Sunday, November 2, 2008

Review - What If the Babe Had Kept His Red Sox?

Bill Gutman has written an interesting sports book, What If the Babe Had Kept His Red Sox?: And Other Fascinating Alternative Histories from the World of Sports (2008). It may not be successful at its stated goal, but it has other virtues that make it a good read.

I'm a sucker for alternative histories. I love books and stories that explore the result of a change to a moment in history, the so-called counterfactuals. What if Napoleon had won the battle of Waterloo, what if the South had won the Civil War, what if Brad had stayed with Jen - in fact, one of my favorite such books is called What If?, which features military historians discussing how the world might have changed (there have been two sequels, neither of which I've yet gotten around to reading...but what if I had read them? Hmmmm.). I even enjoy the somewhat turgid novels of Harry Turtledove, though they as a series are quite long.

I think I like learning about the history that inevitably comes out of these narratives, plus, as a once-ardent science fiction, I find elements of that genre in the exploration of alternative universes.

So a book like What If the Babe...(WITB) should be a natural for me, combining sports and counterfactuals. Gutman sets out 12 different scenarios from six different sports, and discusses what might have happened if something were changed. Babe Ruth could have stayed with the Red Sox, or Vince Lombardi could have gone back to New York to coach the Giants, or Palmer and Nicklaus could have never existed.

And, as history, this book really works. I'm old enough that too few of these events are truly historic to me, but Gutman brings them back to life. One of the strongest chapters was the one that speculated on the results if Cassius Clay had lost to Sonny Liston in their first fight, and there was a wonderful amount of detail that really brought that story back to life. To varying degrees, each one of these narratives is handled professionally.

So I recommend this book, but I do have three rather major problems with it. First of all, the writing occasionally meanders, with parts of the story coming in an odd order and some repetition. This is not quite enough of a problem to be maddening, but it does disrupt the flow of some of the chapters.

Secondly, WITB doesn't make use of available tools. At least in baseball, a lot of researchers have developed techniques to explore some of these questions. We can get educated guesses on how remaining in Fenway Park would have affected the Babe's statistics, or what the effects would have been of not trading Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio (still considered the worst trade the Chicago Cubs ever made). Gutman shows no awareness of any of this imprecise, but useful, research.

Finally, the promise of counterfactuals is not realized. Too many times, we read that, "It's hard to tell," or, "We just can't know." It may be true that neither Gary Player nor Lee Trevino would have been able to fill the role of empire builder in golf, but I enjoy more assertiveness in my alternate histories. I would have preferred a straightforward recitation of what really happened, then, present the historical change and its implications. The book would have had more power.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy WITB. It's always interesting to read about the pre-Super Bowl days of the NFL, for example, especially given the NFL's amnesia concerning the first 40+ years of the league. Read the book, then give it to a sports-interested teenager who knows little of the background, and might be intrigued by the counterfactual aspect.

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