SABR BioProject: February 2016 newsletter
High and Inside
The Newsletter of the BioProject Committee
Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)
February 2016, Volume 1, Number 3
- From the Editor
- From the Director
- Team Ownership Histories Project
- Advice from the Experts
- Project Profile: Jan Finkel
- Project Poobahs
From the Editor
Check out the new name of our newsletter High and Inside, a title provided by Mike Piazzi, who narrowly missed (by one letter) being elected to the Hall of Fame.
The BioProject is up to 3,582 completed biographies with many more coming, especially with work on so many team projects. Check with the good folks listed at the bottom of this page for more information on getting involved in some of these projects.
Meanwhile, this issue of High and Inside contains helpful information and advice as well as a profile of one of the group’s greatest contributors.
And let me know if you’d like to contribute an article to our newsletter.
From the Director
In case you missed it, SABR recently introduced a new logo, and took the opportunity to update its website at the same time. Unfortunately, the BioProject upgrade had many problems and (at press time) still has many problems. Jacob and the developers are working on fixing it, and I ask your patience in the meantime.
In a recent newsletter, I invited people to provide links in their bios if this was something they felt they knew how to do. A couple of specific rules I need you to follow: (a) only link to BioProject articles and nothing else; and (b) only link to a bio once. There are good reasons for each of these rules, trust me.
Overall, the project is producing more work than ever before despite a rapidly dwindling supply of well-known players. For this we can mainly thank (besides our prolific writers) the editors and fact checkers. If you are interested in helping with editing or fact checking, please let me know. For editing, we want experienced writer/editors who are comfortable making improvements in pieces and provided tough love on occasion. For fact checking, we need people who are detail-oriented and careful. You will be amply paid with our gratitude, as per usual.
Finally, I want to urge some of you youngsters, or young-at-heartsters, to consider claiming players of a more recent vintage. We require that a player be retired for five years, but nearly all of the players from the 1990s are eligible, and many from this century. The research is easier than the 19th century, though the work of framing the story in an interesting way is still present.
Spring training is nearly upon us. Enjoy.
— Mark Armour
Team Ownership Histories Project: A Subject of BioProject and the Business of Baseball Committee
By Andy McCue
The Team Ownership Histories project aims to produce a complete history of every franchise’s owners and major financial milestones. They will include profiles of owners, managing general partners and other large players. They will discuss both abortive and successful campaigns for new stadiums and possible franchise moves, whether completed or not, and their reasons. They need not include any information about a team’s performance on the field except for how it affects the teams financial standing. General information on financial health is desirable, if obtainable.
Full attendance data for any franchise can be supplied and one team history is available as a loose model. If you are interested, there is a list below of the taken and available franchises. Please contact me at email@example.com.
Here are the teams spoken for:
New York/San Francisco Giants
Seattle Pilots/Milwaukee Brewers
Cincinnati Reds (through 1966 season)
New York Mets
Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves – (through 1935)
Philadelphia/Kansas City/Oakland Athletics
Washington Senators I
Chicago White Sox
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
St. Louis Browns /Baltimore Orioles
These are the teams which still need an author:
Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves – (1936 to present)
Cincinnati Reds (1967 to present)
Kansas City Royals
Los Angeles/California Angels
Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals
St. Louis Cardinals
San Diego Padres
Tampa Bay Rays
Toronto Blue Jays
Washington Senators II/Texas Rangers
This is the team that has been completed:
Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers
Advice from the Experts
Guest columnist: Terry Bohn
My interest in biographical research began many years ago when my brother-in-law gave me a baseball autographed by someone named Peck Welch. I wanted to identify this player and was curious to learn more about him. It turns out the ballplayer was Paul Welch, a minor league outfielder who played most of his career in Fargo, North Dakota in the 1940s. Through information contained in his obituary, I was able to contact his daughter, and sent her the ball. She was very appreciative and thankful, and told me she would pass the ball on to Peck’s grandson as a keepsake.
I began with the SABR BioProject as something to occupy my time as I was recovering from an illness and as a way to have my research published. During my research on early baseball in North Dakota I kept on running across the name of Charlie Boardman (seven major league pitching appearances in the Deadball Era, but also a star semi-pro hurler in North Dakota), so I began with him.
My area of emphasis has been on players who have some connection (born, played, and/or died/buried) to my home state of North Dakota. Most have been rather obscure players with just brief major league careers. However, what I have found in researching these players was that their baseball career was a relatively minor part of an otherwise interesting life.
I use the sources that I assume most other biographers use (Hall of Fame clippings, online newspaper archives, baseball-reference, ancestry.com, etc.) but have also found the need to reach out to other sources of information. On one occasion I wrote to the director of the state mental institution in Indiana to confirm that the inmate who died there in 1950 was in fact the ballplayer I was working on.
Fellow SABR members have be very helpful. The editors and fact checkers have provided excellent feedback which has always improved the final product. When working on Bill Rumler, Bill Lamb shared his extensive knowledge of the Pacific Coast League gambling scandal. Gary Ashwill shared his research on the identification of early black players that was helpful in my biography of Walter Ball.
The most rewarding aspect has been when I have been able to get in touch with a family member of a deceased ballplayer. Almost always they have been gracious and cooperative, and very willing to talk about their dad’s, or grandfather’s, baseball career. All have been appreciative that someone remembers their relative and wants to write about them.
Floyd Stromme had a brief pitching career with the Cleveland Indians. While working on his biography his son shared an interesting anecdote about Bob Feller. Red Hardy was a native of North Dakota who pitched in a few games for the 1951 New York Giants. I corresponded often with his daughter, who filled in some important information about his life. Recently I was able to send her a copy of the new SABR book about that team that contains her dad’s biography.
I maintain a list of players I hope to get to someday, but the list continues to grow. In my other research about early baseball in North Dakota, I frequently run across ex-major league players who jumped contracts in Organized Baseball and ended up on a semi-pro town team somewhere in the state for a part of a summer. I look forward to getting to as many as I can, because I always learn something new about this great game.
Guest columnist: David Lippman
I’ve edited a bunch of biographies, obviously not as many as you folks, but enough to be able to sort out the good, bad, and ugly.
Some of the folks who do these biographies know their material, know how to write, use the language properly with a minimum of clichés, and do their homework.
Some of these folks seem to have gone to the “Sunday sermon” school of writing, where they equate anything the padre says in the sermon on Sunday or in the eulogy for the deceased at the funeral is great writing. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions—Andy Rooney is one—writing for speeches is rarely as good as writing for print. A lot of sermons and speeches are filled with flowery prose designed to tug at the emotional heartstrings, and make people react . . . sniffling with sobs at the funeral, roaring with anger at the political rally, laughing your head off at the stand-up comic, and so on. A biography should take a more measured tone . . . yes, you can appeal to emotions and include humor and anger where relevant, but you should be neither spouting a laugh a minute nor grinding a penknife.
I run into a lot of clichés, a lot of sloppy and poor research, and a lot of hero-worship.
The big things that irritate me are the sloppy research and lousy writing. Sloppy research is inexcusable. I can and do tap baseball-reference.com and can get the full dope on ballgames from the areas I mostly edit, the 1960s and forward.
Good writing is harder to teach. I’m 50 years old, have been writing for 33 years professionally, hold a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and I still smack my head against the keyboard in frustration and disgust when I write copy. The only place writing is perfect is in that brief moment in the brain when it’s being put together. After that, it’s at the mercy of harsh realities of language and audience. It took me 33 years to be the writer I am, and I still think I’m mediocre at best.
There are a lot of clichés about writing — some are true — a lot of rules — many are true — and a lot of theories — most of which aren’t really true. “Write about what you know.” “Write in your own style,” “Use the active tense.” “Don’t split infinitives.” “AP leads.”
To me, writing is like pitching, an epiphany I had when watching Roger Clemens pitch for the Yankees. I was earning my MFA at the time, and suddenly, while watching him pitch, it all came clear to me . . . velocity, location, movement, pitch selection, conditioning, concentration, studying hitters, knowing the situation, pitch sequences. I think about my writing, sentence, and paragraph choices as a series of pitches, and figuring out where I want to put the pitch, the velocity, the control, the location. If I tighten focus, I’m pitching “inside.” If I open the focus, I go “outside.” And when I have the reader (the hitter) all set up for a fastball on the inside corner, tightening the focus, I suddenly give him a slider that tails off the outside corner of the plate, going back to the “big picture,” strike three swinging, or maybe even called, because he wasn’t expecting it, batter out, next hitter.
How can you teach that? Hell, I’m still learning it.
There are some things you can stress:
1. Hemingway beats Jane Austen, 9-1. Too many people seem to read Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and romance novels and think that good prose is all that lush stuff about bodices ripping, heaving bosoms, and the dashing and wealthy young man seducing (or sometimes raping) an innocent and poor young woman and saving her from some antebellum nightmare. I always prefer clean, straight, active tense, relatively simple words and phraseology, particularly for explanation, exposition, and the routine basic material. When you’re describing a person, a ballpark, or a play, you can start wheeling in the bigger words to paint the picture. But when you’re writing the basic stuff, stick to the basics.
2. Ratchet up the prose in the clutch. When you are describing your biography subject or get into his big moments, then you paint the picture, using more colorful words and phraseology to enhance the situation. When you want your reader to see something, or feel something, make him feel and see something, by Willy Dingo . . . let’s smell the leaded gasoline of the 1930s cars, or the tobacco smoke of the 1940s train rides. We should feel the baggy cloth of the old uniforms and hear the disco music splattering over the sound system of the 1970s ashtray ballparks.
3. Avoid clichés. Baseball, like all forms of sportswriting, has its own language. You can’t avoid a lot of standard phrases. You can, however, avoid sounding like a 1920s baseball writer, batting out copy about the “keystone sack,” and “Men of Comiskey Fall in 12th Stanza.” There’s a magnificent chapter in the First Fireside Book of Baseball in which Mr. Arbuthnot, the baseball cliché expert, spouts all of them. Read it and avoid them. At the same time, try to avoid using all the other non-baseball clichés. If you can’t think of a clever word for what you want to say, go back to the basics, and just say it.
4. Don’t deliberately try to be funny. Forced humor is never funny. It just sounds arch, clever, or sarcastic. If the situation is funny, it’ll come out.
5. Let your characters speak for themselves. If they have good quotes, use them! Let David Copperfield be the hero of his own life, as Charles Dickens wrote.
6. Fly tight. Less is more. Don’t go off on sidebars and down irrelevant trails. J. Anthony Lukas’s last book, Big Trouble, about the Bill Haywood murder trial in Idaho in 1907, rambled on about the rise of private detectives, the uses of black troops in the 19th century, and even the geology of Idaho. He could get away with it, because he was writing a big book and won a Pulitzer Prize. But in a 4,000-word biography, you can’t. Stick to the subject of the biography. As I say, it’s all about “the tiger.”
7. Do your research . . . get into the time the player lived in, so that your references are appropriate, particularly for use of color and setting place. 5,000 people was a decent crowd at some games in the 1920s, an abomination today. On the other hand, Rube Marquard’s ascent to the majors was very different from the modern player . . . no draft, no minor league farm system. $10,000 was a lot of money in 1912, not so much today. Be aware of these differences. You can have fun with them, adding color and depth to your word picture. Putting in the color of the times helps put the subject in context.
8. Respect the tiger, but don’t worship him. If you’re doing a ballplayer who was a really awful human being, like Ty Cobb, Alex Johnson, or Rogers Hornsby, don’t sanitize him. But at the same time, don’t turn him into Jack the Ripper. Remember that these guys are human beings like everybody else, and have strengths and weaknesses. The strengths were that they could play baseball at a professional level, even for a brief length of time. Their weaknesses might be immense and personal. Use judgment on what you write about in the biography: think about whether the material adds to or detracts from the piece. Don’t write hagiography, but don’t write a hatchet job, either.
9. After you’ve finished the work, let it sit overnight, then look at it the next day or a day later. Guaranteed you will find things to change. I learned that 33 years ago, from a truly gifted writer and journalist, my father. He was always right.
I hope that helps.
Guest columnists welcome: Contact Stew.
Project Profile: A Q and A with Jan Finkel
Where are you from?
I was born and grew up in Pittsburgh, following the Pirates, so I know pain. We now live on Deep Creek Lake in the westernmost part of Maryland.
Judy and I were married in 1970. She knows her baseball. Jonathan and Michelle, Jenny and Tim hold their own as well.
What do you do?
It’s tough being retired researching baseball, re-reading favorite books and discovering new ones, fishing, and listening to jazz and country. Somebody has to do it.
Notable stuff about your life in baseball (in whatever way you’ve participated). This includes your career as a fan. When did you go to your first game? What significant baseball events have you witnessed?
As much as I loved to play, I was terrible, couldn’t hit a curve to save my life — couldn’t hit a fastball, either, now that I think of it.
My first game would have been in 1949. My dad, who had seen the first game at Forbes Field in 1909, had scored box seats on the first base line, but they weren’t good enough for me because I couldn’t see the color of Ralph Kiner’s eyes. Forbes Field is still the ultimate ballpark for me.
I’ve experienced some significant games in person or through television and radio. The most important thing I got from baseball—and my dad was highly influential here—is that the game made me color-blind. I got hooked in Jackie Robinson’s fourth season, and I never saw him as black. He played second base for the Dodgers and could take over a game and do anything he wanted to do. Along with Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, he was an integral part of a team that always killed the Pirates. A great ballplayer is a great ballplayer.
Other notable stuff about you:
I was an English professor in real life, but I was often perplexed because I get baseball and books mixed up. Poe and Cobb fuse in my mind, Pete Rose meshes with Ahab and Chillingworth, and so on.
What are challenges you’ve encountered in researching people for the project?
The most frustrating thing for me is not being able to find material, when I know it’s out there. I’m living the nightmare as we speak. I got interested in Charles Dexter over a year ago. In the 1950s he wrote a series of comic-book stories on Jackie Robinson and other players and topics. He was culture and sports columnist for The Daily Worker. I expected to find tons of material on him, but I have very little beyond the basics.
Do you have a favorite among the bios you’ve done—either because of the person or because of where the research trail led?
Probably Honus Wagner and Stan Musial, the greatest player I ever met and the greatest player I ever saw.
Advice you have for others, either those who have been writing bios already or those looking to get into it:
In my view, the most important thing a biographer must do, aside from being accurate, is to be focused, have a thesis. There are few things more annoying than to read or listen to something, go around in circles, and wind up wondering, “Why are you telling me this?”
Let’s go easy with the stats. They’re readily available at Baseball-Reference, Retrosheet, and elsewhere. There’s no need to give a stat summary for each year of a player’s career. In addition, stick with the familiar numbers that everybody knows and understands.
Finally, keep things in perspective. It’s good to respect and admire your subject, but don’t deify him. Not every player is an underrated great. Somebody has to be average.
Anything you’d like to add?
I retired earlier than most people do and needed something to keep my mind from turning into oatmeal. Strictly by chance I joined SABR in 1994. It’s the best thing I could have done, as SABR’s given more to me than I could ever give back. I particularly owe Tom Simon, who gave me my first opportunity to write biographies, and Mark Armour, who asked me to serve as chief editor of the BioProject. Without Mark’s taking a chance on me, I wouldn’t have met all the writers and editors who became colleagues and friends. Things couldn’t have worked out better.
Jan shares his January 6 birthday with Early Wynn, Ralph Branca, Phil Masi, Don Gullett, Lee Walls, Norm Charlton, Lenny Green, Ruben Amaro, Joe Cross (who played in one game, for Louisville on September 5, 1888), Bonnie Franklin, Earl Scruggs, Lou Holtz, Howie Long, Danny Thomas, Joan of Arc, Carl Sandburg, John De Lorean, Kid Gavilan, Sherlock Holmes, Sun Myung Moon, and Tillman the skateboarding dog.
Mark Armour (Director)
Rory Costello (Chief Editor)
Jan Finkel (Senior Editor, Emeritus)
Len Levin (Senior Editor)
Warren Corbett (Chief Fact Checker)
Bill Nowlin (Team Projects)
Lyle Spatz (Assignments)
Emily Hawks (Modern Initiative – 1980s/1990s)
Scott Ferkovich (Ballparks Project)
Gregory H. Wolf