By Cory Franklin
If you grew up as a sports fan and gravitated toward others of common disposition, then at some point you found yourself on the playground, in your living room or college dorm, and engrossed in discussions and quite possibly arguments about your sports heroes, their accomplishments, and their teams. Should you fit this profile, then Sheldon Hirsch’s new book Hot Hands,Draft Hype & DiMaggio’s Streak: Debunking America’s Favorite Sports Myths
is required reading.
The author provides fascinating and typically unconventional takes on some of the most heated debates in baseball, football, and basketball, while occasionally tossing in intriguing digressions. The book is meticulously researched, and the author’s background as a physician well acquainted with two of sports most important facets—its science and its statistics—makes this an essential part of any sports library.
The first, and most impressive, portion of the book deals with baseball, which is obviously the author’s first love. He begins provocatively, with an essay diminishing Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941, an accomplishment many observers believe to be the most impressive single season record in baseball history.
Without resorting to revisionist history, Hirsch’s criticism centers on the insight that the consecutive aspect of the streak was a statistical idiosyncrasy that did not benefit the Yankees, and that others have performed as well or better in their sports in similar situations. This is certainly a contrarian viewpoint, and has merit. He counters the opinion of others, including the respected Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who also wrote about sports as an avocation. Gould waxed eloquent on DiMaggio’s streak, calling it, “the finest of legitimate legends because it embodies the essence of the battle that truly defines our lives.” Hirsch graciously acknowledges Gould, but nevertheless dismisses this panegyric as “schmaltz.” If only Gould had not died prematurely, a roundtable debate on the DiMaggio hitting streak between the two would surely have been something to attend.
The book moves into other baseball trigger areas –whether today’s players are better than those of the past, how we should evaluate players who used performance-enhancing drugs, and the ne plus ultra of all Baby Boomer baseball debates, “who was better Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?” No spoilers here; suffice to say Hirsch’s is a nuanced take on this unresolvable argument.
While this and some of his other baseball subjects are obviously geared toward a Baby Boomer audience, he does not shortchange younger fans. Included are sections on contemporary debates such as who deserved the 2012 and 2013 Most Valuable Player Awards— the superb all-around player Mike Trout, or the great hitter but one-dimensional player Miguel Cabrera (Cabrera won both times). Along the way, Hirsch examines pitchers’ arm injuries and the over-application of the pitch count today. It is hard to fault his assertion that the Washington Nationals ill-fated decision several years ago to withhold Stephen Strasberg from the playoffs based on his projected pitch counts was, in Hirsch’s words, “absurd.”
The best discussion in the book is about the statistical revolution that has completely transformed baseball in the past two decades. A baseball game is a series of thousands of events and decisions, and the advent of the computer and high-tech video systems has made it possible to catalogue, compile, and evaluate those events. This has generated constantly evolving statistics and new ways of analyzing players and strategy. Administrative power in the upper strata of baseball has changed hands from grizzled old-line baseball veterans to Ivy League analysts, economists, and “quants.” Most baseball front offices are now filled with people who never played professionally.
Hirsch uses his experience with statistics to explain to the everyday fan some of the most commonly used new terms. Unlike many of today’s journalists, he is neither a total skeptic nor a doctrinaire believer; he neatly lays out the strengths and weaknesses of such arcane concepts as WAR, UZR, and DIPS.
Coincidentally, medicine faces a not dissimilar revolution with its attempts to measure performance. As a physician, Hirsch is undoubtedly aware that just as a baseball player is more than a statistic, so is a patient. The ultimate purpose of statistics is to describe reality, but while they may be able to provide a good approximation, their description will necessarily be incomplete. As the saying goes, “the map is not the territory,” and Hirsch explains why this pertains to statistics and baseball. For the casual reader looking for an initial section to catch his or her attention, I must recommend the section on baseball analytics.
The book moves into basketball, and Hirsch’s knowledge of the sport is no less impressive, even if his topics are not quite as focused. There is less attention to historical debates—surprisingly no Russell/Chamberlain colloquy, the basketball equivalent to Mantle/Mays. Instead, he examines, among other things, various strategies (e.g. three-point shooting) and the popular topic of whether the “hot-hand”— the streak shooter—actually exists.
The hot-hand has been examined in depth by many in and out of the sports realm, most notably by the late mathematical psychologist Amos Tversky and his Nobel-winning colleague, Daniel Kahneman. Their conclusion, and the conclusion of most others, is that the hot-hand does not exist, and is simply an imagined phenomenon. I have never been totally convinced that this is true, not because the hot-hand is so obvious, rather because it may be subtle and hard to confirm. It is so ingrained in the thinking of virtually everyone who has played the game that one must discard the notion that it does not exist with caution; ignore local knowledge at your peril. With additional explanation, Hirsch adopts this cautious stance.
One basketball debate that Hirsch comes down strongly on concerns the “one and done rule.” He is a firm believer that young basketball players should have the option to turn pro at any time and any impediments, legal or social, to letting them do so are unwarranted and unfair. This is another unresolvable debate, with evidence supporting both sides.
Hirsch details the careers of a couple of controversial superstars, LeBron James and Wilt Chamberlain. There is little middle ground on either of these two players; each is either a hero or villain, overrated or wrongly maligned, depending on whom you talk to. Hirsch presents a balanced and intelligent assessment of both, coming down on the side, rightly so, that both were in the pantheon of the greatest to ever play. His mention of Steph Curry in the same vein as Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan, however, might be a little gratuitous, a point he concedes, albeit reluctantly.
In a fascinating (but brief) digression in the basketball section, Hirsch discusses Ernie Vandeweghe, a college All-American, an NBA player with the Knicks in the 1950’s, a physician, and the father and grandfather of eight stars with world-class ability in six different sports. Most amazingly, Vandeweghe attended medical school at the same time he played in the NBA. The physician Hirsch is duly impressed, as am I (although Hirsch neglects to mention in addition to everything else, Vandeweghe also married a Miss America!). Among all the debates in the book, there is no debate that Ernie Vandeweghe was one of the most amazing individuals in sports—something that few before Hirsch have acknowledged.
The final section on football is unfortunately shorter, although it includes an excellent piece on head trauma in the NFL and the difficulty in making the diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. I hope that Dr. Hirsch revisits this subject in his future writings because his insight is extremely valuable.
While personal disagreement is not generally the domain of the critic, if I had to take issue with any of his ideas, it is the rule changes he proposes in football. Hirsch advises downplaying kicking by eliminating extra points and decreasing the relative value of field goals (by awarding touchdowns with seven points). My bias is that kicking is an essential element of the game, and a skilled kicker in a pressure situation adds considerably to the excitement of the game.
Likewise, he criticizes the “catch/no catch” rule pertaining to receivers, but again, I disagree. Currently, a receiver must hold onto the ball and then make a “football move” to qualify as a catch. Hirsch dislikes the “football move” aspect and would like to do away with it. But I believe that putting greater onus on the receiver to hold the ball longer helps referees make difficult distinctions between dropped balls and catches with subsequent fumbles. However you believe, his discussion of football rule changes makes for interesting reading.
The book ends with the author’s profile of the legendary Muhammad Ali. Ali was inarguably one of the most important sports figures of the 20th Century, and after his death most descriptions of his life took on a hagiographic tone. The fact remains that Ali was a controversial figure and not always the saint he is portrayed as, especially in his dealings with his nemesis, Joe Frazier. The Ali epilogue might seem slightly out of place, but it is nonetheless accurate and a necessary historical counterbalance to some of the idealized portraits of the inarguably great boxer.
There are several unstated but important themes in this book. The most significant is the inevitable tension between individual and team performance. Any book that analyzes athletes in team sports must consider the conflict there. This book is no different, and Hirsch does his best to balance it. Did DiMaggio’s consecutive hitting streak really help his team? Should Russell Westbrook play more team-oriented basketball? Do high school players who move to the NBA learn to play team basketball? Ultimately, some fans prefer going to a game and watching an individual performance, others a competitive game. Are you happy if Michael Jordan scores 60 points but the Bulls lose or would you rather see a game go into overtime with no one player standing out? Hirsch acknowledges and respects that sports in general have become more competitive, but one gets the sense that deep in his heart he yearns for the dazzling individual performance.
There is also the matter of prediction. Fans read, watch, and argue wanting to know who will win an upcoming game (gambling playing no small part in this). Hirsch understands and explains why, at its most elemental level, successful prediction is impossible with any degree of certainty, a fact borne out by two singular events that occurred after his book went to press. It’s too bad we could not get his take on the Cubs winning the 2016 World Series after being down three games to one, and the Patriots coming from 25 points down to win the 2016 Super Bowl. I await reading about these anomalies in his next book. He is certain to have a unique perspective.
I also hope that in his next book he comments on how some of the topics he has discussed subsequently unfolded. For example, his observations on Phil Jackson not realizing success with the Knicks look prescient right now, for exactly the reasons he states. The jury is still out on Allonzo Trier, the fabulous young basketball player he describes who devoted his youth to playing the game. Trier has had some unanticipated troubles in his time at the University of Arizona, and his future is still anybody’s guess. Finally, Hirsch might have a different take today on Cubs manager Joe Madden’s “quirky tinkering” given some of the bizarre decisions Madden made in the 2016 Playoffs and World Series that nearly spelled disaster.
In short, Hot Hands, Draft Hype & DiMaggio’sStreak: Debunking America’s Favorite Sports Myths is a wonderful, well-written book that you can pick up and start reading on almost any page. And, as a bonus for the erudite sports fan, Hirsch quotes, among others and to good use, Tversky and Kahneman, Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, A.E. Housman, Robert Browning, and Alexander Pope. Who imagined, for example, a link between Vonnegut and LeBron James?
Hirsch’s book is meant to enlighten and entertain rather than simply settle barroom sports debates. However, in that respect you will be smarter after reading it and certainly better prepared for those debates when and if they arise. Whether on your night table, your coffee table, or your bookshelf, keep this great book handy for reading and reference.
Cory Franklin is an Editorial Board contributor to the Chicago Tribune and the author of Chicago Flashbulbs and Cook County ICU: 30 Years of Unforgettable Patients and Odd Cases
Reblogged from realclearbooks.com with the permission of the author