Extra inning baseball book reviews for 2020: SABR rattles us with 50 big ones

A Dodgers’ 1954 team photo of the Montreal Royals includes Roberto Clemente (bottom left), and the reason for his inclusion on this team instead of the Dodgers’ Major League club in Brooklyn is the subject of one of the 50 contributions to this new SABR 50th anniversary book.

SABR 50 at 50
The Society for American Baseball Research’s Fifth Most Essential Contributions to the Game

The editor:

Bill Nowlin

The associate editors:
Mark Armour
Scott Bush
Leslie Heaphy
Jacob Pomrenke
Cecilia Tan
John Thorn

The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
632 pages
Out today, Sept. 1, 2020

The links:
At thepublisher’s website
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com
At Powells.com
At Indiebound.org
At the SABR website

The review in 90 feet or less

What 50 things did we learn about the Society of American Baseball Research from this book put together by one well respected editor, six associate editors, 51 contributors, 53 photos, 57 tables and a deceiving light three pounds later?

It’s more like 50 times 500. Divided by many filters and opinions.

When SABR was first conceived by a group of 16 people who convened in Cooperstown, N.Y. in August, 1971, we had already seen the first real push toward how to harness more accessible statistics provided by the launch of the Baseball Encyclopedia in the summer of 1969.

With that book’s 50th anniversary celebrated in 2019 with those still around to enjoy the recognition – as we described in this Los Angeles Times story a year ago and posted on the SABR site and which we expanded on TheDrillLA.com – it was inevitable that SABR get its golden anniversary party as well with something that may not even be enough to satisfy a true seam head.

Or simply a “baseball nerd,” as MLB official historian (since 2011) John Thorn lovely calls the collection that could be estimated at around 6,000 these days.

thorneFrom Thorn, who writes the introduction as well as one of his own pieces picked among the 50 selections (along with co-authoring another), the true heartbeat of this non-secret society comes to light. Thorn’s resume of having done eight editions of the “Hidden Game of Baseball” and working with Geoffrey C. Ward on Ken Burns’ 1994 “Baseball” documentary

If only from the intro, you can be dazzled by realizing SABR has published some 1,500 stories since 1972 for its editions of “The Baseball Journal,” another 1,000 since 1982 for “The National Pastime,” and then pounded out more than 5,000 entries in its Biography project and 2,000 additional for its Games project.

So how do you just boil it down to 50 entries that convey what SABR has been all about? This is more a chronological portrait that starts with a 1973 piece by Fred Lieb – a profile of Ernie Lanigan, who created the first sort of baseball encyclopedia in 1922. From there one can see the now rudimentary charts and graphics that had to be cranked out from a typewriter keyboard onto paper to make any sense about pre-Wins Above Replacement stats that could help anyone compare current players to the past.

It is also wise that Thorn’s single-written entry for Chapter 35 entry – “Pots & Pans and Bats & Balls,” which is taken from a keynote speech he delivered at a 2007 SABR meeting that came from the topic: “How Did We Come to Understand the History of the Game?” – gets into the important distinction of separating fact from fiction.

“So much of what today passes muster as history was created as propaganda or simple cheerleading, from the fibs of Henry Chadwick and Albert Spaulding, to the pinning of Jim Crieghton’s death on crick rather than baseball. … Another description of The Past might be ‘what binds and sustains,’ or mythology. …. In the hands of nearly all its practitioners today, baseball history is a moated activity, in which ‘what happened’ is all that matters. … A century later we find ourselves still in the realm of eyewitnesses, as history is a term now accorded to events very recently transpired, and today’s scribes may accord more importance to documents. … Baseball history is not so different from other forms, in the end. Solid research and command of the evidence underlie all of it. ..
“It seems to me that what is lacking in baseball history is its last five letters … baseball must be pushed by event, driven by character and have a freight-train narrative drive. As with a novel, there must be truth of fact and a truth of feeling, illuminated by sensibility. In short, we may not, in the name of accuracy, neglect the speculative and aesthetic possibilities in baseball history … Rather than depersonalize the writing of history, we should fess up to its intrinsically subjective element – the historian – and make way for passion, for intimations of sentiment of not sentimentality …There may be no ‘I’ in ‘team’ but there is one in ‘history’ … and there ought to be in the writing of it.”

From there, it gives a new perspective on how we revisit stories.

Such as the one Thorn and Jules Tygiel did on “The Real Story” of Jackie Robinson’s signing (Chapter 16).

Or the evolution of the baseball diamond by Tom Shieber (Chapter 19). And especially those who believe they know all about how the Dodgers tried to hide Roberto Clemente in their Montreal farm team before the Pirates figured it out, but have Stew Thornley trying to set the record straight by pulling up 21st century correspondence with Buzzie Bavasi (Chapter 33). Thorn is also referenced in a piece by William R. Cobb trying to find out if the father of Ty Cobb (no relation) was killed by his wife with a shotgun or a revolver (Chapter 39). Yes, history, for accuracy’s sake, gets a little demanding sometimes.

Why perpetuate myth? For its beauty of a narrative. Why have facts muck things up? For accuracy and reference and record keeping.

Why do this book: To mark history, review the mythology and understand the importance of both in telling the story of baseball.

How it goes in the scorebook

A complete-game victory, 50 games up in the standings, with enough energy and force to show anyone from another planet who happens upon a green diamond to wonder why so many care so much about one game, this would be the departing gift to take back and perhaps teach someone else in another solar system that this is a key part of Earth life.

Hail SABR, and a toast to your USPS man when he lugs this thing up onto your porch and drops it with a glorious thud.

And huge congratulations to Mark Armour, Bob Bailey, Philip Bergen, Gai Ingham Berlage, Phil Birnbaum, Peter C. Bjarkman, Clifford Blau, Gene Carney, Jerrold Casway, William R. Cobb, Warren Corbett, Richard D. Cramer, L. Robert Davids, Mark Fimoff, D. B. Firstman, Robert K. Fitts, Duke Goldman, Peter B. Gregg, Bill Haber, Gary D. Hailey, Leslie Heaphy, John R. Husman, Bill James, Clifford S. Kachline, Stephen R. Keeney, Bill Kirwin, Herm Krabbenhoft, William F. Lamb, Larry Lester, Daniel R. Levitt, Matthew Levitt, Frederick G. Lieb, Karl Lindholm, Jerry Malloy, Tom Melville, Peter Morris, Leonard S. Newman, Keith Olbermann, Heather M. O’Neill, Joseph M. Overfield, Pete Palmer, Lawrence S. Ritter, Tom Shieber, David Shoebotham, David W. Smith, Steve Steinberg, A. D. Suehsdorf, John Thorn, Stew Thornley, Jules Tygiel, and William J. Weiss.

Party on.

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