Seekers of the Baseball Stats
Ah, what research! Society ferrets out data on everything from ballparks to women players
BOSTON — "Knowin' all about baseball is just about as profitable as bein' a good whittler."
- Frank McKinney Hubbard
THE late Indianapolis newspaper humorist might not get much of an argument, even from the people determined to know all about baseball.
Well, not from most of them, anyway.
But profitability aside, there is an active band of folks who are bent on leaving no stone unturned in their quest to find out everything there is to know about the national pastime. They call themselves SABR, an ungainly acronym that stands for the Society for American Baseball Research.
Never heard of it, you say? You're not alone. The organization has been around for 22 years, but, says executive director Morris Eckhouse: "There are still, to my mind, too many baseball fans who don't know anything about SABR. We're not an exclusive club."
SABR is not an arm of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Nor does it have anything to do with the Office of the Commissioner (what's left of it). There is no gleaming research complex anywhere for professional scholars to pore over faded box scores. The closest it comes even to having a national headquarters is Eckhouse's office in Cleveland, a city that's been struggling for decades to return to its former baseball glory.
None of this deters the 6,200 or so SABR members, who pay from $35 to $50 a year to belong - whether they actually conduct any baseball research or not. And, according to Mr. Eckhouse, at any given time only 10 to 20 percent of the membership does.
Ah, but what research! SABR divides itself into 14 committees, based on areas of interest - from statistical analysis, to ballparks, to women in baseball. One of the more popular committees focuses on the game's 19th-century years. An area receiving a lot of attention recently is the old Negro leagues.
"It's a hobby for the vast majority of members," Eckhouse says. "We try not to take it any more seriously than it should be taken." But, he quickly adds, "We have some work that I think measures up to the highest standards of historical research."
The society and its members churn out reams of published material: a monthly newsletter, biographies, literary criticism, annual journals, a "how to" manual on conducting research, books, magazine and newspaper articles, and letters to the editor. Local chapters regularly provide speakers for courses in baseball history at colleges and universities.
How deeply are SABR members into the subject? A highlight of their annual convention in June in San Diego is a baseball trivia contest that lasts two days. No aspect of the game, it seems, is too obscure. Some members collect data on spring-training "phenoms" who never made it to the major leagues. One Los Angeles SABR member is looking for information on the 1943-44 US Army 10th Infantry Regiment team. A Virginian wants accurate fielding records on the eight games that George McBride played at shortstop
for the 1905 Pittsburgh Pirates. Still another member hopes to find original magazine ads for offbeat baseball products. He's writing a book on the subject.
Even the founder-director of the Professional Football Researchers Association, Bob Carroll of North Huntingdon, Pa., has been a SABR member since 1979. Says Carroll: "I have nothing but good things to say about them. The reason I got into football research was that I thought almost everything in baseball had been done."
Not quite. In the March issue of the SABR Bulletin, association President W. Lloyd Johnson wrote: "What is left in baseball to research? Speeches and statements of [baseball's first commissioner] Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis ... minor league standings and statistics ... individual players."
"Lots of research," he concludes.
Indeed, adds Dick Johnson, curator of the New England Sports Museum in Boston and a SABR member since 1984. His special interest is the city's former National League franchise, the Braves, who moved out 40 years ago.
"If you look hard enough, you'll see there are holes and gaps all over the place," he says. "It's sort of a bottomless pit. For example, I think there's probably room for someone to do a cassette history of the game. It'd be a back-breaker. But are there people out there who are going to do this? Probably yes."
DICK JOHNSON also says he'd like to see SABR form partnerships with public television stations to produce baseball documentaries. And he thinks SABR could work with publishers and schools in offering internships to students who could help disseminate more of the game's history.
With all of this going on, you'd think the Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown might keep a wary eye on SABR's activities. But you'd be wrong.
"We have a good relationship with SABR," says senior Hall of Fame research associate Bill Deane. "I'm a SABR member. We try our best to help them out. I think, for the most part, we work toward the same goals. We certainly don't feel threatened that somebody would spend $35 to join SABR and not come and visit us."
Eckhouse says the group also enjoys excellent rapport with professional baseball teams, which do not, as a rule, employ their own full-time historians or archivists. True enough - at least in the case of the Pirates. Team spokesman Jim Lachimia says, "They use our resources, and we benefit from the research that they do. There's something in it for both of us. We've even asked them to take on occasional projects."
SABR members turn up inside as well as outside organized baseball. Among them: Los Angeles Dodgers president Peter O'Malley, famed Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, political columnist George Will, actor Michael Moriarty, and former US Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. In January, SABR expanded overseas, with a London chapter opening for business.
To fans who know about SABR but disdain membership because of its dry-sounding name, president Lloyd Johnson writes: "My reply is, `Research is what we do.' "