This article was written by Robert C. Berring
This article was published in Fall 2010 Baseball Research Journal
There is beauty in finding that beneath a complex system, one so large and entrenched that it seems to operate under its own power, there is a history that is quite human. The work of a person, perhaps a small band of people, fueled by energy and sweat equity, and perhaps a dollop of obsessiveness, can create a mighty enterprise. Simon Winchester wrote a bestseller about how one man, James Murray, stood at the center of The Oxford English Dictionary. On an abstract level, one might claim that William Blackstone created the conceptual framework of the common law that still guides us. But those two are famous figures. The real fun lies in identifying those who, by sheer perseverance and drive, create mighty dreadnoughts that sail on under their own power, growing and changing, and yet remain anonymous. Two delightful examples, related on many levels, are the individuals behind the West System1 and the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia (MBE).
Baseball and lawyers are intricately intertwined. This is no news to the reader of this article. The magic that pulls them together may not admit to easy characterization, but there is no denying that Stevens’s “The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule” created an enthusiastic body of commentary all on its own, or that the intricacy of the Baseball Rule Book maps easily onto the technical pyrotechnics of the Internal Revenue Code for specificity and opaqueness. Lawyers love the intricacies of the game of baseball and the collection of statistics. More congruence is found in the fact that the guiding light of modern baseball statistics and the conceptual blueprint for legal analysis share similar origins. There are human stories behind these grand enterprises.
Building the West System
The West Publishing Company was founded by two brothers: John and Horatio. John was a salesman who noticed that some of his customers, who were lawyers, were having trouble getting their hands on recent judicial decisions. West lived in Minnesota in the late nineteenth century. Courts there were required to make written copies of judicial opinions available, and the state had an official printer of decisions, but getting access to these opinions was not easy.2 The official printer was slow and not always reliable. This gave John West an idea.
The classic Supreme Court opinion in Wheaton v. Peters had established in 1834 that judicial opinions were in the public domain. These opinions could be published by anyone who wanted to do so. Many jurisdictions had official printers for their courts’ decisions, but the office of official printer was often a sinecure. The resulting publications were incomplete and slow. John realized that one might make money by doing the sheer donkey work of going from court to court, making copies of the opinions, printing them, and distributing them.3 Remember, the West brothers had no photocopy machines, let alone digital information. What they did have was an idea and the market incentive to perform the simple, hard work. It had to be done carefully and quickly. John was not a lawyer; he was an entrepreneur.
Armed with his idea and the raw materials to carry it out, he and his brother Horatio went into business. They produced the Syllabus, a collection of Minnesota decisions. It was a huge success. It was such a winner that the brothers began the Northwestern Reporter, which included decisions from courts in surrounding states. That quickly led to the full National Reporter System. This tale has been told in detail elsewhere, but what matters here is that the root from which it all grew was simple effort and obsessive attention to detail. The West Company produced and produces a more thorough and timely product than anything seen before.
The maraschino cherry on the chocolate sundae of the West story is the Key Number System. The West brothers realized that they should offer some organizational system for finding the judicial opinions in their Reporters. They bought a system developed by John Mallory and morphed it into the Key Number System. The Key Number System categorized opinions by classifying legal ideas. It was new and it allowed lawyers to find judicial opinions via an entirely new rubric. Several of us have contended that the Key Number System categories came to have an impact on the way lawyers think and judges write.
As the paper-based universe of information sinks slowly in the west, and the new dawn belongs to the texting, social networking, and Boolean-searching generation of multitaskers who sit in the classes that I teach, it is fitting to note that the mighty West system was the product of the obsessive work and simple plan of human beings.
The MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia: The Beginning of a Magnificent Obsession
Growing up as a baseball fanatic,4 I treasured the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia. As a boy contemplating it, I was filled with wonder. The MBE listed every player who ever had a cup of coffee in the majors. It was detailed and it was authoritative. For me it was an unquestioned source of information. Like the West System (of which I was ignorant in my elementary-school years), it seemed an enterprise bigger than any human, but in fact it was the product of the work of a small band of zealots—humans who were willing to invest the sweat equity in its creation.
David Neft was a statistician who loved baseball. Growing up in the 1950s, he saw The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball as his lodestone of authority. But it was incomplete in coverage, and printed only batting averages for hitters and won–lost records for pitchers. He nurtured the dream of something better. When he went to work for Information Concepts Incorporated in 1965, he proposed the idea of a computerized baseball encyclopedia that would be complete and reliable. How Neft sold his concept to ICI and then to Macmillan is a great tale.5 The statistics were out there, but before 1920 they were not in one place, and after 1920 they were unverified. Doing the job right would mean starting over. First, the new effort would need to be certain who the players were. For that there was another compulsive information maven, Lee Allen.
Lee Allen was the longtime historian of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Known as a walking encyclopedia of baseball knowledge, Allen had spent three decades collecting information on players. Allen did not care about statistics; he wanted biographical data. Though official records had been kept since 1903, there had been little quality control. Allen had supplemented these records through his own research, his own drive to be accurate and complete. He visited graveyards and pursued leads on players like a Sam Spade in search of information on the black bird. He compiled a massive library of books and materials that he took with him to Cooperstown when he assumed his position as librarian there.6 Basing their encyclopedic work on the biographies compiled by Allen, Neft, and his team went to work gathering up data. Neft hired a team of twenty-one researchers and set them to work, checking old newspapers and gathering up data. As Alan Schwarz put it:
The staff of 21 then began its Kerouakian odyssey all over the United States, from library microfilm rooms to long lost graveyards, mortar and spades always in tow, to build the greatest book of statistics sports had ever seen.7
The hard work of slogging was supplemented by the effort of programming a computer to sort and check each item. It was the middle of the 1960s. Computers were primitive creatures and the task was not simple. It fell to Neil Armann. Armann was not a baseball fan, much like John West was not a legal scholar, but he took on the challenge of creating a computer program that would pull together and cross-check all statistics. Given that these were early days for computing, there is another great story here, but we shall tip our cap to Mr. Armann and move on.
The first edition of the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, which was published in 1969, sold an amazing 100,000 copies at $25 ($150 in the dollars of 2009). The New York Times reviewed it three times. It carried the day. Just as the West Key Number System set the accepted categories for legal thought, The Baseball Encyclopedia established the standard for statistical categories. If you look through the volume you will find seventeen categories for hitters, and nineteen for pitchers. They became the standard way of evaluating performance. In my family’s basement back in Ohio, these were the numbers that meant something to me. The Baseball Encyclopedia was authoritative and it created an authoritative classification system. I knew that if Kelly Heath had one at-bat in the major leagues, it would be in the MBE. As with the world of the West brothers, the information was there for the taking. It never occurred to me that actual people struggled to pull these sources together, they just existed.
Once the MBE was in place, a new world was opened. Having a source of reliable information available, others began to build. In its wake, those who were devoted to baseball statistics founded the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), which applies the tools of modern statistics and the power of computers to generate, refine, and parse new categories of information. Indeed, new statistical categories are now in vogue, but the rock upon which it was all built was the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia.
These two great enterprises share another characteristic. They are intellectual booster rockets carrying their missions forward. And now, having served their purposes, they are falling back to earth. Each has taken us to a new level where others have built upon them. Boolean searching has largely replaced the Key Number System at the center of the search function of legal research. New digital tools, web pages, blogs and a deluge of specialty software applications have replaced The Baseball Encyclopedia. The tenth edition, published in 1996, was its last hurrah. Just as law libraries are shipping the old West Digest and National Reporter volumes to storage, or perhaps to a nearby dumpster, no one wants to buy a ten-pound reference book on baseball statistics when a website can tell you everything you need to know and more.
Since you have read to this point, you must be a person of the old school. One who values the feel of pages and admires the heft of a ten-pound reference book. Let us take a moment, and raise a glass of fine single malt scotch to these two very human efforts to bring order out of chaos, and to the resulting books that represent the giants upon whose shoulders we now stand. Each was a masterpiece built on sweat, and each was a financial success in its day. As with so many other great authoritative tools of the twentieth century, their days are gone, but they should not be forgotten.
ROBERT C. BERRING is Walter Perry Johnson Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.
1 This article was published originally in The 2010 Green Bag and Almanac and Reader, 318–21. The West System will stand for both the National Reporter System and the American Digest System. Though it is the former that is primarily of interest here, like Ruth and Gehrig they are forever conjoined.
2 For a short and charming description of the history of the distribution of legal information in the United States, see the text of the 2009 Opperman Lecture at Drake Law School, “Remarks of the Honorable John G. Roberts, Jr. Chief Justice of the United States,” in the fall 2008 issue of the Drake Law Review at page 1. I am an admirer of any Chief Justice who can use the term “pneumatic tube” in a lecture.
3 Marvin, History of the West Publishing Company, provides a full account of this story. This book is very hard to find. For a more easily located version of the story try “Collapse of the Structure of the Legal Research Universe: The Imperative of Digital Information,” 69 Wash. L. Rev. 9 (1994). It is my youthful attempt at telling the story, complete with edifying footnotes.
4 Growing up in northeastern Ohio, I was a Cleveland Indians fan. Since my team never won, focusing on statistics was a fine outlet for my enthusiasm. Did you know that Rocky Colavito once hit four home runs in one game? I thought not.
5 The story is well told by Alan Schwarz in The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Numbers (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005). Chapter 5 covers this territory but, if one loves baseball and statistics, the whole book is worth a read. It is in print in paperback.
6 Credit should also be given to John Tattersall, a shipping executive who spent his life collecting information on players from the nineteenth century. His work formed the basis of the reports on the earliest players of the game.
7 Schwarz, The Numbers Game, 95. Kerouakian is my word of the month.