SABR BioProject: August 2016 newsletter

 

High and Inside

The Newsletter of the BioProject Committee
Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)

August 2016 (Special Post-Convention Issue), Volume 1, Number 5

Past newsletters

Editor:
Stew Thornley

 

From the Director
I have just returned from SABR 46 in Miami, another fabulous SABR convention. Many thanks are due to all of the people responsible for putting this on. It was great to see many of you this year, and I look forward to seeing many more of you next year (hopefully, though not yet definitely, in New York). 

One of the highlights of the SABR convention every year is the presenting of the Bob Davids Award, SABR’s highest honor, at the annual awards banquet. This year’s winner was Stew Thornley, who edits this newsletter. I hope he does not edit this out, but Stew has been a big part of the SABR community for many years, and has contributed much to SABR both nationally and in his local chapter in Minneapolis. This is a well deserved honor, and all of you should read the announcement on the SABR website for more on this good news: SABR 46: Stew Thornley selected as Bob Davids Award winner.

Take care,
Mark Armour

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From the Editor
As I write this on the notable day of August 3, I’m catching up on my rest after last week’s SABR convention in Miami, which included another stimulating meeting of the BioProject Committee. Mark Armour reported that the project had its biggest year ever in all catetories: most bios in a year (526), most bios that ended up in books, most bios that didn’t end up in books. As of June 30, the project has 3,801 articles, 36 books, and 605 different authors. Of the 15,900 eligible major-league players (those not active in the last six years), 3,320 are covered; that’s 21 percent.

The BioProject had 783,000 page views last year, with the most-visited bios being those of Jackie Robinson (32,000 views), Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Roberto Clemente, Joe Jackson, and Dummy Hoy. All bios matter, but it’s nice to get the biggest stars covered; notable omissions include Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith, Bad Bill Dahlen, Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, Phil Niekro, and Bert Blyleven, in case anyone is interested. (Some of these may already be assigned, so first send a message to bioassign@sabr.org.)

The most prolific biographers are Bill Nowlin with 553, Rory Costello 192, Gregory Wolf 112, Bill Lamb 96, Mark Armour 82, David Skelton 79, Joe Wancho 77, Charles Faber 73, Brian McKenna 58, and Warren Corbett 52.

The BioProject published six books of bios, including the most recent one on Cuban players, last year and reports that upcoming books in the future will be on umpires, the winter meetings, 20-game losers, the 1972 Rangers (100-game losers), the 1979 Pirates, and the Whiz Kids.

This issue has an interview by Bill Nowlin of Bob LeMoine and a profile of Gregory Wolf.

We are always interested in guest columns, so let me know if you'd like to do one: stew@stewthornley.net

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Interview with Bob LeMoine
Look for a book with bios of the 1871-1875 Boston Red Stockings, edited by Bill Nowlin and Bob LeMoine. Bill interviews Bob about the project.

Bill Nowlin: How did you first come to know about SABR, and when did you join?

Bob LeMoine: I remember hearing about SABR years ago, but never considered it an organization I could actually belong to. I remember hearing an interview of the great Bob Feller by Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione. I remember Feller mentioning SABR and people who were actively doing research on baseball history. I had first become a Red Sox fan at the age of 10 in 1983 when Carl Yastrzemski was playing his last season in Boston. Although the memories were nothing I had personally, I became enthralled with baseball history and the Red Sox. It was also somewhere around this time my uncle gave me for Christmas a copy of the Ultimate Baseball Book, and I remember always having my nose in that large book, poring over the pictures and stories of baseball history. Nevertheless, while baseball history has always been a fascination for me, I did not join SABR until 2013. I believe I had gotten into one of my phases of “Whatever happened to?” and started looking up Red Sox players from those days when I was a kid. I discovered the SABR BioProject, and saw the ambitious plan to write biographies of everybody who ever played. Suddenly I realized that I, who never really ever had any tangible hobbies, could use my interests in research, writing, and baseball history and contribute to works which benefit the game. I also, being a librarian, cherish being involved in something that would aid future researchers studying baseball and American culture. I wish I had gotten involved in SABR 20 years ago, so I'm trying to make up for lost time.

BN: What were the first things you wrote for SABR?

BL: I wanted my first biography to be Ned Martin, long-time Red Sox radio and television announcer. Growing up as a poor kid in South Portland, Maine, I never saw a live Red Sox game until my college years. We didn't even have cable TV for many of those years. Heck, we didn't even have color TV until much later. So I listened intently to Ken Coleman and Joe Castiglione on Red Sox radio broadcasts, and looked forward to the next time our local WCSH-TV would carry a televised game, which was usually Friday night and Sunday afternoon. So seeing Ned Martin and Bob Montgomery on TV talking about the Red Sox was a luxury. He seemed like such a cool guy I’d love to have a sandwich with and talk baseball, and even when we would play baseball at recess or whatever I would imagine how Ned would call the game. I started to have dreams of becoming a Red Sox announcer someday. In the pre-Internet days, I would have a clipboard of all the major-league rosters, or the ones I knew anyway, and would erase and scribble in names based on the transactions I read in the newspaper. I would bring the Boston Globe sports page with me to high school every day and engage students and teachers with “Hey, did you see this?”

So, Ned was particularly someone I was always curious about as far as what his life story was. Researching him for SABR I could only exclaim Ned's trademark, “Mercy!” I read about his WWII experiences and his baseball broadcasting career starting in West Virginia. I was fortunate to track down an email of his daughter, and I spoke with her and Ned's widow. It was an amazing experience, and this biography wound up in the updated edition of the 1975 Red Sox book. But reading of Ned's Pearl Harbor memories got me thinking of another piece. There was a book in progress about the replacement players in WWII, and I requested if I could write an article about where players were and what they remembered about Pearl Harbor. I also wrote biographies for that book on Bill Hart and Jug Thesenga. I contacted Hart's son and we had a great conversation about memories of his dad.

I feel the work that we do in SABR biographies is so fulfilling because where else can we find stories like these? I also started to realize interviews were not all that intimidating, although it is at times incredibly frustrating in trying to locate people.

I see us as baseball scribes, recording important aspects of baseball which would otherwise be lost to history. Even the players with the shortest playing careers have great stories in my opinion, considering how they got to the major leagues and what they did afterwards, and in some cases who they influenced. Last year, I wrote a biography of Negro Leagues player Jimmie Wilkes, who had a long career but never made it to the major leagues. Yet when a scout was visiting, he asked Wilkes whom he thought had major-league potential. Wilkes pointing to a young 18-year-old Hank Aaron sitting in the dugout. These stories just fascinate me.

BN: What gave you the idea to do a book? And why the book on the Boston Red Stockings?

BL: I had been doing my own research on the Boston Braves and became interested in 1871, when the first Boston professional team began. As I read old newspaper accounts, I became interested in Ivers Adams and the people who made the first Boston team possible. I knew of Al Spalding and George and Harry Wright, but nothing about how it all came together and how these great players migrated from Cincinnati. I remember reading the account of the first-ever Boston game against a “picked nine,” who lost to Boston 41-10. Fans were standing on the fences to catch a glimpse of this new sight. With all the Boston baseball history I had read, how come I had never heard of these stories?

So I immediately requested through the Games Project the first exhibition game, first regular-season game, and first home opener. I remember sharing one with you, Bill, and asked why it was there had never been a book about this team. You suggested we could make a book out of this with game write-ups, biographies, and whatever else we would find. This era seems to fly under the radar, as the National Association years (pre-National League) are not considered a “major” league by today’s MLB. However, these were pioneers of professional baseball, and through both their successes and failures gave rise to today's National League. It’s a forgotten era, but a crucial one in baseball history as the game evolved to a sustainable professional league. Teams came and went, schedules were all over the map, teams were located in small venues, teams went bankrupt, and league structure showed many fissures. But still, they were the first. And I was amazed to see how passionate the fans in Boston became for their team, even though it was really still an infant. Boston became a baseball town decades before the Red Sox, and in fact those Red Sox uniforms hearkened back to the days of the Red Stockings. This was a story that needed to be told. Fortunately, we found it easy to pull together a team of writers, researchers, and editors ready to dive in.

I was also interested in 19th-century Boston history and what was happening in the area at the time. There was far more there than I could even imagine, and at first I had no idea that this team took trips to Canada and England.

BN: The book is being published this summer. Can you tell us two or three of the things you found most intriguing about the team and the way baseball was played in those days? You mentioned taking trips to Canada and even to England? These were the days before airplane travel. It took a long time to get back and forth across the Atlantic.

BL: I had no idea that most teams only had 10-11 players on the roster and most had just one pitcher for the entire season. I also didn't realize until you, Bill, counted up the players, that there were only 22 Red Stocking players for the entire five years. It was also interesting to note that umpires were chosen the day of the game, were unpaid, and were often connected to one of the clubs! I never knew how influential Harry Wright was in scheduling the trains, booking the hotels, writing the contracts, managing the team and, oh yeah, playing center field! And yes, these trips to Canada and England were not prosperous. Harry had to pay out of his own pocket as the team would lose money. The trip to England was a failure in the financial sense, and it never convinced the British to start playing baseball. But it gave Spalding his dreams of making money on the game and he himself would lead a world tour years later. But imagine two teams traveling to England and taking a month off in the middle of summer to bring baseball overseas. It's little wonder the team lost money. Some teams during the era were hard-pressed to have enough train fare home after trips to poorly-thought out venues such as Keokuk, Iowa. They had the vision to spread the game west and overseas, but it just was not sustainable at the time. We take these things for granted today because we never see teams go bankrupt during the season or see a gate attendance of just 500. But these were times when the future of the game was in doubt, at least as a professional entity, and many were willing to pay the user-friendly $10 fee to join the league. These were like startup companies and only Boston and Philadelphia survived the entire five-year run, as even Chicago had to take a couple of years off to recover from the Great Fire.

BN: What did you write for the book (you did almost all the fact-checking, too)? How difficult was it to research ball games from nearly 150 years ago?

BL: Besides the three games already mentioned, I also wrote summaries of the 1871 and 1875 seasons. I found these the hardest to write, as trying to summarize an entire season can be overwhelming. Fortunately, many great works had already been written on the era to refer to. I also wrote a game summary in which Esteban Bellan, the first Latin-born player, was the star. The most interesting piece I feel I wrote is called “Off the beaten path.” I found newspaper accounts of Red Stockings games played in areas around New England and beyond, in some real unique places. A game in Belfast, Maine, reportedly, saw the first use of the terms “on deck” and “in the hold,” while a game in Ludlow, Kentucky led to a crowd rioting. I was also glad to write the introduction and spend time thinking about the place of this team in the bigger picture of baseball and Boston history.

It certainly was not easy to research these games from 150 years ago. I was fortunate to have access to genealogybank.com and newspapers.com and their databases of digitally-scanned newspapers, as well as the archives of the Boston Globe and New York Clipper. Many don't realize the Clipper had the best baseball coverage at the time, even though it was a weekly paper. Some of the digitized scans can be hard to read; other accounts are very brief. Yet, many accounts can be found and box scores were remarkably recorded and preserved and look very much like what we see today. It was incredibly rewarding to find the newspaper accounts and read the distinctive descriptions of the game. You would be disappointed if you were looking for detailed standings of the league, as newspapers would contradict themselves, and lack of a regular schedule meant teams would be uneven in the number of games played. The pennant was often determined by committee after the season when decisions were made on what to do about forfeited games, teams that dropped out, etc.

I did do all the fact-checking as well (except on my own articles, which were done by Bill Ryczek), which can prove challenging, since two articles on the same game can have different box scores or one call a play a “hit” and another an “error.” Working as a librarian, I know the value of citing your sources and just giving the details as you find them, making note of the discrepancies. I feel like we are adding to the historical record since we are bringing up accounts of games no one has thought about in over a century. I wonder what someone who picked up a newspaper in 1871 to read about the Red Stockings would say if they had been told in 150 years people would be reading the same newspaper account and writing about the team.

BN: What’s next? What else are you working on?

BL: I am currently working on a SABR book project that will contain the ownership histories of every major-league team. I am working my way through the Boston Braves history from 1871 until their move to Milwaukee in 1953. This also correlates with my own independent project I am working on, dealing with the Boston Braves, but I'm not sure yet what it's going to look like or where I am headed. I get distracted by other SABR projects I hear about and can't resist not contributing to. I am finishing a biography of Dickie Thon for the book on Puerto Rican players (it will also be in the book about honorees who received the Tony Conigliaro Award), and an article on the winter meetings of 1869, when the Red Stockings were still in Cincinnati. There is so much baseball history out there and so little time to explore it all. But this is a hobby I find truly fulfilling and enlightening. I am a sucker for flea markets and old bookstores and seem unable to resist temptation in grabbing another old book on baseball or Boston history that I think I can use for a future project. It never ends!

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Project Profile: Gregory Wolf
“Some close friends call me GH; I often sign my name in emails as GHW.

“I am originally from Pittsburgh, lived in St. Louis for about seven years at the beginning of the new millennium, and have lived in Chicago or in the northwest suburbs for the past decade. Sometimes I wonder if I am the only person who can claim that he genuinely follows the Pirates, Cardinals, and Cubs.

“My wife’s name is Margaret, and we’ve been married since 2004. We met in Düsseldorf, Germany, two years earlier when, as fate would have it, we actually lived in the same house together. We have a 10-year-old daughter, Gabriela.

“My wife and I raise our daughter bilingually. I only speak German to Gabi, who speaks and reads German effortlessly. We typically spend five or six weeks every summer in Germany, departing in June and returning home in late July. That makes it difficult for me to attend the SABR national meetings unless they take place at the end of July. I’ve never seen a baseball game in Germany, though there are professional leagues; however, we cannot compare them to anything in the U. S. Stew Thornley will be happy that I am plugging Max Kepler of the Minnesota Twins. He’s German and began playing in the premier pro league in Germany at the age of 15!

“I am a professor of German cultural studies at North Central College, a liberal arts institution located in Naperville, Illinois. I teach all levels of language and cultural studies and also take about 20 students to Germany every year for three weeks during the time after Thanksgiving and before Christmas. In my academic career, I write about German history, literature, and culture, focusing primarily on the last three centuries. Over the past few years, I have also been able to offer occasionally a baseball-related course in the honors program. In the spring term 2017 I’ll teach a course called Lying, Cheating, Stealing: Baseball and American Society from the Mid-19th Century to the Present. And, of course, my students will be SABR members.

“I've been a baseball fan as long as I can remember. More than anything my interest in the sport can be traced to a very early emotional attachment to baseball cards. I’ve been an avid collector my entire life and have complete sets for all Topps cards from 1960 to the present (save for 1963 and 1966). The first games I can remember attending were at Three Rivers Stadium in 1971. My parents attended all three World Series games that season in Pittsburgh. Maybe the most memorable game I attended was when the Cardinals' Rick Ankiel unraveled in Game One of the 2000 NLDS at Busch Stadium. I’ve seen my share of one-hitters and plenty of homers by Mark McGwire. I also saw Willie Stargell’s last home run at Three Rivers on July 8, 1982 in what was probably the most exciting game I ever saw. The Pirates gave up six runs in the ninth; down 8-4, they scored five in their half of the inning and won it on Jason Thompson’s walk-off bases-loaded double.

“I joined SABR five years ago and have sincerely enjoyed becoming an active member. I am not sure how many biographies I have written for the BioProject; I guess around 150, of which over 100 have already been published on the site with the others forthcoming. My first biography was on Claude Osteen, my favorite player when I was a youth because of his striking blue cap on his 1970 Topps card. I remember interviewing him for the bio and trying to control my incredible excitement. Unlike Bill Nowlin, I don’t concentrate on one team. Quite honestly, I find it fascinating to unravel the player’s life and construct a narrative. A few bios stick out for different reasons: Sig Jakucki (he must have been a serious hell-raiser), Heinz Becker (a German-born plyer who played during WWII), and Kaiser Wilhelm (how could I not write about him?).

“I am thankful for the support of many colleagues in the BioProject when I began writing bios and when I edited my first SABR book, on the 1957 Milwaukee Braves. Mark Armour, Bill, Jan Finkel, and Lyle Spatz demonstrated the kind of professionalism and guidance that I wanted to emulate. Consequently, I’ve tried to mentor less experienced writers who’ve contributed to subsequent books that I’ve edited. The advice I give to writers is the same that I give to my students who are working on a research project or thesis. Choose a topic that you find interesting. Maybe you liked the player, or maybe you find his strategic intriguing. But remember, you need time to research, write, and edit, and you can’t cut corners.

“As an author, I try to contextualize the player in his era and craft a story that transcends the player’s statistics. What makes him or her a worthy topic? How was the player portrayed in the media? How did managers and teammates/opponents speak about the player? How did he pitch, bat, or field? What was his life away from baseball? How’d he get started and who were his influences? Don’t get too bogged down on statistics and numbers. I think it imperative to have access to good newspaper archives, and not just free ones on Google, and I encourage authors to invest in a subscription service like newspapers.com and ancestry.com. These sites are indispensable to me. I keep detailed files on players I currently research and pay close attention to bibliographic information.

“The better organized you are, the easier it is to research and write. For lesser experienced authors, I’d suggest to work on one player at a time. I find it beneficial to have large chunks of time to immerse myself in the subject and write. I also recommend that authors avoid writing the first draft over weeks or months at a time. I’ve been in that situation and find it difficult to maintain my concentration and interest. Each of the aforementioned points has been a challenge to me at various times, but I think finding time to write is the biggest obstacle. Another suggestion to authors to proofread thoroughly, and check all statistics and endnotes closely. Once you’e done all that, set the bio aside, come back to it in a week or later, and then read it closely. Someone recently asked me what my pet peeve is. Pretty simple: don’t expect editors to do your work. As an editor of SABR books, I’ve had contributors exceed word limits by 100 percent, submit partially completed pieces, and factually incorrect ones, and then tell me to edit as I see fit. Then they get a rude surprise from me.

“It is always enriching when you can interview a player. Some of my favorite bios have been on players whom I interviewed. Bios on Bill Virdon, Del Crandall, Ned Garver, Roy Sievers, and Bruce Hurst stand out. After I interviewed Virgil Trucks for a bio, I called him regularly for the next two or three years to ask him questions about baseball, minor leagues, and all sorts of players. He always had a story, and even though he was in his 90s, could talk all day. But be aware: players’ memories are not always reliable. Some players don’t want to speak, and I respect their decision. I also try to contact players’ spouses, siblings, kids, and even grandchildren. In mid-August I spoke with an 80-year-old woman whose father debuted with the St. Louis Browns in 1931 and retired after the 1943 season.

“More than anything, I find researching and writing a personally rewarding learning process. My understanding of baseball has grown immensely over the last five or six years because of the BioProject.”

Gregory shares his March 13 birthday with Johan Santana, Will Clark, Home Run Baker, Cliff Mapes, Bill Dailey, Bert Niehoff, Buster Clarkson, Eric “The Swattin’ Swede” Erickson, Annabeth Gish, Sammy Kaye, Edna Rudisill (The Fruitcake Lady), and L. Ron Hubbard.

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Project Poobahs
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

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