Book Review: 'The Cheater's Guide to Baseball' by Derek Zumsteg
by Bob Timmermann
In his Cheater’s Guide To Baseball, Derek Zumsteg, of Baseball Prospectus and U.S.S. Mariner, takes a stab at examining the various forms of cheating, chicanery, gamesmanship, and downright fraud that make up baseball. The book is a quick and somewhat lighthearted look at cheating in baseball, yet does take the time in spots to examine some of the bigger problems that fall under the fairly broad scope of “cheating.”
Zumsteg in the introduction makes a brief attempt to examine the philosophical and moral aspects of cheating, but does so, as he does in most of the book, in light-hearted fashion.
Some people argue that any lie is an immoral act and that any time you lie to gain an advantage, you’ve sinned.
Those people get really bad deals on consumer electronics.
The book is laid out it seems in increasing order of the seriousness of the cheating, from groundskeepers tricking up the field to benefit the home team to umpire baiting to doctored bats and spitballs and finally to game-fixing. Finally, Zumsteg tackles the issue of PEDs, but he doesn’t come down as hard on them as he does on Pete Rose and Joe Jackson. In fact, the section on steroids and other PEDs is one of the most interesting parts of the book.
Some parts of the book cover subjects that I wouldn’t consider cheating, such as crowd heckling and fan misbehavior, although Zumsteg gives it a good shot to try to tie it all together. The section on the 1919 World Series is presented in a very straightforward and funny manner and makes the complicated conspiracy seem pretty simple. Zumsteg has read up on the 1919 World Series, but I’ve always found that trying to determine the “facts” of the 1919 fix to be somewhat elusive. But you can read a lot of hefty tomes on the Black Sox if you want chapter and verse. Zumsteg doesn’t need that detail because his point is, ultimately, that something horrible happened in the 1919 World Series and that is cheating being taken too far.
The problem with writing about cheating in baseball is that it’s hard to find many people who will speak on the record about it. If it weren’t for Gaylord Perry, how would most of us know anything about the spitball? Most players are, understandably, quite coy about discussing cheating and few will ever admit to cheating, just as few pitchers ever admit to deliberately throwing at batters. It’s just not done. It’s one of those unwritten rules. The section on groundskeeping relies on one former Indians groundskeeper who was one of the few who ever spoke on the record about the topic.
Baseball’s unwritten rules have fostered cheating throughout its history. The sport’s rulebook has a lot of shades of gray in it. Is a pickoff move that is sometimes called a balk and sometimes not a case of cheating? What about a ball that has just happened to pick up some fortunate scuff to it?
Overall, the book was a fun read. The topic of cheating is not something that lends itself to a 600-page book, but for a 250 page paperback, it's fine. I suppose it could be 600 pages, but it would have a lot of non-funny parts of it. And Zumsteg’s humor keeps the pace zipping along and even makes the Nickel Beer Night Riot of Cleveland an enjoyable event to read about.