In 1939, the ESSO Gas Company issued a fifty-page booklet to commemorate the supposed centennial of baseball and handed it out at gas stations. Among the nuggets in the booklet was a list of every major leaguer who had hit at least 100 career home runs. Fatefully, one of the youngsters who picked up a copy was a fourteen-year-old named Bob McConnell, and his new acquisition proved to be a windfall for baseball research.
Robert C. McConnell was born on January 18, 1925, in Seattle, the son of a sea captain and a former World War I nurse. The family moved frequently while he was young, and portions of Bob's childhood were spent in Oregon, New Mexico, California, Massachusetts, and New York City before the family finally settled in Newark, New Jersey, in 1935. One of the constants in each new location was a love of baseball, which proved a good way of making new friends. When Bob arrived in Newark, he found that many of his new schoolmates were also baseball nuts, and that helped him feel right at home. He soon became an avid fan of the local Newark Bears, one of the legendary minor league franchises.
So when ESSO issued its commemorative booklet, Bob eagerly picked one up at the gas station, and it became his prized possession. His was especially intrigued by the listing of batters with 100 lifetime home runs, which included only fifty-one names. He started meticulously updating it about once a week. The pages of the booklet soon became well-worn, and a lifelong passion had begun.
A world war, however, soon intervened and men of his generation had to postpone these sorts of dreams. Bob joined the Navy for a minority hitch in 1942. (A minority hitch committed seventeen-year-olds to serve in the regular Navy until their twenty-first birthdays.) He spent the next three years on two ships: the U.S.S. Whitman, a destroyer, and the U.S.S. Mifflin, an attack transport.
In July of 1945, just before the end of the war, Bob was selected for officer training and was sent to Vanderbilt University. He was discharged from the Navy in January of 1946, but continued at Vanderbilt under the G. I. Bill. He graduated in the spring of 1949 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering. Later that year, he married Mildred "Millie" Cooper. Like Bob's mother, Millie was a native of Nova Scotia, and he met his future wife during one of his family's annual vacations in that beautiful coastal province.
Bob was hired straight out of college to work as a start-up service engineer for Combustion Engineering. The job involved the construction of new power plants, so as soon as one job was done, he was on to a new location. Over the next four years, he was traveling all the time, never spending more than a few months in one spot. Millie gave birth to the couple's first son in 1952 while they were living in a house trailer.
It was time to seek a more stable lifestyle, and Bob and Millie talked over where they'd like to raise their family. Both agreed that of all the places Bob had worked, the stint they had most enjoyed was one in Wilmington, Delaware. So Bob put in an application with the Delmarva Power & Light Company in Wilmington, and was hired as a power plant engineer on April 1, 1953. It proved the perfect fit, and Bob remained in the position until his retirement in 1983 on the thirtieth anniversary of his hiring.
Bob and Millie completed their family with the birth of their second son, and work and parenthood kept them busy in the years to come. But gradually they began to find time for other interests. Millie became an expert bridge player and is now a Life Master. Bob, meanwhile, began to reignite his old passion for baseball.
In particular, with the minor leagues now struggling, he became fascinated with commemorating the heroics of the stars of the glory days of the minor leagues. The statistical records of many of these players were shockingly incomplete, and Bob began the painstaking work of filling in the gaps. He started making trips to the Library of Congress and using interlibrary loan to track down old box scores. He got additional help from the fortuitous discovery of two articles in The Sporting News.
One of them was a piece written by a Washington, D.C., resident named Bob Davids who displayed a similar interest in tracking home run feats. Intrigued, McConnell looked up Davids's address in the Washington phone book and sent him a letter. Davids responded and informed McConnell of several other kindred spirits, including Cliff Kachline and Ray Nemec. Before long, Bob McConnell had several new correspondents with similar interests.
The other article put him in touch with a researcher named John Tattersall, who was the owner of the kind of collection that every SABR member dreams of discovering. Years earlier, a Boston newspaper merger had led to the disposal of much of the morgues of one of those papers. Among its contents was an extraordinary collection of box scores and game accounts dating back to the 1876 formation of the National League. Tattersall happened to be living in Boston at the time and purchased the collection for a song. He then began meticulously going through this gold mine and using it to fill in the massive gaps that still existed in major league baseball's statistical records. Imagine Bob's excitement when he learned of the existence of this precious resource -- and that its owner now lived in nearby Philadelphia.
Needless to say, the two men became close collaborators in the ensuing years. On any spare weekend McConnell could be found at the Wilmington library, poring over the goodies that had arrived as a result of his interlibrary loan requests. Once a month he would travel to Philadelphia. But box scores from Saturday games all too often remained elusive, so he made two trips a year to the Library of Congress, which had many late editions.
In the years that followed, Bob McConnell continued to slowly but surely expand his network of baseball research colleagues. He made his first trip to Cooperstown in the mid-1950s, where he met Hall of Fame historian Ernie Lanigan. Lanigan was succeeded in 1959 by Lee Allen, who became another valuable ally in Bob's many projects. Another longtime correspondent was S. C. Thompson, who collaborated with Hy Turkin on an ambitious baseball encyclopedia that gave researchers a survey of the field but also revealed how much information had disappeared in the mists of time.
Even with all these new resources, doing baseball research remained a slow and tedious endeavor, especially for a man with a demanding job and a growing family. Reliable published resources were still scarce, so a voluminous correspondence was often needed just to try to fill in the many gaps in the early encyclopedias. So Bob became an indefatigable letter-writer, and he now has two file drawers full of baseball correspondence.
By the 1950s, he was regularly writing to ballplayers to sort out the many anomalies that were emerging. Sometimes these produced exciting discoveries, such as when Bob received a letter from George Winkelman -- a player from 1884 -- in which Winkelman verified that he pitched with his left hand.
Yet letters such as that were the exception rather than the rule. For every letter that elicited an exciting reply, Bob mailed countless others asking post offices, town clerks, and other officials about the whereabouts of a long-ago player, only to receive a short, unhelpful response or none at all. It was not a pursuit for those who are easily discouraged!
Even collaborations with fellow researchers were generally carried on by means of the post office. That finally began to change in 1971 when Bob Davids -- who was just as tireless a letter-writer as McConnell -- floated the novel proposal of an organization for all of the people doing baseball research. When he got enough positive replies, he arranged for a meeting in Cooperstown on August 10, 1971.
Sixteen researchers ended up attending the meeting and forming the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Davids was selected as the president of SABR, while McConnell became its first secretary and treasurer. Like the founders of any new organization, they had grandiose dreams of great growth. As McConnell says with a chuckle, "we talked with excitement about how one day we might have as many as fifty members!" It is safe to say that SABR has exceeded their wildest dreams, as it now boasts well over 6,000 members.
That initial meeting was also a spur to a great deal of research by enabling the leading baseball researchers to meet face-to-face for the first time. McConnell met such kindred spirits as Joe Simenic, Ray Nemec, and Bob Davids for the first time at the Cooperstown meeting -- and the resulting friendships ensured that such get-togethers would continue. McConnell and Davids formed an especially close friendship and began making annual trips to the Hall of Fame to do research.
The two Bobs also renewed their acquaintance each year at the annual SABR convention, rooming together until shortly before Davids's death in 2002. These conventions started as small reunions for the founders, but soon went through the same growth spurt as the organization itself. Today they routinely attract 500 or more attendees -- ten times the fifty members that SABR's founders had seen as an optimistic goal.
Through all this growth one constant has been Bob McConnell, who has attended all but one of the thirty-seven annual conventions. Asked about the one he missed, McConnell grimaces before replying, "That was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. I had some business come up and I don't know why but I let it get in the way."
In 1983, the prospect of such dilemmas was eliminated when Bob retired. Not surprisingly, he devoted much of the extra time to baseball research. Eventually, he and Davids began making two journeys a year to Cooperstown -- and carefully planning these trips to ensure maximum research time. According to Bill Deane, then Senior Research Associate at the Hall of Fame, the two Bobs would make one trip "in May and the other in October (just before the tourists came and just after they left). Davids would drive to McConnell's house in Delaware, and the two of them would drive up to central New York. They'd stay for a few days, maximizing their research time, and drive back. Davids would always find time to break for lunch at Newberry's next door, but McConnell would often skip it, immersed in his contract cards."
By this time, the continued growth of SABR was providing new luxuries to members. In the early days, with such a limited number of active researchers, everybody pitched in to help out on a new project or an administrative matter. McConnell served as a board member for eleven years during this formative period, and was an active participant in pretty much everything SABR undertook during those years. But the rapid expansion of the membership enabled researchers to specialize in the areas that interested them most. McConnell took advantage and, not surprisingly, he turned his attention to two interests that dated back to his youthful days of rooting for the great sluggers of the 1930s and for his hometown Newark Bears.
The first of these was home runs. One of John Tattersall's most ambitious projects was the creation of a log that would detail every major league home run ever hit. McConnell was a key ally on this initiative, filling in many of the gaps in the records. When Tattersall died in 1981, SABR purchased his collection, and McConnell was put in charge of the home run register, which was rechristened the "Tattersall-McConnell Home Run Log." (McConnell insists to this day that it was Tattersall who "should be credited with the bulk of the work.") The results were published by Macmillan in the 1996 book SABR Presents The Home Run Encyclopedia.
McConnell's second research passion also came out of the many afternoons he spent watching the greats of the International League. Along with Ray Nemec, Vern Luse, and Bob Davids, he became one of the principals in another ambitious effort that aimed to create complete statistical records for the greatest minor league players. The project proved so successful that SABR eventually published three volumes of the Minor League Stars series, along the way directing new attention to "Buzz" Arlett and the other luminaries of the golden age of the minors.
In 2008, Bob marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of his official retirement. Yet he remains as active as ever in his passionate devotion to baseball research. He even makes some use of the Internet although, not surprisingly, his favorite sources are the microfilmed newspapers that he obtains through interlibrary loan. His main research interests continue to involve minor league history and slugging, especially in filling in the gaps in the extra-base-hit categories of the statistics issued by many minor leagues.
Today's researchers take for granted the completeness of the statistical record that is now available at the click of a mouse. But we need to recognize that we have that vantage point because we stand on the shoulders of giants like Bob McConnell who put in countless hours of work to make that possible.
Life has a funny way of bringing things full-circle. Bob and Millie McConnell now have three grandchildren and one of them works for Exxon -- that's right, the company that released the fateful commemorative home run booklet back when it was known as ESSO. Oh and in case you were wondering about that home run booklet, it disappeared along with his baseball cards while he was serving in the Navy. But it hasn't been forgotten either. Some years ago, Bob purchased an original booklet from a dealer and had it bound. It now occupies a prominent place in his home.
Postscript: Bob McConnell passed away on March 18, 2012.
Conversations and correspondence with Bob McConnell, Bill Deane, and members of SABR.