Shieber: Annotating our way into the future of baseball research

Editor's note: This is a draft of Tom Shieber's keynote address for the Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Base Ball Conference on April 20, 2013, in Cooperstown, New York. This article is published in conjunction with Peter Mancuso's "Planning for a 19th Century Annotation Research Project," which you can read here.

By Tom Shieber

Thanks, Jim [Gates]. Thanks, too, to Peter Mancuso, the SABR Nineteenth Century Committee, and SABR in general. And, in particular, I’d also like to thank Fred Ivor-Campbell: a great researcher, generous friend, and stellar role-model.

I first joined SABR back in 1981 when I interned at The Sporting News in St. Louis. Every day I would eat lunch in “the vault,” surrounded by old newspapers, Spalding and Reach guides, Leonard Gettelson’s index cards, Charles Conlon’s original glass plate negatives, and countless other treasures for the baseball historian.

Paul MacFarlane, archivist at The Sporting News before Steve Gietschier, told me about SABR. That was 32 years ago.

I know this is probably the wrong group of people to say this to, but 32 years ago is a long time.

Over those 32 years I have formed very definite opinions about what SABR is and what it should be. Today I’d like to talk about that and offer a few modest proposals to help SABR in general and the Nineteenth Century Committee in particular.

I’d like to explore this a bit, through the lens of my own experience and, at times, that of the Nineteenth Century Committee.

Conveniently, I think that an examination of our organization’s very name — the Society for American Baseball Research — is a great way to undertake this exploration, though I’d like to examine the name backwards, starting with the word …


Research is SABR’s last name, but our first goal.

I grew up in a family of researchers.

They weren’t overtly researchers and I didn’t know or realize it at the time.

My father loved reading Sherlock Holmes. I would often see him reading the “Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” a great work by William S. Baring-Gould, who had meticulously researched every aspect of what Sherlockians refer to as “the canon.” Ironically, Holmes himself is arguably the most celebrated applied researcher of all time.

One of my brothers was similarly a fan of Lewis Carroll, and introduced me to Martin Gardner’s “Annotated Alice in Wonderland,” which (like the “Annotated Sherlock Holmes”) was published by Clarkson & Potter. They apparently were the publishing house for such annotated works. Gardner’s annotation is a classic.

My oldest brother was a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and I distinctly remember him taking notes on index cards as he read The Lord of the Rings. He was creating his own annotation.

So it was through the particular method of annotating documents that I was exposed to research.

Now, most baseball researchers I’ve met have a few things in common. In particular, most are voracious readers and most have family members who are baseball fans.

I am an anomaly. I was not much of a reader at all. Instead I was much more interested in images. And no one in my family was particularly interested in baseball. For some reason, however, I was interested in baseball.

So, with a particular interest in baseball photographs, I applied what I saw at home. I annotated baseball images.

I identified players, determined locations, narrowed down dates, etc. I created a photo index of every image in every baseball book I could get my hands on.

I annotated photos … still do. Visit my blog at You’ll see.

In high school, for a major term paper in English, I submitted an annotation of Casey at the Bat, which coincidentally is celebrating its 125th anniversary this June.

I know many of you think that Casey is the purview of the Hall of Fame’s Director of Research, Tim Wiles, but I have been a Casey “fiend” since the early 1980s. I felt that by presenting the poem with annotations, others could enjoy reading it, while at the same time learning about the game of baseball from 1888.

So I examined the poem closely:

  • Were there really players named Cooney and Barrows?
  • Was a crowd with “five thousand throats and more” typical of a ball game in the 1880s?
  • Wasn’t it lucky that the poem was written in 1888, and not one year earlier, when Casey would have another strike coming to him?

I worked hard. I took the subject very seriously. After all, it was my first foray into sharing my baseball research.

Well, I suppose I couldn’t have done that great a job, as I didn’t realize that Martin Gardner himself had published an annotated Casey all the way back in 1967. I only discovered that well after I handed in my paper.

To tell the truth, I can’t recall what grade I received … maybe something like a B+.

But, more importantly, I vividly recall a note written by my English teacher atop the paper. He wrote “Tom – Perhaps one day you will realize how humorous this is.”

He was saying that …

  1. I didn’t realize what I was doing.
  2. What I was doing was not to be taken seriously.

This was a terrible thing to say, especially to a young student. Frankly, I am sorry he is not alive today, to see that annotations are the reason I am doing what I do now.

Annotations introduced me to research and to the museum world at the same time.

Annotating is a form of research that preserves at its core an original document. Through that document one presents research, but the original content remains the focus, the attractive force. From it, stems the research.

I didn’t realize it, but by seeing members of my family reading or creating annotated documents, and by my doing so, as well, the museum experience was also being imprinted on me as a youngster.

As I said, this is what I do for a living. I examine original material (what we call artifacts: documents, gloves, bats, trophies, photographs, audio and/or video recordings, etc.) and through them present research (sometimes new research, sometimes not so new research.) In so doing, I tell a story.

That is the core museum experience: Through an object, relate a story.

In a very real sense, I annotate baseball objects. As I tell a story, I impart information (hopefully interesting, entertaining, educational), but I keep the original object as the attractive centerpiece.

Research, not necessarily annotative research, but research in general is what SABR is about. It is first and foremost what we do and what we should remain focused upon.

Another quick story about my Dad. First you need to know that my father was a surgeon, but basically never “brought his work home.” It was something that never came up in discussion that I ever recall.

Well, one day we must have had one car in the shop and I was interning at The Sporting News, so I had to pick him up from the hospital. I had never picked my Dad up from work before.

I picked him up and for the first time that I can remember asked him “How was work?”

He replied with a somewhat dejected “Okay.”

I hesitatingly asked, “Did someone die?”

“Oh no. That’s not why it wasn’t a great day. I was in the middle of an operation and got called away to do a skin graft. Skin grafts just aren’t as much fun as the surgery I was doing.”

I never thought of surgery as “fun.” But for my Dad, it was fun. It was what he enjoyed doing.

My father wasn’t one to set you down and impart a life lesson, or preach. That wasn’t his style. But as we drove home he told me, “If somebody wants to become a surgeon, they better enjoy surgery. They shouldn’t be in it just because they like saving lives. That’s a good thing. But you don’t always save lives. Sometimes you don’t get a positive result. If what drives you, in whatever you do, is the outcome, if that is what you are relying upon, then you are in the wrong business. You have to enjoy the process, and not just be motivated by the results.”

I had no interest in becoming a doctor, and my Dad knew that, but his words hit home.

I’ve got nothing on my Dad. Even on my best days I’m not saving lives. (Thankfully, on my worst, I’m not losing any, either). But I am driven by the research process. That’s what I love.

And that is what SABR is about. The research itself, not just the end results of research.

Disseminating research — publishing a book or article, posting a blog, presenting a talk, being praised for doing a good job — these are good things, but they are endpoints. If you’re in it for that, you’re in the wrong job.

Similarly, if that’s what SABR is all about, I’m not interested. But I don’t think that’s what SABR is about. It’s about the research process.

For this reason, I’d like to propose that in future Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Base Ball Conferences, we include at least one presentation that focuses on the process of research. Not just the results. It need not be a “how to,” but it should involve a discussion of the process.

And my hope is that we see more of these types of presentations at local SABR chapter meetings and annual conventions.

Working backwards in SABR’s name, we next have:


Well, you’ve got to research something. For us it’s baseball.

I am often asked why I research baseball, and I think the answer lies in something written by Mel Allen in his 1964 book You Can’t Beat the Hours. Allen wrote, “The nicest part about talking about the Yankees is that there isn’t anything else I would rather be doing.”

Why do I research baseball? Because “there isn’t anything else I would rather be doing.” I suspect that is the case for many of you, as well.

Interestingly, this committee has done more to expand and examine the word and the meaning of baseball than any other. Thanks to the efforts of many in this room and their research into early baseball and “proto-baseball,” we have learned much about what is baseball, what is not baseball.

We don’t always agree on what is baseball and what is not baseball, but we sure have learned a lot.

One of the most famous (and frankly overused quotes) about baseball is that of Jacques Barzun from his 1954 work God's Country and Mine. He said:

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game — and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams.”

But now, with the truly impressive gains we’ve made in our understanding of early bat and ball games, I suppose the quote should read a bit differently. Perhaps this should be a new slogan for our humble group:

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of baseball had better learn about early ball games — and do it by joining SABR's Nineteenth Century Committee.”

Now we move backwards to the word:


Let’s face it. This is the weak link in our organization’s name. We do more than research American baseball. There is lots of baseball to research outside of the Americas: baseball in Japan, baseball in Europe. And of course this committee has certainly done much to promote baseball research in England.

In fact, the Hall of Fame can trump all of those locations. In late April 2013, we will be hosting an educational experience in which we collaborate with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The JPL collaboration is a project called “Imagine Mars,” where kids will be tasked with thinking about what it would be like to play baseball on Mars. That’s right, we’re researching baseball on Mars.

Why should we be limited by the word “American?”

Didn’t we learn anything from Al Spalding’s jingoistic fervor at the turn of the last century that led us down the path of anointing Abner Doubleday as the game’s “good old American dad”: the inventor of baseball?

SABR needs to need to move beyond the Americas.

A little history lesson about SABR’s name will, I think, prove to be enlightening. When Bob Davids pulled together what he called a “motley crew” of “statistorians” in 1971 here in Cooperstown to form what we now call SABR, he had five ideas for names of the new organization. None of them were what we have now. They were:

  • 1) National Association for Baseball Research (NABR)
    Perhaps this would have been a better name. NABR (neighbor) sounds so friendly. Many folks are scared off by SABR (SABR-rattling). Perhaps the more friendly NABR would have served us well.
  • 2) National Association of Baseball Research Historians (NABRH)
    Here the focus is on the historians rather than the research. But really, this is just NABR with a silent H.
  • 3) Society of American Baseball Historians (SABH)
    In this case, the word American makes more sense, as it modifies the Baseball Historians rather than our current situation, in which the word American modifies the Baseball Research itself. Still, it seems to exclude baseball researchers from overseas.
  • 4) Baseball Historical Research Association (BHRA)
    The downside here is that the acronym is pronounced either …
    BRA — which could be embarrassing and hard to take seriously;
    BERRA — which could be even more embarrassing and even harder to take seriously.
  • 5) Baseball Historical and Statistical Society (BHSS)
    Now the acronym is BHSS, which, at best, comes out BITCHES. No, that’s no good, either.

Of the five proposed names, only one included the word AMERICAN, while four of the five proposed names contained HISTORY, HISTORICAL or HISTORIAN. Yet, despite the four-to-one odds, HISTORY lost out to AMERICAN.

I think we should broaden our scope, focus on our roots in HISTORY (not AMERICA), and better explain what we do by changing our name.

I hereby propose that we remove the word AMERICAN and substitute the word HISTORICAL so that our organization would be known as …

The Society for Historical Baseball Research.

SHBR, pronounced SHIEBER.

And now on to:


I realize it is cliché to refer to a dictionary definition when doing this sort of exercise. But I’ve already stooped so low as to quote Jacques Barzun, so I might as well go all the way. Besides, I am hoping you will see a common thread among the many definitions of the word SOCIETY.

Webster’s defines Society as:

  1. companionship or association with one's fellows
  2. a voluntary association of individuals with common interests
  3. an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another
  4. the progeny of a pair of insects when constituting a social unit (such as a bee hive)

The first three definitions seem to me to be applicable here.

What is key is that all of these definitions stress connectivity, interaction, working together.

I would argue that SABR does a good job of being a society. We interact in local chapter meetings, in conferences such as this one, at our annual convention, on the internet through SABR-L, Yahoo! Groups, through committee projects such as Protoball, etc. We do a good job, but not a great one.

Many of these interactions are fairly simplistic. Often they are one person speaking to many, such as this presentation. I suppose this is somewhat interactive, but in an extremely limited fashion.

For example, SABR-L is generally rather limited in its interactivity:

  • Can you help me with some research?
  • I found out this interesting thing that occurred.

There is some amount of back-and-forth, but it is an imperfect, narrow form of interactivity.

Can we do a better job of interacting such that the interactions are part-and-parcel to the research? Can the research itself be truly collaborative. Can the act of collaborating be integral to the research?

In March of this year, Dr. Saskia Hin, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, published a paper titled “Interdisciplinary research collaboration as the future of ancient history? Insights from spying on demographers.”

The particulars of this paper have nothing to do with baseball research, but in it Dr. Hin states that “the top four benefits of collaboration mentioned by a body of 195 university professors are: increased knowledge, higher scientific quality of research output, the establishment of contacts and connections for future work and the generation of new ideas.”

I believe through greater and more comprehensive collaboration, SABR can likewise:

  • increase our knowledge
  • output higher quality research
  • establish contacts for future research
  • and generate new ideas for research

I’ve already stated that our last name, RESEARCH, is what this organization is all about. However, I believe that the future of our organization lies in our first name: SOCIETY.

Here’s why I think that is the case.

There have been a number of “quantum leaps” or “game changers” in the history of historical research. Of course, many of these leaps occurred before the days of baseball research. (Yes, there really was a time when no one was doing baseball research.)

Quickly here are a few of these leaps forward:

  • Various early advents in printing, whether it be movable type, the invention of printing press, advancements in lithography, all have been leaps forward for the historical researcher.
  • The 1650s saw the advent of public libraries in the colonies.
  • Microphotography as a means to preserve documents dates back to the 1850s and microfilming itself took off in the early 20th century.
  • The first formal inter-library loan dates back to the 1880s.

Hooray for all of these.

Moving towards more modern times, there have been great steps forward in allowing us to do our research thanks to:

  • the affordability of “home” computers starting in the 1970s
  • the popularization of e-mail, which really took off in the early 1980s
  • the accessibility and user-friendliness of the WWW in the 1990s
  • the availability of and advancements in digitized, OCR’ed documents. I believe we can all agree that has been a major boon to researchers.

When it comes to baseball research in particular, there have been numerous leaps forward, as well:

  • Books! We can all forward our own personal arguments for which particular books have been great leaps forward for the baseball researcher. We need not get bogged down with specific titles here, but the publication of books devoted to the game of baseball has been going on for over 150 years and is still going strong.
  • The formation of SABR itself in 1971 was critical to fostering baseball research.
  • The advent of affordable personal means of publication, whether it be traditional paper-based books that we can produce at the click of a button (such as the wonderful special edition of Inventing Baseball that Peter Mancuso just passed along), or blogs.

This is just a short and incomplete list of breakthroughs that have advanced research, and in particular, baseball research.

Now, certainly I am hoping for further improvements to these already-established baseball research aids: cheaper computers, faster internet connections, more and better digitized documents. (Will somebody please re-scan and re-OCR The Sporting News and The New York Clipper?) But these are advancements in already existing tools.

Today, we are in the early stages of what I believe will be looked upon as the next “quantum leap” in historical research: ONLINE COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH. This is being done in various subjects at various locations on the web, sometimes in public spaces, other times not.

I’d like to see SABR commit to and better utilize the “SOCIETY” in the “Society for American Baseball Research” by embracing online collaborative research.

So how do we do this? Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t really know. But I have an experiment that I’d suggest we try … a way to get our feet wet, but a simple, straightforward method of online collaborative research.

But, I can’t (and won’t) try the experiment unless others buy in and help out.

About six years ago, back when I was doing a lot more work developing websites than I do now, I created a web-based tool that allows multiple researchers to collaborate on annotating one or more books. You see: It all comes back to annotation.

Here’s how it works.

The text of a book in the public domain is placed on a website devoted to the project. Anyone can read that text. Anyone can also read the annotations and the back-and-forth discussions added by multiple readers. Those with a user account can read the text, read the annotations, and can add annotations. Additionally, account holders can discuss existing annotations, thus furthering the research conversation.

As a demonstration, I added the text of John Ward’s Base-Ball: How to Become a Player to the site.

Let’s say I have an account. I see that, in the introduction of Ward’s book, he notes that the first ball game on record was recorded by Homer in The Odyssey:

O'er the green mead the sporting virgins play,
Their shining veils unbound; along the skies,
Tost and retost, the ball incessant flies.

I add a note that states that Johnny failed to include the first line of the couplet:

And while the robes imbibe the solar ray,

Perhaps another annotator sees this and he/she adds to the discussion, stating that this is Alexander Pope’s particular translation of The Odyssey.

You might ask: How does this differ from Wikipedia? Well, in a lot of ways it is similar, but:

  • It’s not a free-for-all; accounts are not available to the general public.
  • More importantly, it is an annotation. We start with and preserve the core, original content. We are riffing off the original content. It grows solely upon itself.
  • Wikipedia has no core, original content around which research notes are added. The wiki entry occurs around a concept or subject, not original content.

In this case, the research project, an annotated version of Ward’s book, evolves as researchers work together. It is always growing and changing. It promotes and benefits from interaction and research. Multiple individuals have a hand in the project.

Hopefully we have an interdisciplinary group of researchers working on the project: some from the Nineteenth Century Committee, others from the Bibliography Committee, still others from the Biographical Committee, etc.

It is reliant on and hopefully successful because of the process, not the end-point. In fact, with this particular collaborative annotation project, I’m not sure there really is an endpoint. It is research and the sharing of research for the sake and the joy of the research.

So, I’ve already created the tool and can make it available online.

To be honest, the tool is somewhat rudimentary and not highly polished. There are other commercial packages online that are in many ways quite similar. But those packages weren’t around when I invented this tool back in 2007, and mine has a couple of immediate advantages:

  • It’s free.
  • It does not require anything to download.
  • It can be implemented quite soon.

The nice thing about the core content we would be annotating (one or more 19th-century books) is that most of these are in the public domain, though not all have already been scanned and OCR’ed. But if enough researchers are interested in participating, we can choose whichever book we’d most like to tackle with this Web-based text annotation tool and have at it.

So the question is: Do we have a core group of researchers who would want to take part in this little experiment, beta-testing the tool and, more importantly, a new form of research: online collaborative research?

There’s no need to answer immediately. I’ve had this tool/idea waiting around for half a dozen years.

I propose that over the coming months we talk about it. We can take it slow and give it a test run before unleashing it to a larger audience.

For those interested, I would be happy to show you the tool in action. In the meantime, thanks for listening and … back to research.

SABR member Tom Shieber is Senior Curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.