Researching People and Biographical Data
In the early days of baseball biographical research, a researcher had to spend much of his time at the library or a genealogical research center poring over hard-to-read microfilm. It was a very painstaking, time-consuming effort as much of the microfilm had to be ordered through inter-library loan and then it was at least a 2 or 3 week wait until the microfilm arrived. Some researchers even purchased their own microfilm reader and bought their own film. Many of these dedicated historians found themselves needing glasses at a young age.
Fortunately, the expansion of the Internet has allowed the modern researcher to do most of this work at his or her own home computer. This article will try to describe many of the major tools that can be used to do baseball biographical research. Some of these tools are free and others require a subscription. I’ll try to indicate which ones cost money.
One of the handiest tools a researcher can use is Ancestry.com, a site that requires purchase of a subscription. This site is targeted at genealogists and as such, is useful to the biographical researcher as well. The most significant database contained in ancestry.com is a database containing U.S. census records from 1850 to 1930. Census records are confidential for 72 years so the 1940 census will be available sometime in 2012. Unfortunately, the 1890 census was almost completely destroyed in a fire, and only a very small portion remains. These records contain a person’s name, age, address, family, birthplace, and occupation and are invaluable when trying to find someone. The 1900 census even contains the month and year of birth.
Ancestry also has a fairly sophisticated search tool that enables searches by name, age range, parents’ names, etc. Wild cards are allowed in the name search and it is possible to do a search just by the first name, something that comes in handy for someone with an unusual first name. The last name can also be searched by Soundex. Soundex is a method in which the Ancestry.com system translates a name into a code and all names that fit that code are returned. For example, a Soundex search of the name Carle would also return Carl, Corley, Curley, Corll, etc. The records on the census sheets were hand-written, many of them over 100 years ago, so the name isn’t always legible and the person who transcribed the census had to make an educated guess what the name really was.. I have seen instances where a person’s name is spelled differently in 4 different censuses, in 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930. That is why the Soundex search is so useful.
Ancestry also contains many other useful databases and they add more every day. There are databases containing both the WWI and WWII draft registration. The WWI draft registration is much more comprehensive than the WWII and contains cards for most men who registered for the draft who were born between 1872 and 1899. The cards contain the person’s name, age or birth date, occupation, and city of residence. These cards provided many corrections of inaccurate birth dates.
Ancestry contains death indexes for many states as well as the Social Security Death Index. The Social Security Death Index is an index of people who died between about 1963 and the present. It doesn’t contain everyone, but it is a good source to find deaths of people who died in the 1960s and later. It is updated on a monthly basis. Some states have death indexes as well and Ancestry has many of these. States such as California and Florida have very good death indexes. Others, such as Pennsylvania, have no death index at all.
City directories are also available through Ancestry. Unfortunately, most of these city directories are from the 1880s and 1890s. It would be more helpful had they continued through later years so a player could continue to be traced. It is possible to do a search in the 1890 Baltimore city directory, type “ballplayer”, and find all the people who have that occupation.
Ancestry has a myriad of other databases that might meet specific criteria that a researcher has when looking for a ballplayer. Also, many family genealogists store their information in Ancestry, so occasionally a ballplayer’s entire family tree might appear in an Ancestry database. It helps to check Ancestry every week to see what new databases might have been added. Ancestry.com is probably the most indispensable site to have when doing baseball biographical research.
Another subscription site, GenealogyBank.com, doesn’t have nearly as many databases as Ancestry.com, but it does have some significant ones. It has the Social Security Death Index; however, theirs is updated on a daily basis while Ancestry’s is updated monthly. Their main holding is a pretty good collection of newspapers. These newspapers are broken down into two categories: America’s Obituaries (1977-Current) and Historical Newspapers (1690-1980). America’s Obituaries is pretty much exactly as it sounds. It contains obituaries from many different newspapers from 1977 to the present. They only have the obituaries; they do not have other articles from these papers. The Historical Newspapers contain complete newspapers, so all articles are available. Their copies of the Philadelphia Inquirer enabled researchers to find obituaries for several Philadelphia-area players who had been missing for many years. Genealogy Bank adds new papers every month, although it is difficult to determine what new ones have been added.
Speaking of newspapers, there are other sites that feature old newspapers. Two well-known newspapers that concentrated primarily on baseball were Sporting Life and The Sporting News. Sporting Life began in Philadelphia in 1883 and ran until 1917. The Sporting News began in St. Louis in 1886 and is still in operation today. SABR has a subscription to old microfilmed copies of The Sporting News linked from their website: It is called Paper of Record and is free to SABR members. It contains the years 1886-2003. Each issue of The Sporting News contains articles on all the different major league teams as well as some minor league teams. It also contains box scores of all major league games and many minor leagues. This is another invaluable tool for researchers. Obituaries which appeared in TSN’s Obituaries or Necrology feature from 1932 to 1992 are all included in The Baseball Index. Sporting Life is very similar to The Sporting News. It is available through the LA84 Foundation, a free site, thanks to a partnership between SABR, LA84, and the Baseball Hall of Fame. As of this writing, it is missing a few years, but they plan to add the remaining years as time goes on. Once again, having a search tool is essential to finding player information from this period of time and both Sporting Life and The Sporting News can be searched.
Two other pay sites are Newspapers.com and NewspaperArchive.com. They have a lot of different papers from a variety of years and if a researcher is lucky, they will have a paper from the city that is needed. NewspaperArchive.com, for instance, had old copies of The Fresno Bee and this enabled SABR researchers to find an obituary for Uriah Jones, whose whereabouts were previously unknown.
For modern papers, a site that has an index to all U.S. papers is www.usnpl.com. This is a good tool for looking up present-day obituaries for players who have died. The site directs the user to the home page for the newspaper in question. That paper’s site might also have a link to its archives. Different papers have different rules for accessing their archives. Some only go back a month or two, while others might go back to the 1980s. Some might charge a fee for accessing their archives; some might allow free access. It all depends on the paper. Many papers have their obituaries linked through legacy.com. Legacy.com serves as a central repository for obituaries from many different newspapers and the legacy.com site allows searching through all these papers.
Another tool that has old copies of several major newspapers is ProQuest. ProQuest is very useful if research is needed in the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Hartford Courant, or Atlanta Constitution. They also have a few old black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier. They also will periodically add new papers, although this does not happen frequently. Unfortunately, they limit their access to libraries. Some libraries have it available through the individual library’s website, but most don’t. Access is free for anyone with a library card to that library. However, once access is obtained, the user can search through 100+ years of all sections of these papers. We can all be hopeful that more papers will be added in the near-future. (Related link: Click here to view the “Using Libraries” article)
One old newspaper has its own site: The Brooklyn Eagle can be found at eagle.brooklynpubliclibrary.org and it covers the years 1841 to 1902. It also has a search tool, although it isn’t very easy to use. The site says that later years of the paper will be available at a future date, but it is unknown when that will be.
A new site that has recently come into use is search.labs.familysearch.org. They have census records, although their records are not as complete as Ancestry.com. They do have copies of death certificates from Ohio, Texas, and the rarest of all locations, Philadelphia. They also have birth, death, and marriage indexes from quite a few different states. This is a free site and they add new databases all the time. Their search tool is primitive at best and requires you to provide a name in order to search. In the case of Philadelphia death certificates, the index doesn’t always direct you to the right record. If they ever get a new search tool, this site might become as indispensable as Ancestry.
Many states have vital records that are available online. Some, such as Missouri, West Virginia, and Arizona even have images of death certificates. Others, such as Pennsylvania, have such stringent privacy laws that it is next to impossible to get a death certificate even if that certificate is 70 or 80 years old. It is difficult to keep track of which states have what information. Fortunately, there is a site that has an index of all 50 states and links to various online indexes. This URL for the site is deathindexes.com, a very nice site since all of the links are stored in one place.
Cemeteries are a great place to dig up information on old ballplayers. One nice online site to find cemetery information is Find A Grave. This website is updated constantly and all of the cemetery information is submitted by the general public. There is a search tool to search by name, or by name within a particular state. Often, pictures are provided of the gravesite or cemetery. It is always fascinating just to go through the site and look for pictures of the gravesites of famous athletes, movie stars, or political figures. Some large cemeteries have their own websites: Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, and a network of Catholic cemeteries in St. Louis have free websites that you can search. Spring Grove actually keeps a list of all ballplayers buried in their cemetery.
Much information has been added via the Internet and more is being added every day. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, Google is a wonderful thing. If you’re looking for a player named Wilberforce Wildenburger, you can type his name into a Google search, and it may be that his grandson has already posted his biography on the Internet. For those unfamiliar with Google, that search tool can be found at google.com.
As wonderful as the Internet is, not everything is posted there. Sometimes, you still have to resort to the old fashioned methods. Most public libraries have inter-library loan departments. If a newspaper or publication is unavailable online, chances are good that it is available through inter-library loan. Contact your library’s inter-library loan department, tell them what you need, and they will order it for you. Sometimes it is free and sometimes there is a nominal fee. Waiting time can be anywhere from about 10 days to 2 months. When it comes in, you generally have a certain period of time to look at it (on a microfilm reader at the library) before they have to send it back. Of course, you don’t have the fancy search tools that you have online, so this method is time consuming and tedious. But there is always a great exhilaration when you finally find the key clue that you had been looking for.
Baseball biographical research can be a frustrating experience. Many times you find yourself chasing a clue and find that it leads you nowhere. But just as police work as changed over the years and new technology has enabled the police to finally “get their man”, so has biographical research changed in the same way. We still have our cold cases, but we can always hold out hope that a new source will be added to the Internet that will provide exactly the information we need and we can cross another ballplayer off the “Most Wanted” list.