The Pandemic Baseball Book Club hosted a special panel discussion on SABR 50 at 50: The Society for American Baseball Research’s Fifty Most Essential Contributions to the Game with editors John Thorn, Mark Armour, Bill Nowlin, and Leslie Heaphy on September 23, 2020.
The virtual Zoom chat, moderated by Jason Turbow, brings to life the 50 stories in this new anthology book and celebrates the breadth and depth of SABR’s groundbreaking research over the past 50 years.
- Video: Click here to watch the SABR 50 at 50 panel discussion (YouTube)
Here are some highlights:
ON HOW THE BOOK CAME TO BE
- Thorn: “I think it must have come to me after a couple of beers at a SABR board meeting that I was invited to attend, and it struck everyone more or less instantly as a really good idea. It was a really good showcase for SABR and a really good tie-in to our projected 50th convention in Baltimore. … The challenge in gathering from 15,000 stories the 50 that finally appear in this very fat book was enormous. The only way that we could all see to do it, we all agreed upon this at the outset, was for each of the four of us to take a chronological period in SABR publications history, scour that, and then present your findings. I think we wound up with more than 200 stories that we had to winnow down to 50. Certainly, I had 40-50 of my own. As a writer, the instruction is to murder your darlings, so there’s some very good stuff on the cutting room floor.”
ON THE CRITERIA FOR SELECTING STORIES
- Nowlin: “We divided it up by decades. To start with, we had to make our own cuts, then we went to the various research committees of SABR. We asked each committee to suggest items that they felt that should be represented, and then we opened it up to the entire membership. So, any member that wanted to, we got quite a few individual nominations that we added to our growing list of couple hundred items to look through.”
ON THE CHALLENGES OF EDITING THIS BOOK
- Heaphy: “The volume initially, I thought we’d start with more. The way we divided things up, it actually became a fairly manageable amount. We relied on one another’s expertise and knowledge in terms of thinking about what pieces really represented [SABR]. In that respect, I found it very enjoyable to read things that I have not read before or to go back and read things I have not read in a very long time. In many ways, it was a very enjoyable experience and a re-entry into some of the baseball stats and history that I haven’t read before or hadn’t read in a long time.”
ON SOME UNANIMOUS SELECTIONS
- Thorn: “I think Jerry Malloy’s “Out at Home” [on baseball’s establishment of the color barrier in the 1880s] is something that we all agree is a monumental event in SABR’s history and Negro Leagues history and research. Jerry submitted it to me for The National Pastime’s debut issue in 1982. It ran so long that I would’ve had to exclude too many other authors. With Jerry’s permission, I withheld it until 1983. I think it remains absolutely top-notch. It is really hard to imagine anyone else doing a better job [on that subject].”
ON THE SABR BIOPROJECT
- Armour: “One thing I did steal from Retrosheet is that they started with an impossible goal, which is to re-enact the play-by-play of every major-league game in history. That’s not a goal that they believe they’ll ever meet. Nonetheless, it is on the horizon there and they always have something to shoot for. In a similar way, we decided to do a biography of every player that ever played in the major leagues. That’s a long way off. Unfortunately, they keep playing games so the number of bios that we need to write keeps growing. I think the lesson that I learned from the BioProject, which Retrosheet taught us first, is that the impossibility of the goal is what really excited a lot of people.”
ON REPUBLISHING THE ORIGINAL STORIES
- Nowlin: “The goal was very much to keep them in the same form that they originally appeared. We had a number of authors that when we did tell them your piece was selected for this book and we’d like to talk to you about it. We had a number of authors who wanted to update it or change their piece in one way or another. We resisted that and told them no. We wanted it to run exactly as it had, unless there was a need to. There are, in fact, a couple pieces where there is an addendum or something that’s been deemed to be incorrect and it was corrected. But for the most part, we fended off that kind of wish to improve articles because we thought they were very good to begin with.”
ON THE EVOLUTION OF SABERMETRICS
- Armour: “One of the [stories] that I’m a big fan of … was an article Pete Palmer wrote on the relationship between runs and wins, which ends up for any modern analyst, they would instantly [know] this formed the basis for how all player evaluations are done today. Almost all of them are on the basis of wins, WAR, win shares. Pete was the first person who wrote down, after conversations with other SABR members, how one could make this [case] intellectually. I think that if you read some of these early stories, including the one that Dick Cramer wrote about average batting skill, you can see the wheels turning on some of these ideas that later became ideas that are now running baseball operation departments. I think SABR’s analytics is no longer at the cutting edge. I think a lot of the people doing this work are SABR members but are not necessarily writing for us because we are still an ‘amateurs’ operation. These people, to their credit, have found a way to make a living doing it. I am no less proud of the fact that SABR invented this field.”
ON A CLASSIC NEGRO LEAGUES PITCHING MATCHUP
- Heaphy: “To me, Larry Lester’s “Smokey and the Bandit” is just one of those really interesting stories in and of itself without looking at the end result. Putting forward a night game idea and then to put Smokey Joe Williams up against Chet Brewer. When Chet Brewer was younger, he got his three toes cut off and was still able to go on. To realize in that game, it went 12 innings and ended 1-0, with 46 batters struck out by the two pitchers, 19 on one side and 27 on the other. When you’re talking baseball drama, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
ON WHY BASEBALL REMAINS SO APPEALING
- Thorn: “It’s because it’s a stop-action sport and because it gives the ability to pause and contemplate each of the discrete elements. It is easier to record not only on paper but in the memory. Baseball sticks in the memory the way basketball and hockey do not and football does not because it is huddled masses with only three or four people touching the ball out of 20.”
- Heaphy: “I think there’s also an element for a lot of people that baseball has a connection to your past. It has a connection to people’s own growing up that other sports don’t have. People will reminisce about playing baseball with their father or their mother. There’s an emotional connection that isn’t present with other sports in quite the same way.”
Transcription assistance by Nicholas Digrispino.
Originally published: October 20, 2020. Last Updated: October 20, 2020.