How to Do Baseball Research: Ten Keys to Good Research

1. Break new ground

Make an original contribution to knowledge about a particular subject. If a lot has already been written about it, you have a lot to read in order to determine whether what you intend to do has already been done by someone else. Do not merely repeat, in different words, what has already been established. On the other hand, if your subject has been written about extensively but you disagree with the consensus view of it and can come up with solid evidence to support your own view, go for it.

All research topics fall somewhere along the spectrum between significant and trivial. Toward one end of it, Matt Swartz demonstrates that, for all but one of the thirty teams in Major League Baseball, home-field advantage over a period of ten years is about the same (“Home-Field Advantage,” Baseball Research Journal 38, No. 2). Toward the other end of the spectrum, you might have information, never before synthesized, on the 1936 Port Huron Saints of the Michigan State League, Class B. Both projects are original and, in their respective fields, valuable. Anything that adds to a reader’s understanding or knowledge of baseball is worthwhile. Recognize, however, that your research is more likely to be published if your topic is closer to the heart of what the community of baseball researchers considers important.

2. Don’t lapse into opinion

Opinion pieces, think pieces, and the like have their place. They can be and arguably should be informed by research, and so the distinction between them and the research article isn’t always easy to maintain. When writing a research article, you might keep in the back of your mind the idea of an encyclopedia article, whose purpose is to inform, not persuade. Your style can be more relaxed and informal than that of the typical encyclopedia. The key is to take care not to lapse from expository mode into rhetorical.

If you find a new fact or truth, explain it dispassionately, in clear language and without arm waving. Present your evidence and build on it. The order in which you present the information you’ve gathered should be enough to convey the picture that has come into sharper focus for you as a result of what you’ve learned from your research.

3. Hone in

Narrow your topic — enough so that you can handle it but not so much that you’ve reduced its significance to the point of silliness. Is there a correlation between a hitter’s height and his strikeout rate? A statistical analysis encompassing all of Organized Baseball since Alexander Cartwright isn’t possible, because a lot of the data is missing, and even a smaller sample size for which do have all the data might prove infeasible to work with, so what you may home in on is a correlation of height to strikeout rate for MLB hitters during the period 2000–2009.

A broad topic is good too, but only if you’re prepared to do it justice. It may require that you write, instead of an article, a whole book — or even a multivolume book, like David Q. Voigt’s American Baseball.

4. Plan where you’re going

Authors disagree about the necessity or even value of outlining. Some feel it’s a straitjacket, but it isn’t. It’s a map, whose purpose is to help you stay on course. If while researching one thing you find something curious and decide to take a side trip, your map expands to include the new territory you’re now investigating. At this point, the map, or outline, serves as a reminder of your original destination and helps you find your way back to the main road, should you want to return there. If you don’t — if you want to spend the rest of your time investigating the topic you’ve wandered off into — that’s fine. Just make sure you have a clear sense of your revised destination.

An outline doesn’t necessarily have to follow the classic textbook pattern — the rigid alternation of numerals and letters — although some do. Eugene C. Murdock’s biography of Ban Johnson was developed from a full-scale traditional outline. But Ronald C. Mayer’s Christy Mathewson: A Game-by-Game Profile, as the subtitle suggests, did not require anything so elaborate.

Some authors feel that mapping out an article or book is a distraction from the business of actually writing the piece. The map is for your benefit, not your readers’. So you can forgo it if your internal compass is strong and you can navigate the details of your research without getting lost. In that case, consider this discussion about outlines an encouragement to keep your grip on the wheel and on your sense of direction.

5. Make sure the sources exist

Sometimes long-term research has to be abandoned because crucial information can’t be found. This problem is more acute in minor-league research and even more so in Negro League research. In The Negro Leagues Book (SABR, 1994), editors Dick Clark and Larry Lester write: “Despite the publication of career statistics for some Negro Leagues players in recent editions of The Baseball Encyclopedia, a complete Negro Leagues encyclopedia is impossible at present, and won’t become possible for years. In fact, many of the statistical lines in ‘the record’ are dubious and subject to change.” The task of statistical research in this field, the editors explain, is mammoth.

The absence of sources is a danger easier to state than to avoid, but there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of wasting time. Before investing too much of it in your project, you can look at the other articles in this How to Do Baseball Research project for ideas on sources of information, both statistical and historical.

6. Find everything you can

This point is closely related to the one above and to the first point, about breaking new ground. Where should you begin your literature search? The Baseball Index (TBI) is always a good place, but don’t stop there. Search the Internet for sources that might have eluded the indexers at TBI. If the article you find includes citations of sources, or if it’s a book and it includes a bibliography, investigate those too.

Realize that your search for sources may send you to brick-and-mortar libraries and museums and various unexpected places. In the print edition of How to Do Baseball Research (2000), Gerald Tomlinson offered this account:

When I started to research my article “Lefty George: The Durable Duke of York,” I expected the sources to be mainly small-city newspaper articles from Lefty’s years on the mound. He was a minor-league pitcher for most of his career, and he had died more than a quarter of a century before I began my research. I had no inkling that in 1954 a trade association in York, Pennsylvania, had published a booklet about this hardy hurler (50 Years in Baseball with Lefty George) and certainly none that his daughter would send me a large carton of clippings, letters, photos, and even a Columbus Red Birds contract from Lefty George’s personal collection of memorabilia. One thing led to another, and the microfilm of the old and excellent York Dispatch proved to be just one source among many.

7. Consult other researchers

It’s not fair to ask others to do your work for you. If you can find the answer you need in a printed or an online source, go there. But if you’ve hit an unyielding barrier, if you’re faced with too many conflicting accounts, or if you can’t understand why a source is obviously incorrect, you may want to seek the advice of one or more other researchers.

To find someone with the right knowledge or expertise, try sending a query to the appropriate SABR research group, if there is one, or seek out an expert in the SABR directory. No luck? Then cast your net more widely and post your question on SABR-L.

8. Be careful

Getting it right can be difficult. Newspaper typos are common. Factual errors abound on sports pages. A harried sportswriter, working under a pressing deadline, makes a careless but, to him, not very consequential mistake. The error is then picked up by other writers and later by baseball researchers, ad infinitum. And the error is just as wrong in the twenty-first century as it was on the day it was made decades earlier.

The most accomplished writers and researchers can fall into traps. Roger Angell, writing about Don Zimmer, once identified the old Class-D PONY League as the “Pennsylvania–Ohio–New York League.” It sounds right, even fairly obvious, but it’s wrong. The O in PONY stands not for Ohio but for Ontario. If a great baseball writer like Roger Angell and the fact-checkers at The New Yorker can go wrong, so can we all. So be careful.

Richard Altick in his book The Scholar Adventurers makes the point that there is no major figure in history (he is talking about writers and other literary figures) “whose biography has been innocent of falsehoods and half-truths, placed there by an early memoirist and then uncritically repeated from writer to writer — and usually embroidered in the transmission — until at last they are disproved by the researcher.” The same is true of baseball biographies and histories.

On the other hand, instead of all sources agreeing on an untruth, two sources may disagree on what should be a matter of cold fact. Or three sources may disagree. Or four. The more research you do, the more amazed you will become at the amount of misinformation that has found its way into print. It’s your job as a researcher to uncover the truth, to reconcile the conflicting reports, and to make your own sound judgment from the best evidence available.

9. Keep exact records

For direct quotes and information that is not common knowledge or easily verified in a mainstream reference work, cite your sources. This means that, when researching, you have to take care. Sources in print or online require bibliographic information, which varies depending on whether the source is an article, a book, a website, or whatever. See The Chicago Manual of Style or the SABR Style Guide for instruction on what bibliographic information to take down and then how to style it as an endnote or a bibliography entry.

Note which reference work you use for player, team, and league statistics. In rare cases, the statistic you accept as fact may actually be disputed, with one database giving the career total of a player’s base hits, for example, as 1,728, another as 1,729. Keep track of the source of the box scores (The Sporting News? The Plain Dealer? some other newspaper?) on which any in-game accounts you write up are based.

10. Plan to revise

Before submitting your work to be considered for publication, read it critically, and often, and revise accordingly. Be prepared to revise it again in light of comments from editors and peer reviewers. As author, you will find yourself collaborating with the copyeditors, whose job is to make your work read more smoothly, and with the fact-checkers, who catch errors that you might have inadvertently made or let slip through. Expect to see, between the first draft and publication, some trimming here, some elaboration there, and a lot of polishing all around.


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