A History of SABR
By Dick Thompson and Tom Hufford
Baseball is in the fiber of America. As long as there have been baseball fans there have been baseball fanatics, those of us who search for a deeper understanding of the game. On August 10, 1971, 16 such individuals met at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York, to form the Society for American Baseball Research.
The baseball establishment ignored the Society when it was formed 40 years ago. Today, as membership tops 6,000, the profession of baseball and the various media that report the game are well aware of the collective knowledge and expertise of our group.
The logical place to begin a history of the organization is with its founder, L. Robert “Bob” Davids. Bob’s dedication and contributions to both the Society and baseball have been evident for all to see. In 1985, Bill James wrote in The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, “This book is dedicated to the man who has done more for baseball research than anyone else living — L. Robert Davids.” In 1994, the National Baseball Library and Archive at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown named a study room in his honor.
Bob was born in Iowa in 1926. Following military service in World War II, Bob enrolled at the University of Missouri where he received a degree in journalism in 1949 and a master’s degree in history in 1951. After moving to Washington, D. C., he began a 30-year career with the United States Government, working at the Pentagon and the Atomic Energy Commission. He received a Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown in 1961.
Bob was a freelance contributor to The Sporting News from 1951. His first article, on Ralph Kiner, earned him $7.50. At the ceremony to honor the 20th anniversary of the Society on August 10, 1991, Davids outlined the factors and steps that led to the organization of SABR:
- 1. The death of J.G. Taylor Spink in 1962 and the subsequent transition of The Sporting News to an all-sports publication which sharply reduced the baseball publishing efforts of several future SABR members.
- 2. My January 8, 1966 letter to Barnes Publishing Company proposing a baseball book with chapters to be written by Lee Allen, John Tattersall, Keith Sutton, Ray Nemec, Leonard Gettleson, and myself which Barnes quickly declined.
- 3. My parallel decisions in January 1971 to publish the Baseball Briefs newsletter and to send letters to Bob McConnell. Ray Nemec, Cliff Kachline, and others proposing the formation of a “Statistorian” type group and asking names and addresses of other interested researchers. Almost all responded favorably and provided other names.
- 4. Cliff Kachline’ s agreement to provide a meeting site at Cooperstown the day after Hall of Fame inductions on August 10, 1971.
- 5. Multiple responses from Baseball Briefs subscribers and new contacts providing a growing mailing list of some 40 persons who were sent invitational/instructional letters on March 19, April 16, and June 28, the final letter containing the meeting agenda. The rest is history.
The organization became an entity with Davids’ March 19, 1971, letter:
This letter is being addressed to about 25-30 persons interested in baseball history and statistical research (I use the term “statistorians”). You are an addressee because I have seen your name in The Sporting News in past years, appended to an interesting historical or statistical article, or your name has been passed on to me by Ray Nemec, Bob McConnell, Leonard Gettleson, or Cliff Kachline.
There may be many more than 25 or 30 baseball statistorians around the country. We don’t really know, but I thought some effort should be made to organize this “motley crew” into a more formal group. For that reason we plan to hold an organizational meeting at Cooperstown, New York on August 10-11, 1971. Cliff Kachline, Hall of Fame Historian, has kindly invited us to meet in the museum library. The Hall of Fame baseball game and induction ceremonies will be held on Monday, August 9.
Why don’t we meet then on August 7-8? Impossible, says Cliff. The place is busier than Washington on Inauguration Day. You could come on August 9, take in the induction festivities and get a motel room for the night, but not before, and then be available for meetings the next day.
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.
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 this group, I 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.
I would also hope that you would include in your response the name of additional baseball “nuts” who might qualify or be interested. The next step would then be for me to send to those of you who could make this meeting this summer the information of hotels and motels which you would need for the night(s) of August 9 and 10; August 10 only; or August 10 and 11, depending on your travel plans.
Bob mailed a second letter on April 16. The important excerpts are as follows:
Although I still haven’t heard from several addressees, I thought I should not wait any longer to get out report No. 2 to those who did respond. Let me say first that my initial mailing of 32 letters brought back 20 replies and three envelopes with “address unknown” stamped on them. Of those 20, there were 17 who expressed interest in the idea of an organization and a desire to be part of it; three expressed mild indifference. Eleven said they plan to go to Cooperstown. Several of you suggested additional researchers and I sent off 10 more letters.
Most of you responding stated your interest in an organization publication wherein you could present some of your research results. This sounds feasible. Several mentioned interest in first hand exchange to find out what others are doing. I was surprised at the range of specific interests-baseball photos, baseball parks, birthplaces, home runs, etc. Some of you said you had specific ideas of what should be taken up at the proposed meeting. Now is the time to come forward with these ideas so I can prepare a draft agenda.
Be completely candid in your suggestions, for nothing is frozen in place at this point except the date-August 10.
The 16 founding members who met in the Baseball Hall of Fame library on August 10 were Bob Davids, Dan Dischley, Paul Frisz, Dan Ginsburg, Ray Gonzalez, William Gustafson, Bill Haber, Tom Hufford, Cliff Kachline, Bob McConnell, Patrick McDonough, Ray Nemec, John Pardon, Tom Shea, Joe Simenic, and Keith Sutton.
They defined the following five objectives:
- 1. To foster the study of baseball as a significant American social and athletic institution.
- 2. To establish an accurate account of baseball through the years.
- 3. To facilitate the dissemination of baseball research information.
- 4. To stimulate the best interests of baseball as our national pastime.
- 5. To cooperate in safeguarding the proprietary interests of individual research efforts of members of the Society.
At the organizational meeting, Davids was elected President, Pardon Vice-President, and McConnell Secretary-Treasurer (Stan Grosshandler also held this dual office in 1972 and 1973 before it was split into two separate roles). Several proposals were discussed regarding a name designation with a baseball acronym before Bill Gustafson’s suggestion of Society for American Baseball Research and SABR were decided on. (A draft masthead, appearing very similar to the current masthead, was presented in the October, 1977 SABR Bulletin. The logo, a continuing concern since 1971, was put to a vote and agreed upon at the 1978 National Convention.)
Also agreed upon were annual dues of $10, plans to establish a constitution, an annual meeting, and the publication of a newsletter. The purpose of the newsletter, known to all as the SABR Bulletin, was to carry pertinent information and facilitate exchange of information.
Bob Davids edited the SABR Bulletin for the first 12 years, a total of 67 issues, and beginning in August 1983 it was the responsibility of the Society’s Executive Director and staff. The SABR Bulletin was published quarterly from 1971 through 1973, bi-monthly from 1974 through 1986, eight times a year in 1987 and 1988, and four times in 1989. In 1990 plans were made for monthly publication although several editions each year have usually been combined. Regular features of the SABR Bulletin have included information on recently held and upcoming regional meetings, committee reports, a bookshelf section advertising current baseball publications, a research exchange for members’ research needs, “The Pres Box” — a column written by the Society’s current president or his designate, and “Names in the News,” which publicizes current and public relations events pertaining to Society members. In 2011, the “This Week in SABR” e-newsletter was instituted and is now sent to members via e-mail every Friday.