Baseball and the Dictionary of American Biography

This article was written by David Q. Voigt

This article was published in 1976 Baseball Research Journal

The Dictionary of American Biography is a scholarly compendium of 24 volumes, the first 20 of which were issued by 1937. This remarkable reference work includes biographical sketches of 16,000 persons who have made a distinctive contribution to American life. People are chosen from all areas of endeavor, including baseball. But the question is whether the number selected is reflective of the contribution baseball has made to American life. First, some background.

There are certain qualifications for inclusion in “DAB,” as scholars affectionately dub the source book. For an ambitious American aspirant to be listed in the DAB he must first be dead; indeed, not less than 20 years dead! This is the ultimate price to pay for vainglory, but the feeling is tempered by the sure and certain likelihood of the reader himself joining the great majority one day!

The second big barrier is passing the judgment of the DAB editors who screen obituaries and consult historical experts in an endless effort to sort out the great lives from the ordinaries. In a diverse culture like America has been arguments readily erupt over the question of one’s greatness. Diversity breeds dissent and in America one man’s hero is another’s fool. This continuing debate is precisely the problem that continually vexes the editorial staff of the DAB. Moreover, revisionism is a strong critical force in our society as different generations bring new standards of judgment to bear on past heroes, villains, and fools. For this reason the editor of the DAB promises to mount a continuing review of the work, hoping to add those who may have been overlooked by past generations of editors.

From the start of the project the DAB editors approached their task humbly and courageously. Their tasks of sorting out the great ones began in the late 1920’s when the American Council of Learned Societies received a $500,000 grant from Adolph S. Ochs’ New York Times Foundation to carry on research into the humanities. It was a piece of this fund that helped to launch the celebrated DAB project.

Under the editorship of two famed Columbia University historians, Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, the first 20 volumes, complete with index, appeared over the years 1928-1937. These volumes covered a vast number of lives, reflecting the judgment of the editors who themselves were influenced by dominant philosophies of history peculiar to their life and times. Theirs was courageous editorial act of faith as they essayed the task of sorting out the lives of Americans who died before 1930, selecting those they deemed worthy of inclusion. From the start their decisions drew hot criticisms, such as their failure to include prominent labor leaders, women, as well as splendid performers in areas like the arts and entertainment world. Moreover, the same criticisms greeted each supplementary volume that updated the work. After all, the task of celebrating greatness is a human judgment; far easier it would have been if upon one’s death a trumpet were blown in heaven announcing to all the fact of one’s greatness or lack thereof!

Through all the embattled controversy over who is in is the question of who is a great American and why. And SABR members may find themselves drawn into the battle when they see the list of famous baseball persons so far included. Apparently the first editors considered ballplayers’ lives to be rather small beer. But this condescending attitude was typical of historical scholarship of the 1930’s. Indeed, such snobbery still prevails as evidenced by historian Henry Steele Commager’s recent Shavian reply to the newsmen who asked him, “What is the NFL’s role in American History?” Commager’s curt answer was, “It has no significance whatsoever!” Football students may bristle at such snobbery, but veteran baseball historians may have mellowed from fending off similar criticisms over the years.

Until quite recently American scholarship viewed sports performances as unworthy of serious consideration, something to be tolerated as amusements of the masses who require periodic escapism into fantasy worlds. Something of this attitude is reflected in the first 20 volumes as the editors included the biographies of 195 actors while admitting fewer than a dozen major league baseball personalities. Of these, only eight were players, including Pop Anson, John Clarkson, Miller Huggins, Mike Kelly, Christy Mathewson, Al Reach, Al Spalding and Harry Wright. This slighting of other player-heroes who lived, labored and died before 1930 rankles more when one considers the fact that Huggins and Wright made their marks as managers. Moreover, Spalding is listed as a “sportsman” along with Henry Chadwick, the great publicist of early American baseball. And to this roll call of baseball’s honored dead up to 1930 is added the names of three others-Ban Johnson as an executive, Morgan Bulkeley as a businessman and political leader, and Abner Doubleday as the game’s “originator!” In sketching Doubleday’s career, author Thomas M. Spaulding saw no reason for discounting his legend.

At this point it is only charitable to remember that these evaluations were made back in the early Thirties. Considering the infant status of serious sports history at that time, perhaps the DAB editors ought to be credited for giving as much recognition to baseball as they did. To their further credit they entrusted the biographies of Huggins, Johnson, Matty, Spalding and Wright to the gifted John Kieman; those of Chadwick, Anson and Clarkson to Edwin P. Tanner’s solid scholarship; those of Kelly and Reach to Harris Elwood Starr who later became editor of the DAB’s first supplement.

Under Starr’s editorship, the first supplement appeared in 1944, covering the lives of those who died up to the mid-Thirties. But Starr’s earlier interest in baseball biographies failed to open wide the gates of recognition to other players. That supplement added only four new baseball figures, three of whom were only peripherally involved with the game. Included were William Wrigley, celebrated as an industrial magnate; Billy Sunday as a Christian evangelist: and Ring Lardner as a literary figure. The only bona fide baseball man admitted was John McGraw!

More than a decade passed before the second supplement appeared in 1958, covering American achievers who died by 1940. In this volume baseball figures were almost completely shut out. By stretching one’s imagination one can point to the name of Zane Grey, a promising outfielder who played minor league hail under Ed Barrow’s tutelage. Grey never made the majors, but fans loved his adventure novel, The Red Headed Outfielder. Thus, it was Grey who kept baseball from being completely shut out of the DAB’s second supplement.

Fifteen years later, in 1973, came a third supplement under the editorship of Edward T. James, covering the culture heroes dead by 1945. Among the roll call of greats were two baseball figures, Lou Gehrig and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The latter sketch, done by this writer, interpreted Landis as considerably less omnipotent and influential than baseball mythology proclaims.

Two years ago, in 1974, under the joint editorship of James and John Garraty came a fourth supplement covering the greats who died by 1950. Those listed included three players whose prowesses must be undisputed by any critical baseball standards. Thus, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Walter Johnson and George Herman Ruth joined the ranks of the DAB’s elite.

This year or next will see a fifth DAB supplement, under the Garraty’s editorship, covering the honored dead up to 1955. Five baseball greats are listed including Cy Young, Eddie Collins, Honus Wagner, and Chief Bender as players, while Ed Barrow is included for his contributions as baseball promoter and executive who helped to forge the great Yankee dynasty. Jim Thorpe, who played several years in the majors, is included for his football and track exploits.

The cumulative listing of baseball figures in all volumes of, the DAB is as follows:


Players/Managers                  Owners                                    Writers

Grover Alexander                  William Wrigley                   Henry Chadwick

Adrian Anson                                                                        Ring Lardner

Chief Bender                           Executives

John Clarkson                         Ed Barrow                               Myth Figures

Eddie Collins                          Ban Johnson                           Abner Doubleday

Lou Gehrig                             Judge Landis

Miller Huggins

Walter Johnson                       Peripherals

King Kelly                               Morgan Bulkeley (businessman)

John McGraw                        Zane Grey (author)

Christy Mathewson             Billy Sunday (evangelist)

Al Reach                                 Jim Thorpe (football and track)

Babe Ruth

Al Spalding

Honus Wagner

Harry Wright

Cy Young


In criticizing this list, or in proferring suggestions, SABR members must keep in mind the rules laid down by the DAB editors. The subject must be dead and if he died after 1956, his evaluation and listing must await future supplements. Hence, keep your Macmillan Encyclopedia handy for death dates. Following this rule Connie Mack would be eligible for the next supplement since he died in 1956, but Ty Cobb who died in 1961 must await a seventh supplement.

A second rule, that a subject’s contribution must not only be worthy, but a distinctive contribution to American life is much trickier to abide by. Applying this line of reasoning to proposing baseball men for admission into what is essentially a hail of fame of American culture would rule out the hotshot player who easily qualifies for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Given this set of rules it is this writer’s opinion that the DAB has done a first rate job of sorting out the baseball men whose contributions meet the test of being broad culture heroes. Nevertheless a lively debate among baseball scholars is likely to ensure. In my judgment a player like John Montgomery Ward deserves DAB recognition for his prowesses as player-manager, folk hero, and contributor to the idea of unionism in sports. His is a triple qualification that cries out for recognition. Moreover, Ward died in 1925 which certainly makes him eligible. Among others I would point to Charles Comiskey as player, promoter and woeful folk hero, as he is a villain of the Black Sox Scandal. Bill Kiem, the famed umpire and folk hero ought to be enshrined as the first umpire. Charles Radbourn as pitcher and folk hero, and Chris Von der Ahe as promoter and folk-fool ought likewise to be given serious consideration.

Doubtlessly SABR rattlers will have words aplenty to add to the debate over DAB treatment of baseball heroes. Indeed, it is likely that debate could spread to other American sports whose ranks are far less represented than baseball’s. Hopefully the debate will lead baseball historians to a deepened understanding of baseball’s link with the culture at large. This may persuade students of sport that American culture admits other interests than sports, while on the other hand convincing humanistic scholars of the mighty role of sport in American cultural history.