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Baseball Legends And Lies

The story has been repeated for decades. It perhaps reached its peak during the 2004 playoffs when the Boston Red Sox vanquished their longtime antagonists, the New York Yankees, and went on the sweep the St. Louis Cardinals to win their first World Series in 86 years.

It goes something like this: Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold his best player, Babe Ruth, to the Yankees in 1920 because he needed the money to finance a Broadway musical, "No, No Nanette."

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  • As a result of the deal, the Yankees became baseball's dominant and most storied team, winning 26 championships in the next 81 years. The Red Sox, shackled by the Curse of the Bambino, became baseball's lovable losers, reaching the World Series every decade or so, only to find some bizarre and heartbreaking way to lose.

    The problem is, it's not true. At least according to a new book by Michael Kun and Howard Bloom, "The Baseball Uncyclopedia: A Highly Opinionated, Myth-Busting Guide to the Great American Game." In a series of short vignettes, the book challenges some of the myths of the game, and offers humorous and often controversial opinions. Both authors are lawyers for the same firm. Kun also is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated novelist, and Bloom is a former newspaper reporter and columnist.

    The authors pontificate on the worst team nickname in the major leagues, and the worst uniforms in baseball history. They argue over whether Nolan Ryan and Cal Ripken Jr. should be considered "great" players.

    Some readers might not like their opinions, but that's the point.

    "People are supposed to read it, maybe learn a little bit, maybe have a chuckle, and then have an interesting conversation," said Bloom, who grew up in Massachusetts as a Red Sox fan and currently lives in Needham. "If that's what we do, we've accomplished our purpose."

    2Kun, who lives in Los Angeles, but who spent part of his youth in Barrington, R.I., where he became a Red Sox fan, authored the chapter on the sale of Ruth to the Yankees.

    Frazee did not need money to finance his Broadway musical, Kun said. He was already a wealthy man and a successful Broadway producer. "No, No Nanette" had not even been written at the time of the deal, and would not debut for another five years.

    Rather, Frazee simply did not like Ruth and wanted him off the team. Ruth had become a distraction with his demands for more money, his wild behavior, and his disputes with management. Newspaper articles at the time never mentioned the Broadway aspect of the transaction.

    Still, Kun concludes that no matter what the reasoning for the deal, it was a poor decision on the part of the Red Sox.

    The authors also take aim at those fans who take baseball, and sports in general, too seriously.

    "One of things I've always found is how some people take it far too seriously and it plays too big a role in their lives, and when I hear baseball fans say baseball is a metaphor and helps us define human experience, I am puzzled by that," said Kun, who is a published novelist.

    Each of the authors has a favorite chapter. For Kun, it is the chapter on the Baby Ruth candy bar. Conventional wisdom holds that the candy bar was not named after Babe Ruth, the baseball player but after Ruth Cleveland, the infant daughter of President Grover Cleveland.

    The problem with that story is that the candy bar was first introduced in 1921 when Ruth, the baseball player, was at the height of his popularity while Ruth Cleveland had been dead 17 years.

    "It looks like the candy company was trying to take advantage of Babe Ruth's name without compensating him in any way, and they came up with this crazy story about Ruth Cleveland," Kun said.

    3Bloom's favorite chapter is on the importance of the manager in baseball. In 1960, the owner of the Chicago Cubs decided that he would replace his manager with an eight-man "college of coaches." The result was a disaster. Without a clear chain of command or consistency in decision making, the Cubs finished with a 64-90 record.

    "That chapter lent itself to so much humor and poking fun," Bloom said.

    The authors also debate two of the game's most notable players,
    Ryan and Ripken. Kun makes his case for Ripken's greatness based on
    his skills, and of course, his durability. Bloom counters that the longtime Baltimore Orioles shortstop was just a .276 career hitter.

    They engage in a similar tit-for-tat about Ryan. Kun says the right-hander was a "very good" but not a "great" pitcher. Sure, he had more than 300 wins, more than 5,000 strikeouts and seven no-hitters in a 27-year career. But he had almost as many losses as wins and issued nearly 2,800 walks. His stats, Kun says, were the result of his longevity.

    Bloom resorts to calling Kun a "moron."

    "We wanted to write a fun, interesting book," Kun said. "Some sections are clearly meant to get a laugh, and some are meant to create a little bit of a debate."

    Bloom and Kun have plenty of anecdotes and stories in reserve, and may even put together a sequel. But before that, they are now
    in the process of writing "The Football Uncyclopedia."

    "There's plenty of material out there," Bloom said.