Henry Chadwick Award: David S. Neft

This article was written by Mark Armour

This article was published in Summer 2010 Baseball Research Journal

It might be difficult for the twenty-first-century SABR member to imagine the baseball-research world before DAVID S. NEFT (1937–) came along. By the mid-1960s, Neft had earned three degrees (including a PhD in statistics) from Columbia and was working as a statistician for the polling company Louis Harris and Associates. In 1965 he interviewed for a job with Information Concepts Incorporated, a company looking for suitable data-processing applications for its computers. Neft, who as a child in New York City had invented a realistic baseball game using 100 playing cards, sold ICI on his dream application—a comprehensive baseball database and reference work covering the game since the formation of the National League in 1876. 

The best previous attempt at such a thing, Hy Turkin and S. C. Thompson’s Official Encyclopedia of Baseball, first published in 1951, listed only a few statistics per player. Others could be gathered painstakingly from year-end guides, but these were rife with error, particularly before 1920. Runs batted in were only occasionally tabulated before 1920, and earned runs were not formalized until 1912. Most alarmingly, the available guides left out or misidentified many players. Lee Allen had nearly single-handedly created complete biographical data on about half of the 10,000 major league players, but the work was painfully slow. Neft’s solution to this enormous set of problems: to send his team of researchers, eventually numbering twenty, across the country to city libraries and country graveyards. Using multiple newspaper accounts for every game, Neft’s team reconstructed baseball’s history from 1876 through 1920—game by game, player by player—while working to resolve hundreds of errors in later years. His team also worked with Allen to speed up the biographical work. All of this information was duly entered onto computer punch cards, which were fed into an IBM 360 mainframe computer. 

The result, in 1969, was Macmillan’s Baseball Encyclopedia (or, affectionately, “Big Mac”), which numbered 2,337 pages and weighed six and a half pounds. One New York Times reviewer called it “the book I’d take with me to prison.” It flew through its first printing of 50,000 copies and ultimately sold more than 100,000, launching a new era of fanaticism for baseball statistics and history. It is not a coincidence that SABR was formed a mere two years after its first printing. Neft’s book caused some controversy when it “changed” many well-known statistics of famous players, but he and his team were led only by a quest for truth. Debates over the propriety of modifying baseball records as new information came forth continued for decades, but the truth seekers seem to have won out, thanks in large part to the efforts of David Neft. 

Neft left ICI in 1970 and teamed up with Richard M. Cohen and others to produce, in 1974, The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball. A large, soft-bound, easy-tohandle book organized by season and team, it became an annual favorite for many baseball fans, and similar efforts followed for football and basketball. The baseball version was printed annually for thirty years. In the mid-1970s he returned to Harris, which was eventually bought by Gannett. 

David Neft’s legacy was secured by his work on the “Big Mac.” It can be said without hyperbole that everything that followed—the creation of SABR, the widespread interest in baseball analysis, fantasy baseball, the popular statistical websites of today—owes a large debt to the work of David Neft and his team for what they did in the 1960s.