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June 28, 2008: SABR Day Three

Here, we are, day three, the final full day of the SABR convention for the year. Tomorrow has an awards breakfast I won’t be attending (I was trying to do this convention on the cheap), and that is about it. So this will be my final report from the lovely, baseball-crazy city of Cleveland.

I may have mentioned in earlier chronicles that one of the ways I judge how baseball-crazed a part of the country is, is by counting how many baseball and softball diamonds one can see when coming in to land at the airport. Coming in to Logan, for example, you can count literally a hundred fields from just a few minutes before landing. Orient Heights alone has a dozen. (Whereas the Dallas area… not so much.) Cleveland definitely counts.

The morning’s first session was by Jeff Katz, who has just written a book on his presentation subject: how the Kansas City A’s were essentially a farm club for the Yankees. (The book is The Kansas CIty A’s and the Wrong Half of the Yankees published by Maple Street Press.) This is not ground-breaking news–it’s common knowledge and was widely lambasted in the press during the era when it was going on (1954 to 1960). But Katz’s research uncovered some really wonderfully damning evidence, including letters of Walter O’Malley bitching about the situation, and such. If you’re not familiar with the story, it goes something like this. When Connie Mack was trying to sell the financially ruined A’s, a man name Arnold Johnson wanted to buy them. At the time, he had just bought Yankee Stadium and he stadium of the Kansas City Blues,the Yankees’ farm team in KC, from Del Webb. Some AL owners opposed the team sale to Johnson, including Calvin Griffith in Washington and one or two others. Mack even organized a syndicate to try to buy the team and keep it in Philadelphia. And Charles Finley was also interested in buying the A’s.

But the fix was in, and after a few fruitless meetings, the team was sold to Johnson, who then hired Del Webb’s construction company to rebuild the Blues’ stadium for a major league team. The entire font office of the A’s consisted of former Yankees employees. In the 5 years before Johnson had bought the team, the Yankees had made 28 trades, only two with the Philadelphia A’s. In the five years after he bought the team, the Yankees made 29 trades, 16 of them with Johnson’s KC A’s. And pretty much every trade was in the Yankees’ favor. When Enos Slaughter wasn’t doing that well, they dumped him in KC. Then when he rejuvenated and became KC MVP, the Yankees gt him back.. for the waiver price. Ralph Terry was sent to KC for 2 years for some seasoning, then brought back to New York when he began to excel. (Not mentioned in the presentation, but I will here: KC Is also where Billy Martin was exiled after the Copacabana incident.)

The relationship was so blatant that when the A”s traded for Roger Maris, various Yankees weer hear to remark in the clubhouse “We got Maris, we got Maris,” and although Clete Boyer was a bonus baby for the A’s, meaning he had o stay on their roster for a minimum of two years…. they gave him to the Yankees before that. Rumor also was that he ha been signed with “Yankee money,” and indeed in later years Tom Greenwade, the famous Yankee scout who signed Mickey Mantle, would talk about Boyer being one of “his” boys on the pennant winning clubs.

What put a stop to it was Johnson’s death in 1960, after which the team was sold to Charlie Finley. A photograph that appeared in the newspaper depicted Finley standing next to a schoolbus on fire with gouts of smoke pouring from it. Painted on the side of the bus were the words “Shuttle Bus To Yankee Stadium.”

I then made a last swing through the book dealers room. I was about to leave to go find some lunch while the banquet was going on when a friend gave me his banquet ticket because he decided to spend the time in the microfilm stacks of the Cleveland Public Library.

I sat with Merrie Fidler, author of a great book on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (The Origins and History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League). The cheesecake was quite delicious, and Mark Armour won the Bob Davids award for service to SABR.

The keynote speaker was Ron Shapiro, who is a motivational speaker who writes business how-to books, also a lawyer, and also one of the first baseball agents when free agency came along. He had close ties to the Orioles, was Cal Ripken Jr.’s agent, as well as Minnesota’s Kirby Puckett, and many others. He told a number of anecdotes about the Orioles of the late 70s and 1980s, including a hilarious one about Len Sakata that I can’t do justice to. Then he gave a 20 minute motivational talk on how to “Dare to Prepare,” which is the theme of the book he recently wrote (on mega sale right now through Amazon: Dare to Prepare, and a copy of which was given to every attendee of the luncheon. It was odd because it felt a little like a sales pitch, and yet he wasn’t selling us the book–we all already had a copy. I conclude that he really believes what he says and like an Evangelist loves telling others and helping others. As it turned out, I found a LOT Of what he said to be right on target to the turnaround my small publishing business is having (or hopefully having). It still seemed odd to preach it to a SABR audience, but, at least it wasn’t boring.

After that came a “roundtable’ which was really just a Q&A session with Ron’s son Mark Shapiro, the GM of the Indians, and Mike Veeck (son of Bill Veeck as in Wreck and the man once known as the creator of Disco Demolition Night, bu now better known as the genius behind the St. Paul Saints and the author of a how-to-succeed book himself called Fun Is Good.)

The questions ranged far and wide. Among the tidbits I jotted down because they are of interest to me, Veeck said that 46% of his minor league team fanbase is female, and that in Charleston, SC where he has a team they have worked a lot with the local community such that their African-American attendance is aruond 9%, which is twice the national average. Shapiro admitted he is not involved at all on the marketing side of things, but he acknowledged that although they want to please purists, the flat truth of the matter is that the team needs to appeal to “people who are not white 50-70 year olds.” Which I thought was a gutsy thing to say to a group like SABR which is, well, mostly white 50-70 year olds. But people seemed to respect his honesty, if not the answer itself. One member asked how Veeck would market SABR itself, which has a desire to be not just a haven for that demographic. Veeck said “I would use a photo of [names a member who is well known to the group and is a middle aged white guy], and caption it ‘We’re not just about beautiful figures.'” Which got a huge laugh. He went on to say emphasize what’s fun about SABR and people’s mutual love of the game.

I nearly forgot the other special event of the day from this morning, was the premiere of a new movie documentary, “Baseball Discovered,” which was made by MLB Advanced Media and which followed SABR member David Block on a trip to England in search of baseball’s ancestry. John Thorn is also prominently featured in the film, and after the one hour film was shown Block, Thorn, Tom Schieber of the Hall of Fame, and Sam Marchiano (the producer of the film for MLBAM) all spoke on a panel and took questions. The documentary is really great, and while in the UK making it, publicity about their filing led a woman in Surrey to bring forth an 18th century diary she had found in an old shed which clearly has the earliest recorded written mention of baseball, in the 1755 diary of one William Bray. And by wild coincidence, there is a Bill Bray pitching in the major leagues right now who is a relative of his! Not only that, Bll Bray pitched in the game LAST NIGHT for Cincinnati, which meant he was in town! MLBAM invited him to the premiere, too, and he got up and said a few words about how awesome it was to be connected to the history of the game that way. Really neat.

There is no DVD on sale yet. It will son be available on iTunes, will stream from mlb.com (www.mlb.com/baseballdiscovered/) and soon will be distributed (still being worked out).

I made sure not to miss David W. Smith’s presentation on the Importance of Strike One (art 2). He started this topic last year and continued it. Using Retrosheet pitch by pitch data, he analyzed over 3.4 million plate appearances and over 13 million pitches. Among the things he found: batters foul off a lot more pitches now than they did in previous eras, and that the path one takes to get the first strike or to 1-1 matters. Batters who swung and missed on the first pitch or the second pitch weer likely to do badly in he at bat even if they worked the count full later. He described perfectly the “first pitch dilemma.” The pitcher is suppose to “get ahead in the count” by throwing a strike, but if the batter puts the first ball in play, his chances of getting a hit are much higher than on later pitches in the at bat. So he has to throw a strike, but not give him anything good to hit. Hmm.

Then Pete Palmer and Dick Cramer repeated their 35 year old study on clutch hitting, but with using he more and better data now available, to see if Bill James’ assertion that perhaps clutch hitting does exist, we merely haven’t been able to isolate it from the statistical “fog” of randomness around it. The new conclusion for Palmer and Cramer was the same: clutch hitting probably doesn’t exist and that the fog is still really darn thick. David Ortiz really did have two extraordinary years in 2005 and 2006 though.

My brain was full at that point, so I did not see the last two research presentations, and went off to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum.

As it turns out, the museum is having a “Baseball Rocks!” exhibit, which was really neat and interesting, combining stuff from their own collection with memorabilia from the Baseball Heritage Museum, for an exhibit that could easily ave fit right in at the Cooperstown National Baseball Hall of Fame. It was basically a lot of juxtaposition of popular music artifacts like sheet music and 78 and 45 records with baseball memorabilia and text describing the importance of each thing. Like sheet music from the 1858 “Base Ball Polka”–the earliest known published baseball song–written by J. R. Blodgett, who played with the Niagara Base Ball Club of Buffalo, NY. Or the 1935 song, by Eleanor Gehrig and Fred Fisher, “I Can’t Get To First Base With You,” the cover of which showed Lou (smoking a cigarette and looking very Hollywood) with an inset of Eleanor and both of their signatures printed on. They also connected the emergence of black entertainers into the fledgling rock and roll in popular music with Jackie Robinson breaking the color line. Apparently Denny McLain played the organ at a professional level (he apparently had to do organ practice before baseball) and that George Thorogood played semi-pro ball before making it as a musician.

I finished off the night with friends and a beer at the Bier Markt, a place with a fantastically large selection of belgian beers, and also delicious pomme frite (fries) with flavored mayo belgian style to go with. Yum.

So, signing off from another great SABR Convention. Next summer will be in downtown Washington DC!

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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