Foreword: SABR 50 at 50

This article was written by John Thorn

This article was published in SABR 50 at 50

This foreword by MLB Official Historian John Thorn is included in SABR 50 at 50: The Society for American Baseball Research’s Fifty Most Essential Contributions to the Game (2020). Click here to order the book from University of Nebraska Press.

SABR 50 at 50 book coverNerds, we members of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) call ourselves proudly, flying our freak flag high. The world has countless baseball fans—more than 110 million tickets are sold to major- and minor- league games in this country alone—but SABR membership is steady, year after year counting up to this 50th anniversary, at around six thousand.

Who are we few, we happy few, we band of brothers and sisters? Just ordinary folks in the pursuit of our daily bread, yet different in our approach to what has long been at the core of the American experience: baseball. We are a sort of Nonconformists Club: mild-mannered sorts by day, superheroes by night on our computers or, on our off days, at archives.

To deflect suspicion that he is Superman, Clark Kent adopts a largely passive and introverted personality with odd mannerisms, a higher-pitched voice, and a slight slouch. SABR members wear this disguise, too, sometimes from the inside out. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound—that’s us. To best be in position to use our amazing powers in a never-ending quest for fresh baseball data and insight, SABR members tend to adopt a bland wardrobe, unfashionable eyeglasses, often a briefcase and, at gatherings, nametags that camouflage our coolness.

What are these amazing powers cited above? Caring deeply about getting it right and about completing the journey, however improbable the prospect of home may have seemed at the outset. We endure the predictable slings and arrows on the whole cheerfully, not only because we know who we are, but also because we live in the age of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and other nerds for whom data, when shared, become life’s most rewarding currency.

Ernie Harwell once said: “SABR is the Phi Beta Kappa of baseball.” This is especially true in the Age of the Nerd, in which knowledge is, at long last, cool. For many years SABR’s board members bristled when its members were painted with a broad brush and called sabermetricians. They protested that Society members were also interested in history, and culture, and ballparks, and the Negro Leagues, and the international game.

Incubated in the pages of the Baseball Research Journal, sabermetrics soon flew the coop and soared over the entire baseball landscape. Bill James coined the term to honor the Society not so much for its statistical analysis but for its conviction that significant aspects of the game are invisible to the naked eye, and that received wisdom about the game warranted distrust. All these years later, I think it is a good thing that we no longer protest quite so much about being known as analytics pioneers.


First convened in Cooperstown in August 1971 by L. Robert Davids and fifteen other avid researchers and history buffs, SABR grew slowly but steadily before settling in a bit north of six thousand members in 1987 (I joined in 1981). “Baseball’s best-kept secret,” Ted Williams once declared. As some of its early members slipped away into the sunset, new nerds would have to be located. Fortunately, that has happened, and the analytics movement has been SABR’s fountain of youth. SABR has become a bridge between the game’s journalists and its front offices, on the one hand and, on the other, its fans, who consume and argue over SABR research without even knowing the source.

The Society does good works—lobbying for historical markers, providing headstones to baseball luminaries who were buried without them, holding conferences at which speeches and swag are delivered. Through research committees and regional chapters, SABR members share their finds and their expertise, providing a rich experience that links the generations of advanced fans.

SABR is not a secret society with initiation rites—anyone may join and do nothing at all beyond paying annual dues; writers need readers, after all. And boy, do we write! SABR publishes, in print and online, the Baseball Research Journal (fifteen hundred articles since 1972), The National Pastime (one thousand since 1982), and online stories. Add in SABR’s digital library, notably the Baseball Biography Project (more than five thousand profiles since 2002) and the Games Project (two thousand game accounts since 2014). And chalk up another four thousand articles in research committee newsletters, plus six hundred in one-off publications, and the number of articles totals more than fifteen thousand, all written by SABR volunteers.

From these, SABR has, though an arduous process in which I was involved, somehow selected its fifty best to mark its 50th birthday, spanning the half century of its existence while restricting even our most notable authors to a single representative story. The selection committee sought to create a chronological portrait of the Society while balancing the genres represented by its thirty-one research committees: for example, biographical, nineteenth century, deadball, ballparks, records, women in baseball, and, yes, statistical analysis.

In the early days of SABR, many of its most skilled researchers concerned themselves not only with the relative merits of men who played in different eras but with determining who the players were. Hundreds of players were absolute ciphers, about whom nothing but a last name was known—a box score entry, that was all. Lee Allen and Bill Haber hunted for headstones; Vern Luse and Bill Carle scoured the squibs in Sporting Life. Today the number of major leaguers about whom absolutely nothing is known has been reduced to a relative handful. For this fortunate state of affairs we thank SABR’s Biographical Research Committee. This sort of digging seldom yields a full-fledged article but is vital to those who may write another sort of story even a decade later. The recently deceased Richard Malatzky offers a case in point.

I knew Richard by his work, and we spoke excitedly about his progress with new finds when we met at SABR conventions. He was just the sort of guy I like, one who cares deeply, even obsessively, about getting things right. His delights may well have seemed strange to the world at large, but in shunning the noise of that larger world to visit an alternative one in the past, he and I and so many SABR members were brothers under the skin.

Others, especially those in the Biographical Research Committee, knew Richard far better and far longer. Not only did he dispel mysteries of very long standing that had stumped others for decades, he corrected some of the “compromise” errors made in earlier record books whereby, for example, two fairly inconsequential players with the same common last name (Smith, Jones, Miller, etc.) had their records mistakenly grouped under one individual.

Each of the fifty writers whose articles are offered herein will have a capsule biography beginning their piece, but those SABR stars like Malatzky who may have helped in the research will go unidentified; probably that is just the way they would have liked it.

Every SABR writer relies upon the efforts of a colleague or predecessor. Fred Lieb, whose career in baseball began as a writer for Baseball Magazine in 1909, is this book’s leadoff hitter, with a profile of Ernie Lanigan, another SABR icon whose career began with The Sporting News in 1898 (when Henry Chadwick was still writing baseball). The pair grew up and grew old in baseball, with Lanigan creating the game’s first encyclopedia in 1922. Counting the uncounted, in his case RBIs and Caught Stealing before they became official statistics, was Lanigan’s specialty . . . a very SABR thing to do. Lieb lived long enough to join SABR and write for the first number of the Baseball Research Journal.

The last entry in this volume is by David Firstman, whose first book will be published in the same season as this one. In between are luminaries past and present, all accounted as SABR heroes and all worthy of your attention. I won’t list them or their contributions here, as a tease—that’s what the table of contents is for—but you will recognize their names or their discoveries.

Finally, you may wonder why I have been asked to write the foreword to this book. In 2011, within days of my appointment by Commissioner Selig as Major League Baseball’s official historian, I spoke before the New York City regional chapter of SABR. I said then that, gratifying as this post might be to me, it was also a bouquet toss to SABR, without which I could not have come to understand and serve the game. Several of those in the audience had collaborated with me in Total Baseball and other sabermetric efforts, in historical research, and in SABR publications. Truly, I said then and reiterate now, if I occupy a high standing in baseball it is in good measure because I stand on your shoulders. Thank you, SABR.

JOHN THORN is the Official Historian for Major League Baseball.