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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Common Man: Fisking Howard Megdal and the Greenberg Conspiracy of ‘38

Ooo, goodie! A chance for Silva to defend Megdal!

Sometimes smart people get ahold of statistics and do dumb things. Yesterday, at the New York Times, on Jack Marshall’s Ethics Alarm, and on NBCSports.com, Howard Megdal, author of The Baseball Talmud, explored the long-discussed theory that Hank Greenberg was pitched around in 1938, and therefore denied a shot at the home run record, because he was Jewish. In the comments of HardballTalk, Megdal writes that the central question is, “Was Hank Greenberg treated differently than others sluggers chasing Ruth’s record. And the answer, thanks to the historical record, is yes.” It’s a line Megdal repeats on the New York Times, when he writes, “the statistical record stands as evidence that Greenberg’s religion might have been an additional barrier.” Here’s the problem: the statistical record says no such thing.

...However, there are significant problems with Megdal’s analysis. The first is that, according to The Common Man’s math, Greenberg didn’t walk in 15.9 percent of his plate appearances through the end of August in 1938. According to BaseballReference.com, Greenberg walked 91 times in 544 plate appearances from April through August. That works out to a walk rate of 16.7 percent. How this slipped past Megdal and the New York Times fact checkers is beyond The Common Man. Really, then, we’re talking about a difference of 3.7 percent between Greenberg’s non-September and September walk rates. Given the same number of plate appearances in September and October, we are talking about an actual difference of five walks between Greenberg’s September rate and the rest of his season. Five walks. That’s what Megdal’s argument comes down to. Five walks spread across 32 games. Statistical blip doesn’t even come close to describing how flimsy this data is.

Repoz Posted: March 24, 2010 at 12:55 PM | 32 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: history, site news, tigers

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   1. HowardMegdal Posted: March 24, 2010 at 01:16 PM (#3484750)
This one's pretty silly. I made it clear in the piece that we don't know anything definitive, though Greenberg was walked more relative to the rest of his season than Foxx/Maris/McGwire/Sosa, and presented the data. Several pieces have responded by pointing out that the statement "Hank Greenberg WAS absolutely a victim of anti-Semitism" is unsupportable by the data.

Agreed, of course. That just wasn't the statement I made in the article.
   2. Lassus Posted: March 24, 2010 at 01:24 PM (#3484754)
I think part of the problem is the promotion and headlines, Howard, they are made to jump out at you despite what it is you actually wrote.
   3. HowardMegdal Posted: March 24, 2010 at 01:27 PM (#3484755)
But the headline was, "Religion Aided a Home Run Chase, and May Have Led to Its Failure"

I mean, the qualification was even in the headline. However, it is far easier to go after a strawman, it appears.
   4. RJ in TO Posted: March 24, 2010 at 01:40 PM (#3484758)
Evidence has finally been published that seems to resolve a 72-year-old mystery.


It is impossible to know what was in pitchers’ hearts, but it is also impossible to ignore the statistical record.


Greenberg received many more walks as he chased Ruth in 1938 than he did in the rest of his career.


Almost no other hitter going after the home run record had anything like Greenberg’s late-season spike in bases on balls.


All these statements, and others, imply a degree of certainty. While you may disagree with people's interpretation of your article, I can certainly see why some were of the impression that you were stating that Greenberg was a victim of anti-semetism - even with your "might" qualifier in your final sentence.
   5. HowardMegdal Posted: March 24, 2010 at 01:56 PM (#3484771)
We'll agree to disagree on what certainty means, then. The third and fourth statements involve the data, and are written to reflect that. The first and second statements, involving interpretation of the data, are cautious, and intentionally so.
   6. Rowland Office Supplies Posted: March 24, 2010 at 01:58 PM (#3484773)
I mean, the qualification was even in the headline. However, it is far easier to go after a strawman, it appears.


And funner. Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarryl!
   7. The Common Man Posted: March 24, 2010 at 01:59 PM (#3484774)
Look, I'm not saying that Greenberg definitely was discriminated against by pitchers and managers, but if you look at the data it seems to indicate that he was, says Megdal.

I think the problem, Howard, was that the statistical record you claim "seems to resolve" a mystery in no way resolves that mystery in the way you imply. Rather, you used highly incomplete (and incorrect) data to lay claim to come to a conclusion the full data available doesn't support in the least. You put your finger on the scale, intentionally or not, that suggested that Greenberg was the victim of Anti-Semitic pitchers and managers in 1938. The very historical record you used to make your claim, however, does not support that suggestion.

It's a great topic to examine, and I'm really glad that someone is paying attention to a terrific old ballplayer like Greenberg, who served in WWII, fought discrimination, and had incredible class. I just wish you could have pointed out how great he was without lending credence to this cockamamie conspiracy theory.
   8. zack Posted: March 24, 2010 at 01:59 PM (#3484776)
The biggest problem I had with the article is you compare Greenberg's April-Aug with his September, but for everyone else you are comparing their full season vs. september, which by definition is going to be closer. It doesn't end up making that much of a difference, by why not compare apples and apples.
   9. 1k5v3L Posted: March 24, 2010 at 02:00 PM (#3484777)
The third and fourth statements involve the data, and are written to reflect that.
Reading the quoted paragraphs above, it seems the Common Man is questioning your data.
   10. Dale Sams Posted: March 24, 2010 at 02:03 PM (#3484780)
I thought HBP might provide some interesting data...but it doesn't. All I learned is that people really didn't seem to like Frankie Crosetti.
   11. HowardMegdal Posted: March 24, 2010 at 02:06 PM (#3484782)
TCM, where we disagree is over whether the difference between Greenberg's walk rates was significant. It was larger than the other record-chasers- Foxx, Maris, McGwire, Sosa. I think it is worth noting- you don't. Frankly, I'm satisfied to let the reader decide. Finger on the scale is nonsense- that has been debated for 72 years, and my mentioning it didn't make that so.

The biggest problem I had with the article is you compare Greenberg's April-Aug with his September, but for everyone else you are comparing their full season vs. september, which by definition is going to be closer. It doesn't end up making that much of a difference, by why not compare apples and apples.

This is true. It doesn't end up making much of a difference- in fact, in Maris's case, it actually shows a stronger inclination to pitch to him relative to Greenberg. I wrote it the way I did to make the data easier to access. I see what you are saying, though.
   12. RJ in TO Posted: March 24, 2010 at 02:16 PM (#3484792)
TCM, where we disagree is over whether the difference between Greenberg's walk rates was significant.

Greenberg's walk rates were actually higher in April and May than they were in September. His September schedule also featured 19 (out of 32) games against the two most walk-prone teams in the league, in Cleveland and St. Louis.
   13. Repoz Posted: March 24, 2010 at 02:19 PM (#3484794)
All I learned is that people really didn't seem to like Frankie Crosetti.

Hi!
   14. The Common Man Posted: March 24, 2010 at 02:23 PM (#3484797)
You're right, Howard. I don't understand how you can look at a difference of five walks over four-and-a-half weeks as significant.

Your finger was on the scale only in regards to this new data that Retrosheet and BR.com have graciously provided. And you still refuse to go through the full data, maintaining that looking at the walk rates is enough.

I'm happy to let the readers decide too, Howard, though you're going to reach a hell of a lot more of them than I will. Tell you what, you arrange for me to get the New York Times to publish my response, and we'll see what the readers think. ;)
   15. SandyRiver Posted: March 24, 2010 at 02:23 PM (#3484798)
There was also had a very strong disincentive to walking Maris, in the #4 slot, though I'm a bit surprised Roger didn't get beaucoup walks in late Sept when Mantle missed time with the hip abscess. I remember that shortly after Mick's hamstring tear in 1962, Maris was intentionally walked four times in succession in a extra-inning game. (Worked out that he came up with runners in scoring position and 1st base open each time.)
   16. Jose is El Absurd Bronson Y Pollo Posted: March 24, 2010 at 02:25 PM (#3484800)
The walk rate increase is larger than the others and I agree that it is worth noting. I think The Common Man makes a valid point that we are talking about a very small amount of at bats. One thing I noticed taking a look at the game logs is that starting with the 146th game of the season for the final 10 games York (.995 OPS) played only one game and instead Pete Fox (.742 OPS) and Tebbetts (.733) were batting directly behind Greenberg. If you break September down further what you get is;

September with York as "protection" (18.2% BB Rate)
September without York as "protection" (26.3% BB Rate)

Obviously we're dealing with very small sample sizes at this point but I think it's fair to note that there was at least one fairly obvious baseball reason teams would pitch around Greenberg during that time. Even the 18.2% rate is higher than his "to date" season average so it doesn't eliminate that portion of your argument but I think it should be noted.
   17. HowardMegdal Posted: March 24, 2010 at 02:29 PM (#3484807)
There was also had a very strong disincentive to walking Maris, in the #4 slot, though I'm a bit surprised Roger didn't get beaucoup walks in late Sept when Mantle missed time with the hip abscess.

I was genuinely surprised by this, too.
   18. GGC for Sale Posted: March 24, 2010 at 02:34 PM (#3484813)
I'm happy to let the readers decide too, Howard, though you're going to reach a hell of a lot more of them than I will. Tell you what, you arrange for me to get the New York Times to publish my response, and we'll see what the readers think. ;)


Doesn't Howard debate on the Perpetual Post site? How do you get involved with that? I'd like to increase my visibility. Maybe do an AL East preview with Dan Szymborski and others.
   19. HowardMegdal Posted: March 24, 2010 at 02:39 PM (#3484821)
Drop me a line! Let's discuss.
In the meantime, off to Citi Field to eat. Will report back on Shake Shack burgers. Early forecast calls for a 100 percent chance of delicious.
   20. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: March 24, 2010 at 02:41 PM (#3484826)
There was also had a very strong disincentive to walking Maris, in the #4 slot, though I'm a bit surprised Roger didn't get beaucoup walks in late Sept when Mantle missed time with the hip abscess.


I was genuinely surprised by this, too.

You shouldn't have been. When Mantle sat down, for the most part his spot in the lineup was taken by Johnny Blanchard, whose Sept/Oct OPS that year was 1.105, and who had had the year long reputation of being the Yankees' Clutch God. There would have been no rational reason to walk Maris other than some atavistic fondness for the memory of Babe Ruth.
   21. SandyRiver Posted: March 24, 2010 at 02:53 PM (#3484843)
Only game I attended in 1961 was ended in the 10th by a Blanchard HR, one of the hardest-hit line drives I've ever seen. From our last row upper deck seats between home and 3rd, the liner first looked like a game winning single (Mantle was on 3rd with 2 out, having just escaped a rundown), then a hard out to RF. It kept on rising and landed about 40 rows back in the lower deck, way under the mezzanine/upper deck overhang.

Maris also homered, 1st inning 3-run job off Camilo Pascual, a looper that hit the RF foul pole about 6" above the wall, almost certainly his cheesiest HR of the season. Killebrew later matched it with a 3-run blast about halfway up the 3rd deck in left.
   22. Mayor Blomberg Posted: March 24, 2010 at 03:01 PM (#3484853)
Blanchard's 1.105 for the month compares to Maris's 0.920 over the same stretch, by the way.
   23. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: March 24, 2010 at 03:05 PM (#3484858)
Sandy River, I assume you mean this game. Being stuck in DC, I couldn't even listen to it on the radio, since it was a Sunday afternoon game. OTOH I did get up to New York a couple of weeks before that, and watched Maris hit 4 home runs in this doubleheader.
   24. SandyRiver Posted: March 24, 2010 at 03:34 PM (#3484880)
Nope, it was the Friday night game of that series. No wonder Blanchard had a clutch rep, with two extra-inning walkoffs in 3 days.
   25. Fancy Pants with a clinging marmoset on his Handle Posted: March 24, 2010 at 03:58 PM (#3484898)
Beyond the obvious SSS issue, there are way too many other factors that influence the outcome. Any results are simply going to be, at best, inconclusive.

Consider:

Quality of pitchers faced
Quality of defenses faced
Quality of the rest of the lineup
Closeness of games
Perception of the value of a walk at the time - (if walks aren't considered valueable, pitchers won't mind giving them up, hitters may avoid taking them)
Perception of the record by opposing managers/pitchers - some managers/players may have wanted to preserve the record (for nostalgic reasons, not discriminatory ones), others might not care
Psychology of the hitter - some players may have been willing to expand their strike-zone in chase of the record thus reducing their walk totals
Weather
Park Factors for those particular set of games - it's possible to have an unusual amount of your away games in strong hitters or pitchers parks


That's just off the top of my head. I'm sure if I thought about it a bit more, there would be other stuff I could come up with. How anybody can expect to get any serious results through all that mess is beyond me...
   26. Bob Tufts Posted: March 24, 2010 at 03:59 PM (#3484899)
and the battle did go both ways...http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/tobin041699.asp

(Aviva) Kempner holds to the theory that the Yankees were the "anti-Semitic" team because of the abuse they hurled at Greenberg and his teammate pitcher Harry Eisenstat. But she forgets that "bench jockeying" as the practice of insulting opposing players is called, went both ways. While the Yankees were abusing the Tigers, the Detroit team were screaming anti-Italian insults at the Yanks who were known as the Italian team in the American League of that era because of their stars Joe DiMaggio, Tony Lazzeri, Phil Rizzuto and Frankie Crosetti.


When you get down to it, the Greenberg story takes on extra life from the anti-Semitic rantings of Henry Ford who distributed "The International Jew" in the 1920's and Royal Oak, Michigan "religious leader" Father Coughlin who circulated "The Protocls of the Elders of Zion" in 1938. The time and place convergence of these three men is an instructive story.
   27. Bob Tufts Posted: March 24, 2010 at 04:11 PM (#3484911)
Henry Ford was able to combine baseball and his unbridled anti-Semitism in a 1921 article in the Dearborn Independent (which he owned) titled “The Jewish Degradation of American Baseball”.

“Wrestling is as much a Jewish business, controlled in its every part, as the manufacture of clothing, and its hirelings are mostly Gentiles. That is what baseball was coming to. The whole sport was getting down to an “exhibition game” status. The overtone of “money, money, money” grew louder and louder. The sport aspect of the game was beginning to give way to the “show” aspect. There were numerous signs that an attempt was being made to “star” certain persons, to run “headliners,” and to pull off a game with a sensational ending—just like a ballet is staged, or a pageant. Thrills were being offered—not as the give and take of the game, the accident of tensest action, but as practiced acting. Baseball was slowly being brought under the level of the box-office idea. There were forces against this metamorphosis of the game. Certain men saw what was coming. There were also forces favoring the change, and wanting it to come. Curiously enough, the forces that favored turning baseball into afternoon vaudeville were Jews, and those who favored keeping the game as part of American outdoor sports were non-Jews.”
   28. Forsch 10 From Navarone (Dayn) Posted: March 24, 2010 at 04:30 PM (#3484937)
Henry Ford was able to combine baseball and his unbridled anti-Semitism in a 1921 article in the Dearborn Independent (which he owned) titled “The Jewish Degradation of American Baseball”.

Ran across a reference to this article in The Chicago Sports Reader. From that same article: "If fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball, they have it in three words--too much Jew."
   29. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: March 24, 2010 at 04:43 PM (#3484949)
Ran across a reference to this article in The Chicago Sports Reader. From that same article: "If fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball, they have it in three words--too much Jew."

Nothing worse than a racist with poor grammar.
   30. Morty Causa Posted: March 25, 2010 at 01:18 AM (#3485420)
The three players who assumed the catching duties for the Yankees in '61 together hit over 60 home runs that season. Woo. Blanchard seems to have hit homers that season at rate close to Maris's.

When Mantle sat down, for the most part his spot in the lineup was taken by Johnny Blanchard

Not really. Per Baseball Reference, it doesn't look like Blanchard had but about 6 ABs as a #4 batter in '61. It looks like those duties were split between Berra and Blanchard, Berra more than Blanchard. But Mantle didn't miss that many games, anyway, in Sept/Oct.

And Maris's season did sort of peter out--ended with a whimper not a bang, although he did hit #61 in that last game. But he didn't end the season strong. He, I believe, was exhausted by season's end.
   31. Steve Phillips' Hot Cougar (DrStankus) Posted: April 06, 2010 at 08:02 PM (#3494926)
"As Jewish-American players, we have a theory that baseball can go get an imitator and pass them off as us. It's like they had to get some kind of hooked nose, so they go to Israel because you can get them cheaper. It's like, 'Why should I get this kid from the Lower East Side and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Middle Eastern guy for a bag of chips?' ... I'm telling you, it's sad"
   32. Rich Rifkin Posted: April 06, 2010 at 08:27 PM (#3494964)
But she forgets that "bench jockeying" as the practice of insulting opposing players is called, went both ways. While the Yankees were abusing the Tigers, ... the Detroit team were screaming anti-San Francisco insults at the Yanks who were known as the San Francisco team in the American League of that era because of their stars Joe DiMaggio, Myril Hoag, Tony Lazzeri and Frankie Crosetti all came from Northern California.
Fixed.

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