Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Baseball Historians Get Their own Hall of Fame

From my friend Alan Schwarz of the New York Times...

For almost 40 years, the Society for American Baseball Research has painstakingly unearthed and saluted the accomplishments of long-forgotten contributors to the game. Now it will honor the stars of its own: by creating, in effect, the Baseball Historian Hall of Fame.

SABR announced on Monday the inaugural class of winners of its new Henry Chadwick Award -– (fittingly) nine people whose work is far better known, even among casual fans, than most realize.

Among them are Lawrence Ritter, author of The Glory of Their Times, and Bill James, whose Baseball Abstract series shaped a whole generation of curious fans. But I was particularly heartened to see two other names on that inaugural list: David Neft and Pete Palmer.

Neft put together the first real baseball encyclopedia, which was released in 1969. Baseball writers dubbed it "Big Mac" because it was published by Macmillan and because it contained almost 2500 pages. Neft led a team that painstakingly reconstructed the historical record by computerizing the day-by-day records of every man who had played in the majors. It was groundbreaking work. Today, we take for granted the minute detail of baseball's record at our fingertips. No other institution of human existence is so well documented. Neft went on to found his own company and publish annual encyclopedias for baseball, football, and basketball that stood as the gold standard in their respective fields. In football, Neft once again reconstructed the game's early history. The NFL did not keep any statistics before 1932, so Neft and his team slogged through old newspaper stories and built the historical record one game at at time, eventually publishing the first football encyclopedia that contained any player statistics in 1978.

I've never met David Neft, but his work influenced me in profound ways. I bought a copy of his Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball in 1985, picked it up at a used book store for a couple of dollars, and for the first time immersed myself deeply in the game's history. Much of what I know about the teams and the players came from the countless hours I spent flipping through that book, and my first attempts at building a baseball database used that dog-earred book as the primary source. That book also prompted my fascination with the sports reference genre, and over the years I have accumulated a large collection of sports encyclopedias, several hundred, many of which bear his name.

I was also very glad to see Pete Palmer's name among the inaugural nine. I had the great pleasure of meeting and working with Pete when I was with Total Sports, but his work had a profound impact on me long before that. I still remember the day when I stumbled across his book The Hidden Game of Baseball at a local bookstore in 1984 (written with John Thorn). I was 16, and in those days before Amazon and Barnes and Noble, the "sports section" of the bookstore consisted of about 15 titles. You think you know everything when you're 16, but as I skimmed through the first few pages, I felt the world change, and suddenly I was looking at the game I loved in a very different way. More than any of the concepts that Palmer wrote about, just the idea that there were other people who gave deep thought to analyzing the game and making sense of the numbers... it opened a whole new world for me.

Hidden Game was the bible for statistical analysis, and a few years later I carried that book with me to college, where I tracked down all of the old books and articles in the bibliography. That book unlocked the world of baseball research for me and invited me into a great fraternity of like minded folks.

Neither Pete Palmer or David Neft will be enshrined in Cooperstown, but this is the next best thing. They deserve the highest praise, along with the seven other inductees. I'm not only happy for them to receive this honor, but proud that we as a group could honor them.