The Research Process: Seymour Medal Winners Panel
Dorothy Seymour Mills, David Block, Tom Swift
Magnolia Chapter member Ken Fenster moderates a discussion with Dorothy Seymour Mills, David Block and Tom Swift about the ups and downs of the research process, from the formulation of original ideas all the way through to publication. The panelists will use examples from their own works to illustrate the difficulties researchers must face, and the strategies that were useful in meeting those challenges.
Ken Fenster is a Professor of History at Georgia Perimeter College, Clarkston campus. He joined SABR in the early 1990s. He has published articles and book reviews in The Baseball Research Journal, The National Pastime, Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, and The New Georgia Encyclopedia. He is co-editor of the 2010 convention publication. He received the McFarland-SABR award in 2004 and was awarded a Yoseloff-SABR grant in 2009.
Dorothy Seymour Mills is the co-author with Harold Seymour of the classic scholarly histories of early baseball for Oxford University Press (Baseball The Early Years; Baseball: The Golden Age; and Baseball: A Peopleâ€™s Game). She has detailed their work together in a memoir, A Woman’s Work: Writing Baseball History with Harold Seymour (McFarland 2007). During the convention she will be autographing her latest book, Chasing Baseball: Our Obsession with Its History, Numbers, People and Places (McFarland 2010), which is already in its second printing. Dorothy is honored by the annual presentation of the “Dr. Harold and Dorothy Seymour Award” and received the first medal herself. In 2010 she was among the first group of recipients of the Henry Chadwick Award, which honors the most important scholars of the game. Dorothy has published 25 books, not all in the field of baseball history, and at 82 years old is writing another.
David Block is a baseball historian and antiquarian whose research and writings have shed new light on the distant origins of the game. His landmark book on the subject, Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game is generally recognized as the authoritative work on the subject of baseball’s origins. It was the recipient of the 2006 SABR Seymour Medal, the 2006 NASSH book, named to the New York Times Reading List of sports books (2005), and was designated an “Outstanding Academic Title of 2005” by the American Library Association. David is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, and serves on the editorial board of “Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game.” He lives with his family in San Francisco.
Tom Swift is an award-winning author and journalist whose work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines. His book, Chief Benderâ€™s Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star, won the 2009 Seymour Medal, which honors the best work of baseball history of the year. The book tells the true story of Charles Albert Bender, the first Minnesota-born man inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and the most accomplished American Indian player of all time. Tom and his wife, Carrie, live with their two terriers, Barry and Tobias, in Northfield, Minnesota. Like boyhood hero Kent Hrbek, he throws right and bats left. His web site: Tom Swift.
Ken begins by introducing Dorothy’s work, pointing out that Dorothy will now be listed as a full co-author on the Oxford University Press re-issues of the Seymour volumes.
Dorothy speaks. “I think most people think that writers come up with the theme for a book, and then go out and research it to write the book. And then write the book. That would be logical! But mostly it happens that while you’re researching, the theme or idea for a book emerges, and you start writing, and you’re writing and researching at the same time, and it doesn’t happen quite so neatly. You find other things out as you are going along, and you have to change your ideas and reaarange as what you discover may differ from your expectations.”
Dorothy ended up having to re-arrange the whole section on women playing baseball in her book Chasing Baseball, because what she discovered about the game turned out to be quite different than her original expectations.
Research can also take you off on tangents you don’t expect. “While working on The People’s Game I learned that baseball was played in the 1870s in schools for Native Americans. Baseball was also being used in mission schools. To understand the childrens’ experience, I found some biographies about people who had grown up in those schools. And then I found the federal reports from the Department of Indian Affairs, which brought me to the government reports of the school superintendents, which led me to the discovery that some of the schools were still in existence. That led me to some important primary sources. Ultimately it became a whole chapter in the book that wouldn’t have been there in the original plan.”
“Research is like a treasure hunt, each thing leads you to another thing.”
“You might think that an autobiography would be easy, just remember everything and write it down! But I didn’t want to fall into the trap that some writers have run into where they get things wrong in their own books. So I had to travel to Cornell, where the Harold and Dorothy Seymour papers are archived. I discovered there that there were plenty of things I had forgotten that I had done, and that there were places I forgot I had gone. I studied the footnotes in the PhD thesis that I helped Seymour to write. Later, a reader came up to me to say it was remarkable how well I remembered the past. Ha! Fooled him! When you’re writing autobiography or biography, you have to fact check your subject. People’s memories are imperfect.”
Dorothy calls for a comprehensive update of the works she and Harold Seymour did, which ends in the 1940s. She describes work she did on military baseball, but what about how military baseball is doing now? Baghdad has a civilian baseball league now, but it must be related to the military somehow, isn’t it? What about prison baseball? I was able to write to the penitentiary directors who sent me copies of the prison newsletters written by the inmates themselves. Those kinds of primary sources are vital. You can start in the card catalog of your local library, but you can go so far beyond that.
Some more of Dorothy’s tips:
You can email Dave Kelly, the librarian at the Library of Congress who specializes in helping sports historians. Dave’s email firstname.lastname@example.org
Sign up for Google alerts.
Always check Wikipedia with another source.
Use the SABR Guide to doing Baseball Research, which is available free to SABR members in email from Peter Garver at the SABR office: email@example.com
David Block is up next.
David: It was a great honor for me to win the Seymour Medal because it bears the name Seymour, which was very significant to me. As Ken mentioned, Dorothy and Harold transformed the way baseball research was done. Before them, baseball history was treated as storytelling, and although the stories were good, they were not always very accurate. The work we do now in SABR is really in the footsteps of the work they did.
I took an early retirement about 10 years ago, and discovered retirement wasn’t as easy as I thought it was. I didn’t have a schedule to follow and I was kind of rattling around the house and my wife threatened to send me back to work if I didn’t stop complaining. I had a hobby at the time on baseball memorabilia collecting, and I started collecting books in particular. I started a modest project to make a bibliography of old biographies and books before 1860 that mention baseball. While proceeding on this bibliography I thought well I’ll write an introduction to it on where baseball came from. I knew Abner Doubleday hadn’t invented it. I started reading a lot of books the talked about the origins of baseball, and discovered that most of it was anecdotal and much of it was contradictory. This really puzzled me, since baseball history since the Seymours it has been studied and dissected as much as any other sport. Every other era of baseball history had been focused on except the beginning.
I got into researching it and discovered so much of what had been written was inaccurate. Eventually my research for this introduction ended up turning into a whole book.
Because the era of baseball I was researching many people didn’t even know existed, I had to look in a lot of little corners. I started by gathering all the baseball histories I could find, and itemizing all these pieces of information, and then going off and seeing which ones I could corroborate. Many I could, but many I couldn’t. I looked in sources like the Oxford English Dictionary and English regional glossaries. Trap ball, hand in hand out, stop ball, and many other games that led to the development of baseball. Many of these would list “first usage” which would lead me to a primary source. At the time I had to visit a lot of libraries in the course of my research, since it was before the digitization of library catalogs and sources. I would find in the card catalogs things like children’s books that were a major source of information for me, as well as books on folk games, et cetera. Many of the illustrations from the very early game come out of books for children.
It was really fun. It was really a treasure hunt. I would see a reference someplace and I would try to follow it as far as I could. Many of them were dead ends, but sometimes you’d find a pot of gold at the end of it. Robert Henderson had done some good work in the 1940s but he had barely scratched the surface, plus he did all ball sports, not just baseball. When you stumble into an era of baseball history that no one else has done serious extensive work in, it’s a privilege and a responsibility, because you’ll be reporting on something that no one else has before. The people in the SABR chapter in the UK has done a lot of work now, and Tom’s essay A Place Level Enough to Play Ball was a very inspiration piece for me.
Obstacles in this area of research were formidable. The previous 150 years were packed with misinformation and the opinions on baseball’s origins were largely based on things other than facts. National chauvinism, politics, opinions, falsehoods, and many other assumptions, yarns, and stories — I had to wade my way through to find out how the game really started. I don’t know if I successfully wove my way through all those obstacles. Sometimes there were partial truths. The whole debate between Chadwick and Spalding about whether baseball was English or American in origin. It was an important debate a hundred years ago, but neither of them was quite right. Chadwick argued it was English, which is correct, and that it developed from rounders, which is incorrect. Baseball actually pre-dated rounders in the early 18th century, rounder came in the 19th century.
There are great gaps in what we know. How did it migrate to the New World? There’s a lot of that history that remains to be uncovered. I encourage anyone who is interested to get involved. With the increase in digital databases, it’s possible to research much more than when I started.
Be skeptical. I constantly ran into things that weren’t what they purported to be. Even this past year as I continue to do research, I was in England and I saw a reference to a diary from Lancashire that had been transcribed from the 17th century and mentioned baseball, but I eventually found the 1870s transcription and it wasn’t baseball. It was a game called prisoners bars or prisoners base, which is a form of tag. This guy who transcribed it in 1870 substituted the word baseball incorrectly. You get a lot of false positives.
“Writing a book is a horrible exhausting struggle. One would never undertake such a thing if not driven by a demon one cannot exist or understand.” said George Orwell, and quoted by Tom to open his remarks.
I do not, alas, have the level of experience (of Dorothy and David on the panel), but what I lack in longevity I make up for in the ability to concentrate years of trials and tribulations into a short period of time.
The impetus behind me book. I am from Minnesota, “you betcha.” And for 50 years Charles Bender was out lone representative in the Hall of Fame. And when Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield were inducted, the newspaper articles would keep mentioning Bender. I even wrote a magazine article about him, but the more i learned about Bender the more I wanted to learn about him.
He pitched in 5 World Series, he may have invented the slider. But I was drawn to his life story as a compelling human interest story. This question of where did you get the idea is appropriate since I get that one more frequently from journalists and readers. It’s all a lot less complicated that people think. What interests you? You live with your subject, for years in my case, so you better like him or her. Bender fascinated me and if he didn’t there’s no way I could have written the book.
I’ve been a writer all my professional life, on mostly un-glamorous stuff. It could become mere drudgery. I had to skip a few stones on the pond to see if it would interest me. Reading and then following your curiosity. Were I to catalog all the challenges I faced, most of them self-inflicted, you’d probably miss your flights or your ride home. Every aspects of it was a challenge to me. I actually consulted that SABR How To Manual.
My journalism background helped. But most of the stories and articles I had written in my career were in the hear and now. I was interviewing subjects and writing in the present. But this was a steep learning curve. It took me far longer than I think it would take most people. But in some ways I had the advantage of ignorance. The road to baseball research is littered with apocryphal tales and preconceived notions. But since I was learning it all new, I was able to come to it without trying to fit it into a preconceived tale and ask very basic questions.
I was very inefficient. I gathered from a lot of sources, many of them were not essential. I read well beyond what I needed to, but it was important to me to gather up as much as I could. It was a slow process for me, and not always an emotionally easy one. I had to restructure my life in some ways. There are those who can do it just on evenings and weekends and still have jobs and kids and grandkids. I couldn’t. I ended up working fewer hours and earning less, and putting a lot of pressure on myself so that the people in this room would find it good. I thought about abandoning it more than once, I suppose, and I wrote in fits and starts. My spouse talked me down from the ledge more than once. One time my computer hard drive fried. I lost a lot of writing, some typing of notes, and fortunately as I was going through all those microfilm reels I was printing a lot of stuff out. So I could retrace my steps. But here’s one bit of advice. Back up your files! Every night!
Also, be hyper-organized. Looking back on it, I wasn’t sorting my stuff well. Every minute you spend placing things where you can access them and noting where they came from and where they go, is a minute well spent.
Cast a wide net. It was important to me to get a sense of what Philadelphia was like when Bender lived there. That all infused my understanding of where he lived. I felt closer to my subject and I understood him a little bit more. He also struck a pedestrian with his car and killed him. I found every scrap of information about that as about the World Series. It was obviously an important chapter in his life.
Once you do all this stuff, immerse yourself in your details, read your notes until your sick of them, then set them aside and see what you can write without referring to them, to get into a flow that you can craft a good story. You sacrifice acuracy for nothing, but it’s important to tell good stories.
I’ve heard from some readers who say I don’t read baseball books, but I enjoyed yours. It’s important to reach a little broader audience than just SABR.
One of the things I asked myself is, what was it like? What was it like to stand on the mound in the Polo Grounds, with people hurling racial epithets at you and John McGraw standing in the dugout? There’s no definitive answer to that question, but you still have to ask the question.
Tap into SABR’s deep well of intellectual capital. I received so much from people who wouldn’t know me on the street, good book recommendations, an article they wrote, information and facts and leads. I became around this time much more active in my local chapter, the Halsey Hall chapter in Minnesota.
Ken: Dorothy, in your book Chasing Baseball, you advocate for a professional women’s baseball league.
Dorothy: I thought about that for quite a while. What it will take is a structure. Boys have easy access to a structure and girls don’t. Justine Siegal has started one, but it’s not nationwide. Boys have it at every age starting at age 6 or 7, but even if girls have a youth league, they are unlikely to be able to play at the high school or college level. The only way it’s really going to happen would be if Major League Baseball would support it, and give money as they do to Little League aimed at boys. MLB’s efforts toward women are about developing women fans, but not women players.
One way would be like they do it in Australia, with men’s and women’s sports clubs, who offer many sports, and baseball would be one of them. The government of Australia supports the clubs, not the individual sports. Some teams eventually develop stars who could play professionally. That would be the feeder system.
If a stand-alone professional league is started, there are no feeder teams to bring the talent in. A formal structure is vital to a strong league.
Ken: David, have you determined any better the use of the bat in the origins of baseball?
David: I had made the assumption that the bat was as essential to the game as the ball. But in the 18th century there was a book published in 1796, a German book, that included a two foot long bat described as “English baseball.” So I assumed a bat had always been a part of baseball.
My thinking since then has changed somewhat. I’ve analyzed other mentions of English baseball written in the English language and none of them mention a bat at all. The 1744 book that mentions it has an illustration, but there’s no evidence of a bat in the picture or the description! The game of English baseball that grew into rounders and American baseball, it was likely the girl who was the runner would just hit it with her hand. And I say her because it was a game played by girls and young women.
When the bat was introduced is unclear. It’s pretty sure it happened very early in the United States, but we’re not sure exactly when. Illustrations from early 1800s show it. The earliest text information that mentions the bat is from 1834.
In England my hypothesis is that rounders distinguished itself from English baseball by using the bat, in fact. It’s now my speculation that the German book in 1796 which mentions the bat, was describing baseball in a transitional state, and that it was the beginning of rounders. Until more evidence is uncovered we may never know when the bat first appeared.
Ken: Tom, you begin your book with Bender’s performance in the 1914 World Series and you anchor the book on that performance. Yet you argue in the book that this was an atypical performance for him, so why did you choose it?
Tom: You know, it wasn’t an intellectual decision. I was well into the research, and I was looking at some microfilm from the day before that performance. And I just knew it. It was a demarcation point in his career, he became in his manager’s eyes the greatest “money pitcher,” it was his final game with the A’s. Everything that happened before was one part of the story, and after that everything changed. I didn’t sit there and think “this is how it should go.” It was a rare case of me just reading over something and it just kind of occurred to me. Once I thought of it, I didn’t consider any other way to go about it.
(Followed by questions from the audience. My wrist hurts so I’m not going to type all of those.)
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