have any difficulty in trying to go beyond that issue? Did you judge strictly on talent on the field?

Len Berman
Well, you’d have to ask the panelists, but as far as how I addressed this, since the book is primarily aimed at young readers, I certainly did not skirt the issue. So I addressed the Alex Rodriguez issue head-on and the Pete Rose gambling issue head-on.  I didn’t get into Babe Ruth’s carousing and Mickey Mantle’s drinking. The publisher did take out one story, though. I did write that Ty Cobb’s mother shot his father to death in an accident, thought he was an intruder and shot him to death. He thought she was fooling around and was sneaking into the house. The publisher, I think, decided it wasn’t a warm and fuzzy enough story for young people to read about, so that’s out of the book.

John Sparks
You know, I’m glad you mentioned that because I noticed that omission as well, and I recall seeing a — I think it was a two-act play that Gabe Pressman and I went to, believe it or not, and it was about Cobb, and according to the play, he had witnessed that incident, and the whole thesis was that that affected his demeanor in the way he interacted with other players.

Len Berman
Well, an amateur psychologist would tell you that, gee, if mom shoots dad to death, it’s going to affect your personality in later years. I don’t know if he actually witnessed it. There’s some debate over how the incident took place. Cobb has a descendant, like a great, great something, nephew or grandson who’s debunked part of the story. Some of it’s shaped in myth, but I would … yeah, anything you write about these guys from way back when is kind of speculation. We don’t know much about, for example, the great Negro League catcher Josh Gibson who made the book. We don’t. What’s written about him or what’s said about him is not really well known because it didn’t get the press coverage, and the statistics weren’t really accurate, and a lot of what he did may have just been the stuff of myth. So, you just don’t know about a lot of these people when you go way back when.

John Sparks
You mentioned a minute ago about aiming the book at young fans, but I’ve got to tell you, I think you did a masterful job at aiming your book at fans of all ages. That’s the beauty of baseball, I think.  I remember my late father at the age of 80 sitting in the back seat of my car on the way home from a Texas Rangers’ game talking to an eight-year-old son of my neighbor, and baseball bridged a 72-year-old age gap when it came to conversation. I really thought you did a great job at trying to talk to people at all ages.

Listen to Part 3:

Len Berman
Well, thank you.  There’s a couple of factors involved there.  Number one, I think baseball’s the one sport that does bridge the generations.  My dad told me about seeing Babe Ruth bat, and my eyes just lit up, so I think that’s one.  And number two, I’ve always — this is my second — or actually it’s my fourth kids’ book, but my second of this kind of style. Last year it was the 25 Greatest sports moments of all time, “Greatest Moments in Sports” it was called, but I’ve never tried to write down to kids.  So I think if you — in some respects maybe the vocabulary might be on the high level for youngsters, but I just always — I wrote simply. I didn’t write complex sentences, but I always tried to just write simply, and I think the publisher did a wonderful job of putting picture — the old pictures are just great, which I had nothing to do with, and I think that’s why kids, as I like to say, of all ages might enjoy the book.

John Sparks
No, it’s really packaged well.  Any plans for a sequel, and if so, what would you call it?

Len Berman
Well, I don’t know if I want to follow-up on the baseball. I’m not sure of the other sports.  We’ve had some ideas we’ve been running back and forth with the publisher. Nothing that’s in cement just yet, but I think the publisher wants to keep the series going.  It’s just a matter of hitting on the right …  I mean one thought is greatest athletes of all time, then you incorporate people like Jim Thorpe. Although Jackie Robinson’s, who’s made my last two books, would also make that book as a great.  Jesse Owens, so there’s some great, great athletes.  Jim Brown.  So I don’t know. That’s a possibility. Another possibility would be a blooper, like the greatest craziest sports moments of all time, some serious and some not so.  You could do Buckner and Bonehead Merkle and Wrong Way Corrigan and some of those other classics.

John Sparks
You generate a lot of controversy when you go after the 25 greatest, but I got to thinking: You’d probably generate just as much controversy if you wrote about the 25 worst baseball players of all time.  I mean I just wonder who might be on that list?

Len Berman
I know.  I don’t know how you would figure that out.  I mean that’d also be kind of mean.  I mean could you imagine telling your grandkids: Look at this, I’m one of the 25 worst of all time.  There are some interesting stories.  I once interviewed a guy who passed away who played with Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators and got into exactly one Major League game, and I asked him how he did, he said he couldn’t remember.  So, I don’t know.  I don’t know how you’d pick the worst.

John Sparks
It’s a great book, Len. You always do great work, and it’s always a pleasure talking to you.  Before we go, could I get you tell the Marist listeners how they can subscribe to your Daily Top Five for those that don’t know that?

Len Berman
Yeah, just simply go to my website, http://www.thatssports.com and I send out a free daily email, if anyone’s interested.  It’s on my musings on sports, and there’s always something to talk about.  So, thatssports.com is the place.

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