I first encountered the device of the unfounded accusatory rhetorical when, as a teenager, I became fascinated by the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. A best-seller at the time was Web of Conspiracy, an over-heated brief for the theory that Lincoln’s War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, and others were in league with John Wilkes Booth. The author, a mystery writer named Theodore Roscoe, was constantly suggesting sinister motives by asking questions like “The sealed records of the official assassination investigation were destroyed in a mysterious fire. Was the War Department afraid of what the documents would prove? Would they have implicated Stanton? We will never know.” This tactic is on view regularly today, used generously by the purveyors of modern conspiracies, but it is also a regrettably common tool of journalists and historians. Now the eclectic sports journalist Howard Megdal (who also edits a terrific website, The Perpetual Post) has found a new use for it. His question: “When Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers made a run at Babe Ruth’s season home run record, falling two short with 58 in 1938, was he pitched around because he was Jewish?”
Megdal not only claims this is a “72-year-old mystery,” but also asserts that it “seems” resolved by new evidence. His answer: yes! Hank Greenberg was stopped from breaking Babe Ruth’s record because of anti-Semitism!
The problem: the evidence that Edwin Stanton conspired to kill Lincoln is more persuasive.
Megdal’s argument goes like this:
- Hank Greenberg was Jewish.
- Hank Greenberg was chasing Babe Ruth’s single season record for home runs in 1938.
- Anti-Semitism was in full flower in 1938.
- Greenberg just missed the record (he got only 58).
- Greenberg walked more frequently in 1938 than in any of his seasons before or after.
- He received bases on balls more frequently at the end of the season than he did at the beginning, and
- This pattern was not repeated by any of the other players who chased the Babe’s record, therefore…
- the pitchers in 1938 were not pitching to Greenberg because they didn’t want a Jew breaking the Babe’s record.
That’s it. And it could hardly be more meaningless. To begin with, the sample he is comparing Greenberg to is absurdly small. Four players, other than Greenberg, had real runs at Ruth’s record: Jimmy Foxx in 1932, Roger Maris in 1961, and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998. It is true that none of them walked appreciably more during their chase seasons than they did the rest of their careers. But McGwire walked more that season than Greenberg ever did. Maris was especially unlikely to be walked because Mickey Mantle was batting behind him, and Sosa would barely take a walk if you handed him one on a platter. Comparing McGwire to four players, especially these four, tells us nothing.
Megdal also manipulates the facts to find the “answer” to his “mystery.” He writes,
“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. He had 119 walks to lead the A.L., the only time he did so…”
Megdal doesn’t tell us, perhaps because it undermines his argument, that Greenberg did lead the National League in bases on balls in 1947, with a higher walk percentage than he had in 1938, during a season when he hit all of 25 home runs. Whose record were those bigoted, Jew-hating pitchers protecting then? Gavvy Cravath? The typical reader will think Greenberg never led any league in walks except in 1938, which is what Megdal wants him to think. Sorry Howard; I think this is the hidden ball trick.
Greenberg’s walk totals for his career include numbers like 102, 104, 91 and 93. Does 119 seem out of character for a player with that history? Greenberg walked 16 more times than any other season in the year he hit 58 home runs. This seems very unremarkable to me. I just picked a slugger at random: Mo Vaughn. In 1996, his best power season, he walked 95 times, his all-time high, nine times more than his next highest total, 16 more times than his third highest, and more than 20 times more than any other season. So what? (For further analysis of Greenberg’s walks in 1938 by someone who is a better at it than I am, go here.)
Megdal’s certainty of an anti-Semitic conspiracy is based on confirmation bias and little else. What evidence is there that the pitchers cared about Babe Ruth’s record, or who broke it? The 60 figure was barely a decade old in 1938; neither Ruth nor the record had yet grown to the iconic proportions Roger Maris had to contend with in 1961. Did Hank Greenberg, who presumably might have heard some whispers about a widespread pitching conspiracy not to let a Jew break the home run record, think he was being walked for this reason? Well, er, no. Megdal admits that Greenberg pronounced such speculation “pure baloney.” However, the author notes, “To shift responsibility for his falling short of the record onto others would have been out of character.” Right—Greenberg wasn’t paranoid. But Greenberg’s dismissal of the anti-Semitism excuse for his failure to break the record went farther than that, and it undermines his argument. In Lawrence Ritter’s wonderful The Glory of Their Times, Greenberg is quoted as saying this:
“Some people still have it fixed in their minds that the reason I didn’t break Ruth’s record was [that], because I was Jewish, the ballplayers did everything they could to stop me. That’s pure baloney. The fact of the matter is quite the opposite: so far as I could tell, the players were mostly rooting for me, aside from the pitchers. I remember one game Bill Dickey was catching for the Yankees, he was even telling me what was coming up. The reason I didn’t hit 60 or 61 homers is because I ran out of gas; it had nothing to do with being Jewish.”
Can we agree that the authority on whether Greenberg “ran out of gas” at the end of the 1938 season or didn’t get enough good pitches to hit should be Hank Greenberg, and not Howard Megdal?
Megdal’s essay violates Occam’s Razor, the logical principle that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. (Back to Web of Conspiracy: Roscoe made much of the fact that several pages from Booth’s diary, recovered from his body, were found missing—torn out—when it was examined later for evidence. “Did Secretary Stanton remove passages implicating him in Lincoln’s murder?” Roscoe asked. One debunking historian coyly noted: “It shouldn’t take much imagination to figure out why a fugitive hiding for days in the woods might tear out some pages in a diary…”) Isn’t the simplest and fairest assumption that pitchers walked Greenberg because he was hitting home runs at a furious rate? Or that Greenberg was just in a groove that season, and may have been more patient than usual? That he didn’t break the record because, well, he just didn’t?*
Instead, Megdal uses leaps of logic and innuendo to conclude that a concerted, unjust effort, motivated by bigotry, stopped Hank Greenberg from being baseball’s single season home run champion, and in doing so, impugns the character of dozens of pitchers, based on the weakest and most circumstantial of evidence. This is exactly the process going on today regarding performance enhancing drugs, with everyone from established sports reporters to bloggers “just asking questions” about whether a player’s best years were fueled by illicit substances.
This is just wrong; it is unethical journalism and unfair analysis. There are some questions that shouldn’t be asked until there is enough genuine evidence to begin answering them. Until there is, such questions become their own answers, which is often exactly what the questioner intends.
I do not believe that this was what Howard Megdal intended, though I think the question he asks could have that effect. Unethical journalists use this device regularly, and I would hope that the ethics alarms of ethical journalists, like Howard, would sound before they do the same.
*Note: I do not want to suggest that Hank Greenberg did not have to contend with significant anti-Semitism during his career, for he certainly did. You can read about it here.