April 25, 2019

Book Review: “The Baseball Talmud”

March 18, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Howard Megdal’s The Baseball Talmud: The Definitive Position-By-Position Ranking of Baseball’s Chosen Players was a joy to read, even for an Agnostic like me.

Howard Megdal was kind enough to send me a copy of his new book and I’m so glad he did. The back of the tome touts it as “more than just stories. Megdal, a stat geek himself, uses the wealth of modern sabermetrics to determine the greatest Jewish players at each position, the all-time Jewish All-Star team, and how they would rate against the greatest teams in baseball history, from the 1906 Chicago Cubs to the 1998 New York Yankees.”

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What I appreciate most about Megdal’s approach is that he not only uses “the wealth of modern sabermetrics,” like VOPR, WARP3, OPS+, ERA+, and EQA, but he relies on traditional statistics as well, like batting average, on-base and slugging percentage, ERA, innings pitched, etc.  More importantly he doesn’t lean too heavily on one set of measurements at the expense of the other, and he never takes himself too seriously.  In fact, the book is peppered with humor throughout, and rankings are often determined in ways that will make you chuckle.

For instance, Steve Yeager has a higher EQA than Brad Ausmus, but Ausmus is ranked slightly ahead of Yeager mostly because he was more durable, but partly because Ausmus’ maternal grandfather was a rabbi.  Megdal is quick to point out, however, that Yeager holds two records: “most career home runs by any Jewish catcher or player who posed for Playgirl (102) and most consecutive Major League films acted in by a former World Series MVP (3, if Major League III: Back to the Minors starring Scott Bakula can be considered a film…)”

At another point in the book, he pays homage to the hysterically funny sitcom Soap by calling left-handed starter Bill Cristall, “the Jodie Dallas of Ukrainian baseball players…”

How can you not laugh at that?

Megdal begins the book by ranking the top 10 Jewish players of all time, regardless of position (you can probably guess who’s number one, but I won’t ruin it for you), then includes a prediction of who will comprise the top 10 in 2019.  He then ranks players by position, starting with catcher and working his way to right field, before breaking down the pitchers by handedness and role (starter or reliever).

You get a feel for Megdal’s ranking system right off the bat (pun intended) and will most likely appreciate that he doesn’t stick strictly to the numbers to base the order in which he ranks the players (I know I did).  It would have been easy to rank Lou Boudreau as the top player on the All-Jewish team, based on his 110.1 WARP3, but Megdal takes other things into consideration before constructing his lists, and they’re better for it.

But the book is more than a series of lists and rankings and as I got deeper into its pages, I found myself caring less about how the players were ranked and more about the players themselves.  Megdal does a very good job writing about superstars like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, but I found myself more enthralled with lesser-known players like Harry Danning, Phil Weintraub, and Mose Solomon, and players I had never heard of like Jake Pitler, Morrie Arnovich, and Fred Sington.

Megdal includes biographies, statistics, and anecdotes about more than 150 players, and by the time you’re through reading this book, you’ll definitely know more about the history of Jews in baseball than you did before picking it up.  Whether you’re Jewish, Catholic, Agnostic, or an Atheist, I recommend you grab a copy when it comes out on March 31.

Comments

2 Responses to “Book Review: “The Baseball Talmud””
  1. cheryl stern says:

    is baseball player stuart komer mentioned in this book..just wondering before i purchase it.

  2. Mike Lynch says:

    No, Cheryl, I’m afraid he’s not. Only players who spent time in the major leagues are listed. Maybe Howard will expand it some day to include minor leaguers.

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