March 27, 2009
Interview: Howard Megdal

I have no idea where Howard Megdal finds the time. MetsGeek loyalists will recognize him as the mind behind those haikus that appear in our Game Recaps during the season. He’s a sports columnist for the The New York Observer, contributes to Inside Pitch and has had his work featured at, among other places. He also co-hosts the radio program New York Baseball Live with Mike Silva. And, on top of all that, he’s got his first book out on Tuesday, The Baseball Talmud: The Definitive Position-by-Position Ranking of Baseball’s Chosen Players. Howard was gracious enough to stop by and answer a few of our questions about the book.

So what was the impetus that drove you to write The Baseball Talmud?

Well, as an obsessive baseball fan and culturally-identifying Jew, I’ve always had a fascination with where the two subjects overlap. There had been some very good Jewish baseball books, but no one had taken a Bill James-style approach to the question of how good the Jewish players were relative to one another. I thought it would be fascinating to study it, and I was correct.

How would you describe the book? Which readers are you hoping to appeal to?

This book is for anyone who enjoys baseball and/or humorous stories, as I weave both into narratives about the players, plus I rely heavily on sabermetrics to justify my rankings. I look for baseball books that can teach me something new—this book has a lot of new material in it.

Any difficulty pitching the project to publishers? What did you say to sell it?

Ultimately, a variation of the above—I was so pleased that others shared my interest in the project.

It sure sounds like an awful lot of research. What resources did you turn to most for help?

Well, the recently-departed Paper of Record, which had The Sporting News going back to 1886, was amazing. Obviously, one also starts any such project with Prospectus was a huge help, as was Hardball Times and Fangraphs. I wanted to rely on more than one for a range of perspectives, statistically.

The thing I love most about The New Bill James Historical Abstract isn’t the way Bill uses the Win Share system to rank players; it’s how he uses the ratings as an excuse to tell stories about the players, and I especially love the ones about players that have escaped the memory of the modern fan. Have you tried to accomplish something similar with The Baseball Talmud?

Exactly. This is exactly it. The Bill James Historical Abstract is my favorite book, and that’s how I treated Baseball Talmud. In fact, you can probably mark the origins of this book to Hanukkah 1987, when I received both The Bill James Historical Abstract and Hank Greenberg’s autobiography.

Have any favorite Jewish players or a favorite story from the book that you wish to share?

That’s hard—probably my favorite is Andy Cohen, who was referred to in The Sporting News as “John McGraw’s $100,000 Jew.” Mose Solomon was known as The Jew of Hutchinson, Kansas the year he hit 49 home runs there. The fact that there’s a Cohen Stadium in, of all places, El Paso, Texas—so many great details where Jewish life enters baseball. Best nicknames: The Rabbi of Swat (Solomon) and The Yiddish Curver (Barney Pelty).

Anything that didn’t make the book that you wish could have?

Yes! Josh Whitesell of the Diamondbacks made his debut just after my last deadline! I have 159 players, but Whitesell makes an even 160. So sorry Josh!!!

Any plans to expand the concept into other sports? Will The Hockey Talmud just be distributed as a pamphlet?

Given that Bar Refaeli, this year’s SI Swimsuit cover model, is Jewish, I think there’s got to be a book—wait, my wife is telling me I won’t be writing that. Probably for the best.

Are you doing anything special to promote the book? Any book signings or the like?

Why, yes! Constantly updated list found here.

It was the craziest thing to go to Barnes and Noble and see a huge poster with my picture and the book cover on it. Surreal.

Most MetsGeek readers know you as the guy who writes those marvelous haikus in the Game Recaps. My favorite came from August 30th of last year:

Beltran slam helps Mets
cruise to win, easy now, oh,
please Lord, Oh no- Whew!

Those things can’t be easy to come up with, but you manage to do one every game. What’s your secret?

First of all, thank you. The reason I wanted to write them for your site is that I felt it would be a perfect home for the tone I wanted to strike—your readers are knowledgeable, watch every game as I do, and would relate to how I felt watching the game.

Really, it is theraputic. Both the wins and losses strike a strong emotion within me- joy over victory, agony over defeat, particularly difficult defeats. It allows me to vent- especially on weeknights when my wife falls asleep before the end of the game, and I can send a poem rather than wake her up. So it’s probably good for the marriage, too.

All right, as a parting question, what do you think of the Mets this year? It seems like there’s a lot of ambivalence among fans.

Well, I may be in the minority, but when I see a team that had a very strong offense that returns intact, with real possibility for improvement at left, right, second base and catcher, a starting staff that was strong and also returns intact, and a bullpen that is much better—and the team absent a strong pen won 89 games last year; how can I not think they are a good bet for 90-95 wins? Things can go wrong—like I have to tell Mets fans that- but there is ample reason for optimism. Plus, my wife has been saying since 2007 that the Mets would next win a world series in 2009, so you can put it in the books.

Thanks, Howard, and good luck with the book.

One Response to “Interview: Howard Megdal”

  1. Comment posted by Simons on March 27, 2009 at 6:04 pm (#942375)

    Mazel tov on the book Howard, I’ll be picking that up for sure. Can you believe our old friend Shawn Green retired when he was :: this close :: to Greenberg’s mark as the sluggingest MOT? Hank deserves to stay the HR King anyhow.