Never the off-season in baseball Research: The pastime moves indoors when the teams aren't playing. Fans, former players and others head to books and microfilm for mental warm-ups that might aid publications.

Sun Journal

December 28, 1997|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LAUREL -- Now baseball has moved indoors. Now is the season of bookshelf, microfilm reader, get-together with other students of the game at a Great Western motel here. Now to assay what all went on, or broke off, during 1997 or any other year.

The Washington-Baltimore Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research is in annual, daylong session. Old and young, men and women, 80-some members of SABR (pronounced "saber") start with mental warm-ups. Bob Davids presides.

Who are the only two brothers to have pitched no-hitters in the majors? Easy. Ken and Bob Forsch, National League, 1970s.

What pitcher beat the most teams? A pause; then, "Jim Kaat, 28 different ones." Correct.

Which president, while in office, attended the most regular-season games? Silence.

Dave Vincent, a computer-systems engineer, doubles as a Carolina League scorer; he challenges the crowd to call out the scoring for complicated plays.

Then Mamie "Peanuts" Johnson, one of three women who played in the Negro Leagues, talks about the Indianapolis Clowns. Jimmy Williams, formerly an Orioles coach, decodes and re-enacts hand signals. Three scouts recount the life of a talent-hunter.

Former players and current front-office staff attend most regional and national SABR assemblies.

Last month at Laurel, this was the Bob Davids Chapter, named for the 71-year-old retired federal speech writer and specialist in steals of home and inside-the-park homers who opened the program. Annual conventions draw 500-plus. Last June, in Louisville, Ky., members headed for the Hillerich & Bradsby factory to witness bat manufacture.

(Baltimore's most recent turn was in 1981. The Orioles treated the convention to seats for a home game, against Detroit. Whereupon Sparky Anderson, the Tiger manager, gave a luncheon speech, without fee.) Next June, San Francisco.

Last October the World Series arrived at SABR headquarters in Cleveland, a block and a half from Jacobs Field. SABR's windows, though, six stories up, face the wrong way. To the occasional ticket query, Morris Eckhouse, executive director, had a quick answer: "We weren't allotted any."

He went home, evenings, to cope with an 8-year-old son who, after two trips to Disney World, was favoring Florida.

Publishing

But a prospective brush with current or former major-leaguers isn't what induces 6,700 people up and down the continent to maintain membership, at $35 a year. "The single best thing SABR does is publish," says Norman Macht, a past secretary and treasurer. (Macht, author of many sports books, is SABR's most prominent Baltimore member.)

"When your research turns up something new, you may present a convention paper [a dandy, recently, was on baseball patents], or write an article for a SABR periodical or committee newsletter. Voila, you have become an authority. SABR's membership directory lists phone, postal and e-mail data. Then people are after you, for help with their research."

Bob Savitt, chairman for 1997's Baltimore-Washington regional, is writing a book about the Blue Ridge League (1915-1930, franchises in Cumberland, Hagerstown, Frederick and their neighbors). He seeks ballpark photos. That Class D rival, the Eastern Shore League (1922-1949, on and off) had half a dozen Maryland franchises; there are already two Eastern Shore League books.

Some subjects bear revisiting, thanks to new interviews or documents. If a trade publisher brings out your opus, SABR spreads the word, though a book review in its bimonthly $H newsletter.

Bibliography is one of SABR's research committees; there is now a book database. Ballparks, umpires, 19th century and a dozen others. The biographical committee bird-dogs date and place of every major-leaguer's birth and death, height, weight and right- or left-handedness. Its finds go to the baseball encyclopedias.

Box-score players, through 1996, totaled 14,611; in 1997, 160 more made the total 14,771. And published baseball books? As of 1996, that total was 15,286.

Three is the total of current, competing baseball encyclopedias: $20 (paperbound), $65, $100 (3,026 pages). Individual city encyclopedias are a coming thing.

"Many an American male," says Lois Nicholson, author of younger-reader bios of Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken and Ken Griffey, "given the choice, would rather see his name in the baseball encyclopedias than in Who's Who in America."

Founding

In 1971, the Sporting News cut back on old baseball articles. Bob Davids round-robined fellow historians, proposing that they organize. That August, 16 of them, in the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library at Cooperstown, N.Y., formed the Society for American Baseball Research. No other U.S. team sport has fomented such scholarly passion.

A star teen-age pitcher (same state as Bob Feller, different high school), Davids also compiles Baseball Briefs, an amusing roundup of the year's curiosities. Cecil Fielder, in his 1,059th major league game, finally steals a base. Mark McGwire hits many homers, but not since 1987 has he tripled.

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