This article was written by David Vincent
Bob Davids, a career Federal government employee, never played professional baseball. However, he had a deep and lasting impact on the game by founding the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) in 1971. This organization has had a large effect on how baseball is quantified and discussed, and its existence is a logical extension of Bob’s love for the game of baseball as well as his chosen professional career path.
Leonard Robert Davids was born on March 19, 1926, the eighth of nine children on a farm four miles southwest of Kanawha, Iowa. He was the child of James and Katie (Bakker) Davids. James emigrated from the Netherlands and changed his name from the Dutch original Jacobus Vroegindeweij. Katie was a third-generation American of German heritage. All nine of their children were born at home, many without a doctor present at the birth.
Although his given name was Leonard, he acquired the nickname “Bob” early in life. The background of this name is unclear, as different members of the family tell different stories. One version of the story is that the young Leonard went around the house imitating the sound of the family’s new washing machine saying: “bob, bob, bob …” His older brothers then started calling him Bob as a result of this act. In later years, he used the name “L. Robert Davids” in all correspondence.
Bob played sports growing up and was a star pitcher on his high school baseball team. In one game during his senior year against Garner High School, the county seat, he struck out 10 batters in a 7-inning 3-hitter. He enjoyed pitching and later in life displayed his talent in unusual ways. On one trip home to Iowa with his grandson, the two stopped in Dyersville to visit the Field of Dreams movie set playing field. Bob usually carried bats, gloves and balls in the trunk of his car. While in Dyersville, he pitched batting practice for his grandson and then for anyone else who wanted to hit that day on that field.
Another example of his pitching occurred when the Washington chapter of SABR met at a minor-league ballpark. Bob threw out a ceremonial pitch before the game to the delight of the chapter members. It was always a strike, sometimes to the surprise of the player chosen to catch the pitch.
Davids began studying baseball in 1939 about the time he started high school. He acquired the book Major League Baseball, published by Whitman Publishing Company. This book contained annual averages for players, and the young Davids read them with great interest. Bob’s interest in these statistics caused him to read about the performance of players in earlier years.
Bob attended the Norway Township #3 grade school and graduated from Kanawha High School in 1943. He left after graduation for San Diego, where his brother Bert lived. In California, Bob attended prep school and worked for Consolidated-Vultree Aircraft Corp. He enlisted in the Army Air Force in February 1944 and flew as a nose gunner in the same aircraft, B-24s, which he had helped build in San Diego. His two years of service included duty on Okinawa and in the Philippines.
Davids took two baseball publications with him overseas. The first was the 1945 Baseball Register, and the second was about pitching records. The latter book related team won/lost records to individual performance. Bob read both books frequently while overseas to the extent that they were both in tatters by the time he returned to the U.S. In fact, the first few pages of the book on pitchers were all torn off, leaving no title page to identify in later years.
After leaving the military in 1946, Bob enrolled at the University of Missouri. He received a Bachelor of Journalism in three years and a Master of Arts in History in 1951, both from Missouri. These two academic disciplines served him well professionally as well as in the baseball community. Davids received a Ph.D. in International Relations from Georgetown University in 1961.
Dr. Davids began his 30-year Federal civilian career in Washington with the Department of Defense in 1951. From 1952 to 1958 he was Assistant Editor and later Editor of the Navy Civil Engineer Corps Bulletin. He served in April 1953 as the Navy information officer for Operation Hardtop, a Navy Seabee experiment to build an airfield runway on the icecap of northern Greenland. The technique of packing snow into a runway was used later in Operation Deepfreeze in the Antarctic.
While in the Arctic, he traveled with the Danish Governor of North Greenland and the Commander of the Thule Air Base to an Eskimo village a few miles north of the base. They met with Ootah, an Eskimo guide, to present a gift on behalf of the Navy Civil Engineer Corps. Ootah had accompanied Admiral Robert E. Peary, who was a Civil Engineer, Matthew Henson, and three other Eskimos on the 1909 expedition to reach the North Pole. An interview was conducted with the 78-year-old Eskimo, and photos taken to record the meeting. At the time of his death two years later, Ootah was the last survivor of the expedition.
Dr. Davids transferred to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1958. There he served as a technical reports officer and later as a long-range planning officer. In 1964 he helped compile presidential documents on nuclear energy for the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library.
In late 1968 Davids received a Congressional Fellowship and spent the next year working in the offices of Senator Mark Hatfield and Representative Robert Taft Jr. Davids wrote speeches and helped prepare legislation during his Fellowship. He traveled with Taft and Representative Wilmer Mizell (a retired major-league pitcher who had toiled for the Cardinals, Pirates, and briefly for the Mets) to Cincinnati in July 1969, where they participated in ceremonies commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first professional baseball team, the 1869 Red Stockings.
Returning to AEC after his Fellowship ended in late 1969, Davids prepared the “Weekly Report to the White House.” He also served as a speechwriter for two AEC chairmen, Glenn T. Seaborg and Dixie Lee Ray.
When the agency was dissolved in 1975, Dr. Davids moved to one of its successors, the Energy Research and Development Administration, as Chief of the Special Projects Branch. In April and May 1977, he served as the head of the U.S. Secretariat at the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Conference in Salzburg, Austria.
Later that year he moved to the newly formed Department of Energy as the Special Events Coordinator. His work for this organization included coordinating government dedications of various energy facilities, as well as demonstrations of energy conservation measures. When the Reagan administration took office in 1981, policy changes dictated adjustments at the agency. The 55-year-old Dr. Davids retired from Federal Service at this time.
Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper that began publishing in 1955, published many articles on Congressional history under Davids’ byline between 1960 and 1975. He wrote about unusual topics that had not been published before, such as brothers, fathers and sons who served at the same time in Congress; the first women in Congress; and the story of the only time a U.S. Vice President took the oath of office in a foreign country.
Davids wrote many freelance baseball articles for The Sporting News (TSN) between 1951 and 1965. The first appeared in December 1951. Among the pieces to appear under Davids’ name were a number of full-page features. Perhaps his most personally satisfying article was about his favorite player, Lou Gehrig. The article, written to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the end of Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak in 1939, was published on May 16, 1964.
Another full-page article for TSN centered on two-sport athletes. The article, which appeared in the November 16, 1963, issue, discussed the careers of persons who played both professional baseball and football. This piece combined two of Davids’ interests, as he was also a member of the Professional Football Researchers Association (PFRA).
In the mid-1960s, TSN reduced its coverage of baseball in order to expand its coverage of other sports. This meant Davids lost his outlet for historical baseball articles and needed to find another for the research he continued to do.
A few years later, Davids decided to create his own publication, a monthly newsletter called Baseball Briefs. The first edition of this newsletter appeared in April 1971 and contained short articles on interesting baseball topics. Its masthead showed the graphically produced title “baseball” and noted that it was “volume 1, number 1.” The graphic used bats as the two L’s and a combination of a bat and ball for the two B’s in the word “baseball.”
The first article in Baseball Briefs was about the American League. It read, in part: “The American League opened as a major circuit 70 years ago this month and the only player who still survives that inaugural is little Freddy Parent, shortstop of the Boston Red Sox. Now 95, he is living in a nursing home in Sanford, Maine. Parent did not miss a game from the April 26, 1901 opener to September 26, 1903, making him the first iron man of the AL with 413 consecutive games.”
Other briefs in that first issue showed the extent of Davids’ knowledge and sense of humor, with eye-catching opening lines: “Batter strikeouts continue to go up like the Consumer Price Index”; “Frank Howard of the Nats is the only active player who can hit his weight and still have a respectable batting average (.280)”; “Base stealing, like crime in general, is increasing and is also getting more difficult to curb”; and “Jim Bunning now has the unenviable record of being taken out of more games than any other pitcher in major league history.”
Davids published Baseball Briefs monthly during the baseball season from 1971 through 1974. In 1975, SABR decided to include the Briefs in a member newsletter not under Davids’ control, but that effort failed after a few months. At this point the Briefs disappeared for a few years. Most of Davids’ writing at that time was devoted to editing the various SABR publications, so Baseball Briefs was not issued again until 1981, now as a season-end summary. In its last manifestation, the Briefs were included in the SABR Bulletin annually from 1989 through 2000.
On Davids’ 45th birthday, March 19, 1971, he mailed approximately 35 invitations to a meeting in Cooperstown, New York. The addressees included persons interested in baseball history and statistical research, for whom Davids used the term “statistorians.” He compiled his mailing list from names he saw in The Sporting News “appended to an interesting historical or statistical article,” as he said in the letter, and from names given him by a number of other baseball historians.
This was an effort to organize the unknown quantity of baseball statistorians into a formal group. The initial letter read in part:
“What would be accomplished at the Cooperstown meeting? From general to specific, your attendance would provide an opportunity (1) to see Cooperstown and the always changing Hall of Fame Museum; (2) to meet and exchange first hand views with other statistorians; (3) to review specific areas of baseball interest to avoid duplication of effort; (4) to establish an informal group primarily for exchange of information; or (5) to establish a formal organization with officers, dues, a charter, annual meetings, etc.; (6) to consider the establishment of a publication in which our research efforts could be presented; and (7) to take up additional matters which you may suggest in response to this letter.”
The letter continued with an example of Davids’ humor.
“What do you do now? You should send me a note saying something along the lines of (1) ‘Your idea of a get-together of the baseball statistorians sounds great, I would like to attend; (2) I am interested in your efforts to organize the group, would like to be included but cannot get away for a meeting at Cooperstown this summer; or (3) your plans for an organization are completely impossible; take me off your mailing list, quick.’”
Cliff Kachline, the Baseball Hall of Fame Historian, offered the Hall’s library for the meeting. The induction ceremonies that year were held on August 9 and featured many players elected by the Veterans’ and Negro Leagues Committees but none elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America. It is interesting that only players from older eras were inducted in the year that baseball historians gathered in Cooperstown.
On August 10, 1971, sixteen people from eleven states attended the meeting on a warm Tuesday in New York and established the SABR. Those 16 were representative of about 40 statistorians who had responded favorably to the concept of the organization. The group elected three officers, whose first task was to draft the first SABR constitution.
In the SABR Bulletin No. 1, issued in August of that year, Bob wrote about the initial meeting:
“Discussion of a name for the group centered around geographic coverage, a possible acronym, and a means of covering both the historical and statistical aspects of the group without a long title. It was generally agreed that the word research accomplished the latter. In regard to geographic scope, it was stated that American was broader than national. Society was preferred over association. Efforts to come up with a name resulting in a baseball acronym like RBI or something similar proved fruitless. Consequently, we became the Society for American Baseball Research.”
There was also a note in the first Bulletin about membership in the Society. Bob wrote: “In regard to membership application, some justification of the $10 fee may be in order. This figure may seem high to some and the question may be raised in individual minds ‘what do I get for my $10?’” After a careful description of the benefits, Bob ended that item: “Membership (to paraphrase a current song) means never having to say you’re sorry … for not having joined.”
Davids was elected the first president of the organization and he is the only person to serve in that position multiple times, having held the office on three separate occasions (1971, 1975, and 1982-83.) In addition, Davids served as a member of SABR’s Board of Directors for five years in two separate terms during the 1970s.
Bob’s expectation for SABR was that it would be “a cozy research group with its own publications.” He ran the organization from his Northwest Washington, DC home for ten years, serving as Editor-in-Chief during that time. Publications included the bi-monthly newsletter, The SABR Bulletin, and the annual Baseball Research Journal, as well as a membership directory. In those early years, once a publication was ready for distribution mailings were prepared by groups of SABR members in Bob’s dining room. The group would talk about baseball, politics and other topics and eat cookies. Crumbs would often find their way into envelopes, sometimes accidentally and sometimes not.
Davids welcomed articles for SABR’s publications and meeting presentations covering a wide range of topics, including the Negro Leagues. This was well before commercial publishing houses accepted works about the Negro Leagues.
In the 1980s, SABR grew beyond what the charter members imagined as interest in baseball increased. Publishers were buying many more works on the history of baseball, and this helped generate the rapid growth of the organization that took it beyond the “cozy research group” envisioned by the founders.
On November 4, 1974, twelve members and two guests from the Washington, DC, area met at the home of Ron Gabriel in Chevy Chase, Maryland. This was the first time that a regional group within SABR met formally. The Washington-Baltimore chapter has continued to meet at least once a year since that first event. It was renamed the “Bob Davids Chapter” in 1992 by a vote of the chapter members over the strong objection of its namesake.
For many years, Dr. Davids spent hours at the Library of Congress doing research on his favorite topics in baseball and other areas. Bob would spend many Saturdays and even lunch hours during the week at the Library, where he had a favorite microfilm machine that he used. Local researchers knew that they could go to the Library on most Saturdays and find Bob there. Interesting discussions often ensued about baseball and other items of interest. As he did everywhere he went, Davids developed friendships with people whom he met at the Library, including one woman who had escaped the Nazis during World War II.
Davids also took semi-annual trips to Cooperstown to do research at the Hall of Fame Library. His usual companion on these journeys was another founding member of SABR, Bob McConnell. The two Bobs, sometimes referred to by other members as “Bob Squared,” also roomed together at SABR conventions. They are officially listed in SABR history as members #1 and #2.
Davids’ research and clippings were not limited to baseball history. Among other lists he kept were a roster of the first 500 SABR members with member number, date joined and hometown; the first women to join the organization; and the first members by state and foreign country. For many years, Bob wrote SABR Salutes, which were tributes to members published in the membership directory. They gave a brief synopsis of that person’s contributions to SABR and baseball history.
Davids contributed information for sports fact boxes in multiple newspapers through the years. He was a regular contributor to the Washington Post‘s “Stat of the Day” and the Chicago Sun-Times‘ “Sports Fact.” These contributions were similar to the pieces he wrote for Baseball Briefs. He wrote an extended article on the history of the designated hitter for the April 7, 1993, edition of USA Today Baseball Weekly on the 20th anniversary of the first use of the DH.
At SABR meetings, Davids was famous for his “warm-up quizzes,” which took unusual and humorous looks at the game. Among other question types, he enjoyed creating a clue to the surname of a player to elicit an answer from the assembled group. For a regional meeting at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium in 1990, Davids listed Orioles from the 1954-84 era with clues such as the following:
Brooklyn bird: Boyd (Bob)
Graceful in manner: Gentile (Jim)
Bombproof shelter: Bunker (Wally)
A donut submerged: Duncan (Dave)
Precisely 2000 pounds: Singleton (Ken)
Heavyweight KO artist: Dempsey (Rick)
Read Him His Rights: Miranda (Willie)
In 1985, the SABR Board of Directors established the Bob Davids Award, which is awarded annually to a SABR member “whose contributions to SABR and baseball reflect the ingenuity, integrity, and self-sacrifice of the founder and past president of SABR, L. Robert ‘Bob’ Davids.” It is awarded each year at the annual convention and is considered the Society’s highest honor.
At the time of his death, Davids was the only person to have attended all 31 annual SABR conventions. In addition to SABR 31, he attended two other official SABR events in 2001. When the organization celebrated its 30th birthday with a gathering in Cooperstown in August, Bob was at the center of the celebration and cut the birthday cake for all to enjoy. Appropriately, his last SABR event was a meeting of the Bob Davids Chapter in November 2001. He had attended all chapter meetings up to that time.
In addition to his keen interest in baseball history, Davids was also interested in other sports. He was a member of the Professional Football Researchers Association (PFRA). According to Bob Carroll, Executive Director of PFRA, although Davids “wasn’t present at the PFRA organizational meeting in 1979, he was supportive from the beginning. He joined as soon as the organization was announced. Because his reputation for legitimate sports research was so strong, his membership encouraged others to join PFRA. Over the years, he would send advice, suggestions, and tidbits of information.”
Carroll continued: “Obviously his main interest was baseball, but he had a good knowledge of football history, and my impression was that he was conversant with other sports. I’ve never heard anyone say anything negative about Bob.”
Davids published one byline article in PFRA’s official newsletter/magazine, The Coffin Corner. It appeared in volume 9 number 7 (1987) and was titled “23 Guys with Hobbies.” This was the year that Bo Jackson decided to follow his baseball season playing for the Royals with football for the Raiders. Davids wrote about the 23 persons who had attempted the dual sports roles in the same year and the article’s title is another example of Bob’s dry humor.
Dr. Davids was also a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO). This interest in boxing started as a young man. The Davids brothers were interested in boxing and, in fact, one of his brothers acquired the nickname “Sharkey” after his favorite pugilist. As an adult, Bob maintained a correspondence with heavyweight champ Max Schmeling for years.
Davids married Yvonne Revier, a Pentagon administrative assistant, on June 13, 1953. They had one daughter, Roberta Davids Hagen and two grandsons, Edward and John.
Dr. Davids also was a good neighbor and a kind pet owner. He loved walking through the neighborhood with his dogs. His favorite was a 125-pound gray Bouvier nicknamed Bob-Dog. On his strolls, he would take errant newspapers and toss them on the owners’ porch and perform other acts of kindness.
He was actively involved in numerous community activities. After arriving in Washington in 1953, he was an active member of the Washington Christian Reformed Church until 1969 when he helped to organize its daughter church in Silver Spring. Once the new church was established, he served as head usher from 1969 to 2002 and as a deacon for a short time.
From 1967 to 1987, he was the commissioner of the Washington-area Church Fellowship Softball League. He was a frequent blood donor, having donated 9 1/2 gallons to the American Red Cross prior to undergoing triple heart bypass surgery in 1982. He prepared and served meals at Shepherd’s Table in Silver Spring from 1988 to 2002.
In 1992, Davids was diagnosed with bladder cancer and underwent many years of chemotherapy for that disease. On the evening of February 3, 2002, he took some newspapers out the back door to the recycle bin but fell as he walked down the stairs. At the insistence of his family, he went to Sibley Hospital the next day to be examined. The doctor thought he discovered a kidney stone and decided surgery was in order. However, the surgical team discovered that there were no stones but that the cancer had taken over much of Bob’s body.
Davids died in the hospital on February 10, 2002. He was buried on February 20, 2002, at Arlington National Cemetery with military honors in section 33, grave 8910. The numerology of the burial date is one that Bob would have loved as a possible topic for one of his warm-up quizzes: 02202002.
A term that has gone out of vogue is “Renaissance Man,” meaning someone who is an expert in many fields. Bob Davids certainly represented that concept well. He was interested in baseball, boxing, football, politics, Congress, the Presidency, longevity (reaching the age of 80 or above), and coin and stamp collecting, among other topics. He knew a lot about each of these subjects and often tied them together while writing interesting articles.
In addition, Bob was a kind person — someone who made everyone feel important. He was generous with his time and knowledge and helped many researchers when they did not have the facilities available to do their own fact checking. Much of his time at the library was spent helping others with their research.
Bob Savitt, the president of SABR’s Bob Davids Chapter at the time of Davids’ death, said: “Bob was one of those ‘larger than life’ persons whose wit, wisdom and love blanketed all who came in contact with him.”
SABR has enriched the lives of many people through the friendships made, the events attended, and the lessons learned. Thus, Bob Davids’ legacy lives on in the organization he founded and the many people whose lives he enhanced.
Carroll, Bob. E-mail letter to the author. October 23, 2003.
Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago, IL. Multiple issues.
Davids, L. Robert. “23 Guys With Hobbies.” The Coffin Corner. Volume 9, number 7. 1987
Davids, L. Robert. Baseball Briefs. Volume 1 Number 1. Washington, DC. April 1971.
Davids, L. Robert. Invitation letters for first meeting of SABR. March — June, 1971.
Davids, L. Robert. SABR Bulletin No. 1. Washington, DC. August 1971.
Davids, L. Robert. Interviews with the author.
Davids, L. Robert. Various family publications.
Davids, L. Robert. “DH has effect on two decades.” USA Today Baseball Weekly. April 7, 1993.
Davids, Yvonne R. Interviews with the author.
Garner Herald. Garner, IA. April 28, 1943.
Pardon, John F. Ten-Year History of SABR. Society for American Baseball Research. 1981.
Roll Call. Washington, DC. Multiple issues.
Savitt, Bob. E-mail letter. February 2002.
The Sporting News. St. Louis, MO. Multiple issues.
Washington Post. Washington, DC. Multiple issues.
Leonard Robert Davids
March 19, 1926 at Kanawha, IA (US)
February 10, 2002 at Washington, DC (US)
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