This article was written by Bill Gustafson
This article was published in 1973 Baseball Research Journal
For a number of years, the Research Club of the National Baseball Library, under the leadership first of the late Lee Allen and now of Cliff Kachline, has been involved in a continuing project designed to acquire completed biographical questionnaires for all major-league players, 1871 to the present. Names of almost 11,000 men have appeared in box scores of championship games. Questionnaires have been obtained for all but about 3,300 of these.
With each passing day the task becomes more difficult for two somewhat related reasons. First, and quite obviously, those players whose trails have been easiest to follow are the ones for whom questionnaires have been obtained for the most part. Second, more than half of the missing questionnaires are for players whose careers were completed prior to 1900 with the result that the search for their survivors has been obscured by the passing of time, the dearth of legal records, and the increased mobility of Americans.
And yet the search is anything but hopeless. Many of the more obscure players have been tracked down and, even in those cases in which the trails lead to apparent dead-ends, half the fun is in the searching. But where does one begin the search? Below are some of the resources that the writer had used, or expects to use, in his investigations. They are organized categorically by type of resource.
Probably the major stimulus for the investigations that have carried on to this day was provided by the publication of The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball in 1951. This compilation by Hy Turkin and S.C. Thompson was the culmination of years of research into the births, deaths, and playing records undertaken by the junior author largely as a hobby. Through several editions and updated revisions, it reigned as the most complete reference of baseball records. In 1969, however, it was surpassed for completeness by The Baseball Encyclopedia. Such data as height, weight, and site of death, not included in OEB, were listed in TBE and its compilation of birth data was considerably more comprehensive. Not in all instances, however, was TBE’s information, when it conflicted with OEB’s, necessarily correct. It is interesting to note the fairly sizable number of players who returned to or near the cities of birth after their careers were completed. This knowledge often provided leads in the search for the “missing.”
Two other books, The National Game by A.H. Spink, and History of Baseball in California and Pacific Coast Leagues, 1847-1938 by Fred W. Lange, have provided useful clues to the possible fates of many players. The Story of Minor League Baseball helped to fill in some of the gaps in the playing career of some whose baseball lives were spent mostly in the minors. Many cities have published histories and, particularly in the cases of the smaller communities, the names and addresses of former players living there at the time of publications are often included. One of these, Letters of the Early Pioneers of Big Bear Lake by B.G. Holmes, provided names and addresses helpful to the writer as he pursued the trail of Robert Brush, who played in two games for the Boston National League Club in 1907.
If the date and site of death are known, a copy of the death certificate may be obtained. Each county has a recorder’s office or hall of records or bureau of vital statistics from which the copy is available for a small charge. These are also procurable from each state’s division of vital statistics. Addresses for these offices may be found in Where to Write for Birth and Death Records, which may be purchased for fifteen cents from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402. The State of California publishes an annual, alphabetized Death Index which permits a fairly rapid search for all those who died in California between 1905-1968 (no Indexes were published 1940-1948 and the past several years’ records are yet to be printed).
The form of death certificates varies somewhat from state to state and from one era to another. Most of them contain full name, date and site of birth, date and site of death, place buried, names of father and mother, and name of informant. Caution must be observed, however, in accepting the information as accurate because it is limited by the informant’s knowledge of the deceased.
Many public libraries have back issues of local newspapers and often of several large-city papers as well. Increasingly, back issues are available on microfilm which serves to expedite the search since the microfilm readers permit rapid movement from page to page. The Library of Congress in Washington has probably the largest collection of U.S. newspapers available in a single building.
Sports pages of hometown papers often contain information about obscure players who gained little print in the papers of the cities in which they played. But even the obscure sometimes were reported in sufficient detail to provide the clues necessary in the solution of a case. A description in the Chicago Record-Herald of August 2, 1908 of the only major-league game in which Carl Spongberg played included the note that he was from Utah and had been born in Idaho. The one line eventually led to Spongberg’s son in San Francisco.
Early editions of The Sporting News and Sporting Life often contained short news notes such as the brief item that John B. Kelly was married on May 7, 1907 to Virginia Fredricka Truelieb, daughter of the orioles’ groundskeeper, in Baltimore. The clue was helpful in locating records of Kelly’s death in Baltimore on March 19, 1944.
Occasionally it has been productive to inquire of sports editors of papers in cities in which a man played. Even if they are unable to offer direct assistance, they will frequently include the inquiry in their columns with the hope that some reader will respond.
Directories and Compilations
These are of several kids and are organized below for the reader’s convenience.
Telephone directories. Most public libraries contain a collection of out-of-town directories as do the local telephone companies. Name of possible relatives of a deceased player may be found in the directory of the city in which he died even if he has been dead for several decades. George Borchers’ son was found in this way more than 30 years after his father’s death.
For the smaller towns, the information operator may be reached at no charge by simply dialing the area code and then 555-1212. The late evening and early morning hours are the best times to call as the operators are seldom busy and seem to enjoy a break from the monotony of silence. Vivan Lindaman’s daughter was located thusly more than four decades after his death.
City directories. Most cities have back copies of local directories. These may be perused from year to year until a player is no longer listed. Such absence may indicate that he has moved to another city (often specified in earlier editions) or that he has died. These directories will often list members of his family, information that may be helpful in searching for survivors after his death.
Address lists. The work of Jack Smalling is of particular note. His compilation of addresses of thousands of present and former players has been of considerable assistance in simplifying the task of location the older veterans. Other sources of addresses include the major-league clubs’ directors of public relations; Chuck Stevens of the Association of Professional Ball Players of America; The Sporting News; and certain individuals such as Fred Lieb.
Clubs and fraternal organizations. Many of these groups have maintained membership records. It becomes a rather painstaking method to search randomly through these lists on the chance that one of the “missing” may be found, but this was the way that the son of Fred B. Stem was found. If a player is known to have attended a college, the institution’s alumni office may be able to assist. A letter from homer Hillebrand (1905) advised that Arthur Ernst (Dutch) Meier (1906) had been a teammate of his not only at Pittsburgh, but at Princeton as well. An inquiry to Princeton University’s alumni secretary elicited this reply from William C. Stryker, Director of Sports Information: “ . . . Meier was a member of the Princeton Class of 1902 and died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Chicago on March 23, 1948.”
Genealogies. The Mormon Church in Salt Lake City is reported to have the largest collection of genealogies in the United States. Several commercial houses are engaged in genealogical compilations. Readers interested in such investigations are alerted to the anticipated publication next fall by Doubleday of Roots by Alex Haley. It is a stirring and heartwarming story of one black man’s successful efforts at tracing his descendancy back into Africa.
Simenic’s list. Immediately following the organizational meeting of the Society for American Baseball Research at Cooperstown in August 1971, Joe Simenic compiled a listing by year of debut of all those players for whom no questionnaires had been completed. This had served to expedite the work of members of the Research Club and is further facilitated by the distribution of a monthly updating by Cliff Kachline.
Government organizations. Information about players may be obtained on occasion by writing to the police department or the postmaster of the city in which the player is known or believed to have lived.
If all of the suggestions offered above prove unproductive, a case may be solved through contact with those who were acquainted with the player. Clues suggested to the writer by fellow Research Club members Bill Haber, Tom Hufford, and Joe Simenic have led to solutions. Tom Shea has been the source of much indirect information, and other SABR members who have been of assistance include Lefty Blasco, Bob Brauner, Bob Davids, George Hilton, Bob McConnell, John Pardon, Marshall Smelser, Bill Weiss, Ralph Winnie, and the late Warren Mouch.
Teammates and neighbors. Letters to and personal conversations with teammates and neighbors should not be overlooked. In the course of tape-recorded interviews, players such as Chief Meyers, Walter Nagle, Willie Hogan, Bill Steen, Al Boucher, and Harry Hooper have offered clues about teammates in the course of their narratives. Letters to those not convenient for personal interviews always include a specially-designed sheet for information such as height, weight, bats, and throws in addition to space for inquiries about addresses of missing teammates.
After nearly a year and a half of frustration, it was not until the writer drove to San Bernardino County and Big Bear Lake that he was able to locate a relative of Brush’s who could provide most of the information necessary to complete a questionnaire. The trail led from one townsperson to another and, just as it appeared that another dead end had been reached, the key address was uncovered.
The task still confronting the Research Club members is formidable to say the very least. More enthusiastic research investigators are needed if the work is to be completed. The thrill of a successful quest is one that the writer has seldom experienced in other pursuits.
“Try it – You’ll like it.”