By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Put down those peanuts and Cracker Jacks and pay attention:
And don't you forget it.
Okay, unfair. David Pietrusza cringes every time an outsider sees the Society for American Baseball Research as a collection of mere number-crunchers--as 6,300 squinty baseball nerds tripping over their wing tips en route to the records room at Cooperstown. It's not that Pietrusza doesn't appreciate mathematician/member Gabriel B. Costa's formula for determining a batter's Total Power Quotient (TPQ). Because he does. In fact, he's also studied accountant/fan Anthony Blengino's elaborate series of graphs measuring the effectiveness of relief pitchers, and he's found those edifying. So, too, Joseph Donner's complete list of "Four or More Long Hits in a Game," 1885-1991.
It's just that there's more to SABR. Much more. "As I like to say," Pietrusza says, "there are many rooms in the SABR mansion."
In reality, the "mansion" is a post office box in Cleveland. But since 1971, when the society was founded by sixteen baseball "statistorians," it has been a vortex for the national pastime's arcana and minutiae, an information service for writers and reporters, a clearinghouse for obscure baseball opinion and, quite often, the place where long-established fictions are at last corrected.
Still think Ty Cobb won the American League batting title in 1910? Well, he didn't. Napoleon Lajoie did. But before SABR researchers uncovered the error a couple of years back, neither the AL nor the Baseball Encyclopedia knew that one of Cobb's games got counted twice back in '10.
In fact, Pietrusza says, twentieth-century American League record-keeping leaves a lot to be desired in general. The Senior Circuit has done a better job.
Fine. But now Pietrusza, a former city councilman from Amsterdam, New York, who was elected president of SABR last year, wants to show off those other rooms in the mansion.
Particularly the playroom.
The 44-year-old fan--nineteenth-century baseball and the New York Mets are his personal passions--was in Denver two weekends ago for SABR's quarterly board meetings. Very serious business. But somehow, these professors of the game managed to conclude their business each day in time to see the Rockies' starter throw the first pitch to the Cubs lead-off man out at Mile High Stadium. Funny how things work out.
"At the ballpark, we're just like all the other fans," Pietrusza says. "Sitting in the sunshine enjoying the game."
In fact, the SABR membership is a startlingly diverse lot. The walking computers--personified by statistical wizard Bill James, the originator of "SABR-metrics" and "Total Average" --still pay their $35 annual dues. But so do actor Michael Moriarty (the star of Bang the Drum Slowly), former Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell, Dodgers president Peter O'Malley, Red Sox GM Lou Gorman, former AL president Lee MacPhail and an all-star roster of baseball authors including Roger Angell, Larry Ritter, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Okrent and Pete Palmer. Conservative columnist, Cubs fan and Men at Work author George Will was a SABR member, but, as Pietrusza dryly points out, "his check got lost in the mail last year." From Tokyo to Tarrytown, SABR also has its share of doctors, lawyers, dockworkers, writers and grocery-baggers.
"We've been pigeonholed as trivia nuts and number-crunchers," the commish--er, president--says. "But what we really are is a fraternity of baseball lovers interested in answering questions, disseminating baseball information and sharing a passion. We deal with the lore and personalities of the game as much as the Social Security numbers. We have our look-it-up guys and our Rain Man guys. I'm a look-it-up guy myself. I don't even know my own license number."
Other SABR-ites know some very strange numbers. At the last national convention, the annual trivia contest--contested as fiercely as the seventh game of the World Series--was finally won by a fellow who knew what player's name was found at the bottom left of page such-and-such of the seventh edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia. No kidding.
Meanwhile, SABR has clearly branched out. Last year the society revived Base-Ball: How to Become a Player, a revealing 1888 treatise on the game written by John Montgomery Ward, who pitched the second perfect game in major-league history before converting into one of the game's greatest shortstops. Next month it will publish an authoritative encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues. A baseball education program for schools and an on-line information service are in the works, and SABR has come out with its own line of jerseys and caps.
"Unfortunately," Ward wrote, "some men are not able to intelligently explain the theory of base-ball, while others are so engrossed with the game that they do not care to be disturbed."
True, but this affliction is still rare among SABR's baseball-mad members. The society's two annual anthologies, the arcane Baseball Research Journal and the more "popular" National Pastime, are treasure houses of history, lore and nit-picking theoretical constructs. In last year's editions, you'll find a profile of NL umpire George Magerkurth, who plied his trade in the Forties, and a remembrance of the Louisville Colonels' season of 1890. R.D. Emslie uncovered a 1908 umpire's account of the infamous Fred "Bonehead" Merkle incident, and Bob Klein held forth for four pages on the criteria for retiring uniform numbers.