Clarence (Lefty) Blasco has a picture of every Chicago Cub but one. Please note, that's every Chicago Cub ever. After searching for more than 30 years, he is still missing Pete Lamer, who caught two games in 1902. If you've got a snapshot or daguerreotype of Pete in your wallet, and it doesn't mean that much to you, buzz Blasco in Van Nuys, Calif. It'll make his day.
In Pico Rivera, Calif., Art Cantu has been alphabetizing the names of everyone known to have played in baseball's minor leagues. "I have 450,000 names," reports Cantu, who likes short declarative sentences. When not alphabetizing, he compounds paint and ink fluorescents. His life is rich and full.
Tom Hufford of Smyrna, Ga. is said to be familiar with the names of the 13,000-odd players in Macmillan's Baseball Encyclopedia. Toss him a name and he'll tell you whether or not the guy ever played in the majors. Just make sure you have a good reason for asking. Tom doesn't like to abuse the gift.
George Land, a high school teacher in Pleasanton. Calif. knows the problem with kids these days. "Many of my students still cling to the old myth that Abner Doubleday invented baseball." says Land, full of alarm. "That is pathetic. I believe there is a place for baseball history in our high school curriculum."
April 27, 1986
In Mill Valley, Calif., Glenn Becker's answering machine politely asks callers to "Please state the infield-fly rule. If you recite it correctly, we will return your call."
A good amount of our national identity is wound around baseball, like yarn around a Rawling's core. The core's hard core, then—if we may further scourge an already dying metaphor—would be the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR (pronounced like the weapon). Now in its 16th year, SABR boasts more than 6,000 members, one of whom is actually named Ernie Infield. Last summer, 300 members and guests attended the society's annual convention in Oakland. They are our national pastime's most diligent, loving curators. Also—and this observation should pale before the nobility and magnitude of their calling—a handful of them are nuts.
Last year's convention kicked off a day early, on July 11. Five minutes before the A's took the field against Milwaukee, attention was directed to a figure at the Oakland Coliseum's centerfield gate. There, resplendent in an Oakland Oaks uniform that was much too big for him, stood convention organizer Gene Sunnen, a local computer consultant and David Letterman look-alike—"Except Gene doesn't have that gap between his teeth." notes Richard Zitrin, Sunnen's lawyer friend.
That morning, Sunnen was one of a team that had jogged to nine baseball sites (past, present and projected) in the Bay Area, including Candlestick and Oaks Parks and Seals Stadium. As he ran he held aloft a 34-ounce Reggie Jackson Adirondack, intended to evoke the Olympic torch. It did this, albeit feebly, save for one particular: "We thought it would be stupid to light a good bat on fire," said Sunnen.
Sunnen was escorted down the Coliseum's leftfield warning track and to the plate by an A's golf cart, the kind usually reserved for ferrying relievers to the mound. Zitrin rode shotgun, grinning like an idiot. As he passed A's designated hitter Dave Kingman, Sunnen, who is something of a ham, yelled, "I'll have your job!" Kingman did not smile.
An enthusiastic A's announcer informed the assembled 8,019 that the Oaks' jersey draping Sunnen belonged to Lefty O'Doul. Apparently nostalgia prone, the crowd cheered madly. This was a good omen.
Registration the following morning brought the conventioneers together in the Oakland Hyatt Regency's atrium. Name tags were affixed, navy blue SABR caps were donned. The attendees milled under the atrium's glass roof like rare birds in an aviary, cheerfully jabbering baseball esoterica. Of his peers, one member said, "We've got some weird ducks here, man."
Several Saberites were asked why they'd come.
"I can't talk baseball at home," said Kansas City native Bill Carle, an expert on the old Federal League. "I mean I love to, but I just end up correcting people. I can't help myself. Here," he said, his fond gaze sweeping the atrium, "everyone's like me."
"This is the only time of year we get to be ourselves," said Cappy Gagnon, the society's president. Soon he would face reelection. This day he wore a charcoal pin-striped three-piece suit—with the SABR cap, of course—and pressed considerable flesh.
Of his first SABR meeting in 1977, Gagnon said, "It was me and eight guys just like me. All day long we stuffed newsletters into envelopes and talked baseball. We could've finished by noon, but none of us could stop talking baseball." Did he find this at all wasteful?
"I thought I had died and gone to heaven," Gagnon said.
Mike Scharf, who resembles a young Max Patkin, was, at 15, thought to be the youngest Saberite at the convention. He was able to attend because his mother had sprung for a bus ticket from Culver City—an early birthday present. By the time registration had wound down, Scharf was anxious. "Have you seen Bill James?" he asked everyone he met. "He will be here, won't he?" Scharf demanded of Gagnon, who reassured him. "I hear he's really tall. I've read all his Abstracts. Have you read his Abstracts?"
In this quaking eagerness to meet James, young Scharf was not alone. Best known since 1977 for his annual Baseball Abstract, James is a cult figure among computer-oriented baseball filberts. In 1983, columnist George Will referred to the Abstract as the most important scientific treatise "since Newton's Principia" Several years earlier James had coined "sabermetrics," a term for the statistical analysis of baseball.
Certainly, the Society was flattered. Sabermetrics the word, however, has since lent SABR the organization a computerish, number-crunching connotation that doesn't sit so well with some of the old boys.
Evidence of a modest rift surfaced during member presentations in the Regency ballroom (where else?). These 10-and 15-minute lectures, grist for the Saberites' mills, ranged from Gary Skoog's instructive but arid "A Study of Computer Uses in Baseball" to Ed (Dutch) Doyle's animated "Babe Ruth as a Player for the [Philadelphia] Ascension Catholic Club." On finishing his anecdote, Doyle, a tough old Philadelphian, brandished a green photo album and told the audience, "I brought clippin's an' pitchers soze you wouldn't think I was feeding you a buncha stuff." The society—much of it, anyway—roared its appreciation.
B. Davis Jackson, in real life a CPA and an accomplished statistical analyst, looks like a wan Nolan Ryan. He addressed the subject, "Stadium Effects on Left/Right Matchups."
Even more impressive than his talk was the poise with which Jackson worked his way out of a bases-loaded jam during questions and answers. Formidable Allan Roth, a statistician from the old school, stretched to his full height, crooked his thumbs under wide, polyester lapels and asked Jackson, almost too leisurely, "Did you say you compute errors into your on-base percentages, or did I hear you incorrectly?" Jackson admitted he did indeed. Scolded Roth, "That statistic has never been computed that way!"
"I use the data I find most useful," said Jackson, with finality. That got him out of the inning.
Moderator Zitrin—the lawyer on the golf cart, remember?—worked quickly to dissolve the tension. Having promised earlier not to give a dry talk, he removed his shirt before his own lecture, "The History of RABs and TIBs." RABs, he explained, are the number of at bats it takes to score a run, a distant cousin of on-base percentage, only better. RAB ingredients can be gleaned right out of the morning paper, which is vitally important to Zitrin and the nine other owners of hypothetical teams in the Pacific Ghost League.
TIBs, tibbies, or teammates batted in, are just RBIs minus home runs. "We're very serious about RABs and TIBs," said Zitrin.
Who was the greatest RABer in history? Naturally, the society was curious. "Babe Ruth scored every 3.86 times he came to the plate," said Zitrin, his tone hushed. There was a moment of profound silence.
Several hours elapsed. Afternoon became early evening as speaker after speaker kept the Saberites on the edges of their folding chairs. Once, a visitor whose thoughts had drifted above the windowless ballroom to the hotel pool and beyond (it was said to be sunny out) was abruptly picked off base. Mere milliseconds after someone had misstated Ty Cobb's lifetime average as .361, vigilant members shouted ".367!" in startling, spontaneous unison.
Is there life after the Brooklyn Dodgers? Jay Feldman mulled poignantly over this question in the last discourse of the day. Afterward, Nancy Ozsogomonyan, dubbed Nancy O early on—the convention's three-day duration necessitated the contraction—embraced Feldman. Ozsogomonyan had been moved to tears.
Glad surprises awaited society members when they got back to their hotel rooms. Chocolate wafers wrapped in green foil rested on fluffed pillows, and covers had been expertly turned down.
Austerity had characterized several previous conventions, held on or near college campuses to cut costs. "Fewer distractions than in an urban setting," was another reason given for the spartan accommodations. But some doubt this. A SABR member's capacity for distraction abandons him when baseball is under discussion.
Lest readers be misled, 300 is not the highest attendance a SABR convention has had. The '84 event at Brown University in Providence attracted 350. Much as it would have loved a record, the society contented itself with talk of how far SABR had come since its inception.
One afternoon in 1971, when SABR could fit in a Volkswagen bus, founder L. Robert Davids and his officers sat at his dining room table, drafting a constitution. Davids, a retired federal bureaucrat and generally august personage, prophesied the day would come when "we'll have 50 members."
Membership has since ballooned—"geometrically" and "exponentially" are the SABR adverbs of preference.
Once, SABR's main sales vehicle was just plain old word of mouth. Now the society puts out three publications a year, including the annual Baseball Research Journal, which has featured such SABR classics as Baseball, the Counterclockwise Sport, Moses Solomon, the Rabbi of Swat and Which Way for Wichita in 1887?
Growing pains, however, beget bugaboos. In rumbling syllables sweetened by the South, Charles Harville of Greensboro, N.C. cast doubt on "the need to always be doublin' and triplin' our membership. I think you reach a saturation point."
"We're getting too many collectors in here," says Vern Luse, one of four SABR board members. "Remember, all this was begun by researchers, and baseball historians." Luse is the envy of the biographical research committee because he has his own microfilm reader. He pronounced "collectors" in a tone others usually reserve for words like "dandruff."
All weekend, a certain distrust swirled around SABR's computerization committee, those Young Turks of the new order. From his encampment on a sofa in the Hyatt lobby Dutch Doyle said, "There's never been a speech by one of 'em that anyone's understood but themselves. These guys don't go to the ballpark. They play with numbers."
This mentality wore a bit thin on Shellie Garrett, a political consultant from Daly City. "Computers are just tools that make us more efficient," he said. "Twenty thousand old ladies sorting papers. That's a computer!"
A most unlikely troika, James, Roth and Pete Palmer, sat abreast onstage at a "Sabermetrics panel." As featured speakers, they found themselves being prodded into making controversial statements. James spoke well and delighted the assemblage at one point by sharing this suspicion: "I think Billy Martin is the kind of guy who throws the statistical reports in the wastebasket—and then, when everybody's gone, digs them out and looks at them."
Palmer, who has a brilliant though sometimes inaccessible mind, was asked to explain his Linear Weights System of evaluating players. "Sure," he said, "it's simple." Whether or not it was simple was left hanging. Instead of explaining his theory, Palmer lapsed into several minutes of what sounded like Greek.
"Pete's one smart baseball man," said Roth later. "But I'm going to hold off on that [theory] until they start winning games 2½-2." For his own part, Roth tended to ramble.
The big winner was panel moderator Gagnon. Once, after Skoog stood to make a particularly obscure series of points, Gagnon said, "I'd like to thank Gary for saying something at the end that I was able to understand." It brought down the house. During an argument about SABR's identity, Gagnon interjected, "We are not an organization of numbers freaks, or a computer club. That is just one aspect of how we look at the game." Two hours later he was reelected as SABR president.
"Cappy gets along with everybody," said Doyle, amiably. "He's a nice young man."
A nice young man whose biographical research committee members spend many of their leisure hours in cemeteries and newspaper morgues. Sure they find it a little ghoulish. But what can you say when duty calls? One of SABR's chief aims, as stated in its constitution, is "to establish an accurate historical account of baseball through the years." Every year, SABR presents Macmillan with pages and pages of corrections to its Encyclopedia.
Common to each of the research committees—SABR's vital organs—is this passion for accuracy, for the picayune. This was what A's owner Roy Eisenhardt targeted toward the end of his banquet speech. "The point of this game is the minutiae, the subtleties," he said. "And I love it that some fans care so deeply. It's unbelievable how much they care."
Then the society stood and applauded Eisenhardt, perhaps having recognized themselves in his remarks. Among those clapping was Blasco, who drove back to Van Nuys the next day. Blasco will continue to pick through parched clippings, twice weekly, in the L.A. sports museum.
If there is a SABR god, if a picture of Pete Lamer exists somewhere, Blasco will most likely find it by July, when this year's convention is in Chicago.