Friday Morning at SABR 41: The “40 Years of SABR” Panel and research presentations
This morning was taken up with a panel discussion and then three research presentations. I could have seen a fourth as well, but the presenter I wanted to see couldn’t make it and I wasn’t that interested in the pinch-hitter. So I am going to check out the poster presentations and then grab some lunch (since I’m too broke to actually pay for the awards banquet). I’ll hopefully slip into the banquet room when its time for Dennis Gilbert’s speech, and take some notes there.
The morning kicked off with a high-powered panel of experts in which a distinguished historian showed the strength of his convictions and a distinguished player showed that having won several Gold Gloves is no protection against what I can only attempt to charitably describe as embarrassing mental lapses.
The panel was moderated by Tom Hufford, one of the original 16 founders of SABR, and included the following:
John Thorn, MLBâ€™s Official Historian and author of Baseball in the Garden of Eden; John Dewan, a founder of STATS, Inc., and Baseball Info Solutions, and author of the influential The Fielding Bible; Roland Hemond, an executive for five decades, three-time winner of MLBâ€™s Executive of the Year Award, former general manager of the White Sox and Orioles, and 2011 recipient of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award; Wes Parker, former Dodgers player, Gold Glove winner, and the teamâ€™s Player Representative when SABR was founded; Dennis Gilbert, former player agent, benefactor of scouts, and minor league player.
The room was very crowded with people vying for seats, and the best one I could get was so far back that I couldn’t actually see the panelists (except when I stood up). I hopefully did not misattribute their quotations.
Hufford: (jokes) We’ve picked a fairly narrow topic today, baseball over the last 40 years. (Laughter) On the day SABR was founded, Sal Fasano was born, the only major league player born that day. Harmon Killebrew hit home runs 500 and 501 that day. Only five ballparks in use that day are still in use. Baseball has expanded from 24 to 30 teams. The Milwaukee Brewers went from the AL West to the AL East to the AL Central to the National League. (laughter) (also lists several other changes)
Hemond: I’m outliving ballparks now. Some of the places that were built when we were starting out with teams have been torn down. I’ve been with two expansion clubs, the Angels and then the Diamondbacks. Baseball is a humbling game. I found out the other day that my picture was on the cover of Diamondbacks Insider (the ballpark monthly magazine). I was feeling pretty good about that, but then I saw all the copies that people had discarded. I saw a guy step right on my face. It’s a humbling game, but it’s still the best game in the world.
Hufford: Wes, do you think you came along too soon?
Parker: I’ve heard this since I retired, ‘don’t you wish you played longer or later to make more money?’ I don’t wish I played at a different time, I’m very happy to have played exactly when I played, I just wished I made more money AT the time. People always ask me about that. But honestly it’s disgusting. That the Red Sox, Yankees, and Cubs have all the power and the money, and that the home run has become so important. It’s been better for the players but not better for you the fan. In the days before free agency players didn’t change teams so much. Now there’s as much as 30% turnover on a roster in one winter! [Editor’s note: SABR members have proved that there is NOT in fact more roster turnover now than before free agency. In fact, there is LESS. Many players used to be traded, cut, and moved around in the past without any control over the situation, and the ability of players to negotiate long-term contracts and no-trade clauses has actually meant MORE guys stay put for longer than back when the owners could move players at will. In fact, three CURRENT Yankees, Jeter, Posada, and Rivera have now played together consecutively for 17 seasons, something that has not been done by three teammates in major league baseball ever–nor in hockey, football, or basketball. But this would only be the first of Parker’s monumental errors of fact today.]
Gilbert: From the days when I was flipping baseball cards, and listening to the Yankees broadcasts where every time there was a hit (the announcer) would go (“pop” sound effect) because he was doing the games on tickertape. To go from that to the ultimate heights (working for the White Sox), well, I never take this ring off. (shows his World Series ring) There is nothing in the world like winning a World Series.
Hufford: John Dewan, you want to expound a little on the changes in baseball stats?
Dewan: I am so jealous that two guys up here on this panel are wearing White Sox rings. (Hemond takes his off and sticks it on Dewan’s finger. Crowd laughs.) Roland, it’s stuck. (Crowd laughs louder.) So I was a closet statistician. I was playing Strat-o-Matic baseball and drafting my team on batting average and I was getting clobbered! The guys who were picking lineups based on walks were beating me. But in the 1970s batting average was all we had. THen in the 1980s we started to get more. If you haven’t read The Hidden Game of Baseball, go read it, and if you have, go read it again. OPS came out of that for me. And then there was Bill James. And it took a while but soon his books were stacked up in bookstores. Funniest thing, he was criticized by those who said “he’s a little fat man with a beard, what can he know about baseball?” Well, if you’ve ever met Bill, you know he’s not little at all. He’s a big big man, a grizzly of a man. (laughter) As he said, “Well, two out of three ain’t bad.” I joined SABR because he encouraged so much of us to do so, and when he started Project Scoresheet I looked him up in directory assistance and called him up and the next thing you know I was the director of Project Scoresheet. Later that grew into David Smith’s Retrosheet and I started Baseball Info Solutions. We were providing stats and analytical data to news organizations. And from there it just explodes, with Baseball Prospectus, and all the other great sites, and now you don’t have to be in the closet about being a statistician. Now every team has a stats guy or a stats staff, and they can use BATS (a video software analysis program). And fan communities spring up, at Fangraphs you have incredibly deep information. And then you have all the things like apps and MLB.com Gameday and the At-Bat app, which is incredible, by the way. We have a book now called Wizardry and we analyzed Wes Parker’s career to see if he really deserved all those Gold Gloves. (laughter) I’m happy to say that according to the data, Parker is indeed one of the top 25
Hufford: Diversity. That’s a word you didn’t hear in 1971.
Gilbert: MLB is building Urban Youth Academies all over, in New Orleans, there’s one here in Compton, and other cities. I grew up in the inner city and I was the only white kid on a team that had guys like Dock Ellis, (names a few other names I couldn’t make out well) and our batboy was Eddie Murphy. Our infield had no grass. And right field had a water fountain in it. So you had to know how to play the water fountain. That was playing in the inner city. They say there’s a decline in African American participation. Jimmy (Klein?) is on a mission to get baseball into the reach of kids who don’t have it. Junior colleges all over have canceled their baseball programs because they can’t afford it. Donations to RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) and the Urban Youth Academy really help. Major League Baseball is really behind it with millions of dollars. Hoping that will turn it around.
Thorn: Baseball is a great social elevator. Sports can take you up the financial ladder faster than anything else. We had an Irish boom, and then an Italian boom, and even a Jewish boom. But I’m not as concerned about the decline in African American participation from 13% to 6% because it means there are other opportunities out there for African Americans. We cannot lament this decline without also lamenting the decline of Jewish dentists. RBI is very important. And diversity is important. But if we’re going to be concerned about diversity, how about the fact that 52% of the human population is excluded? When will we have a woman major league player? (applause) Women are taller, stronger, and better coordinated than they were 50 years ago. So are men. But there is no physical, social, or moral reason why women should not play in the major leagues. A relief pitcher or a second baseman. [Editor’s note: I did not get the last bit of John’s remarks because I was so thrilled and amazed by what he said my hands were shaking too much to type at my usual speed. Thank you, John.] I don’t think we should have some kind of accelerated Eddie Gaedel kind of experience just for the sake of it, but women played baseball actively historically (names off many places and times I didn’t get down).
Questions and comments from the audience, answers:
John Thorn: There’s the paradox of change. You watch baseball and you know the game is better now than it ever was and yet you feel like it’s worse. What’s that about? It’s about us getting older. (laughter)
John Dewan: On what John said on getting older, we all have a nostalgia for the game the way it was when we were growing up. But now there are so many things you can be into. We have fans in this room who love visiting the gravestones of players who have died. Some are into the uniforms. Everyone has different loves and different things we enjoy about it and whatever it is you enjoy about it, just enjoy it.
Roland Hemond: I should bring up Tony LaRussa and thank SABR for all you’ve done for bringing stats and analysis into baseball front offices. (Rambling account of how LaRussa got his shot at managing)
Audience: Wes Parker, what was going on in 1968 where the pitchers dominated so much?
Parker: Well, you had some very great pitchers then, like Juan Marichal and Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton, so that was a part of it. One reason it was so hard to hit in 1968 was the raising of the mound. You had been taught to swing with a level swing and guys couldn’t make the adjustment to the uppercut swing. [Editor’s note: The mound was NOT raised in 1968… it was the same height it was for decades. They LOWERED the mound in 1969, but the mound in 1968 was the same height it had been for decades. This comment of Parker’s caused someone in the audience behind me to wonder how many beanballs Parker had taken to the head in his day… Once again we learn the valuable lesson that the men who played the game are not always the best sources on what happened.] Also Astroturf was just coming in, and you had guys bouncing the throw to first to make the out.
Audience: (question about history)
Thorn: They say the best thing about baseball today is its yesterdays. But when we sit around reminiscing about Ruth and Ted Williams we aren’t talking about their OPS. We have to put some value on story. In the future if people are going to be talking about baseball they aren’t going to be analyzing it like a tout sheet from a horse race or the back pages in the Wall Street Journal.
Then came Dan Levitt’s research presentation on John McGraw:
John McGraw Fights His Way Through Early Prohibition
This was a recounting of a significant episode in McGraw’s life that resulted in him having to spend time away from the Giants while he evading law enforcement and then fought a legal battle stemming from an incident in the wee hours one night in New York City. As Levitt put it, “He fought many fights, many of his own making. He lived a celebrity life that could not be lived today.”
If you know anything about McGraw, you probably know of his reputation as a bulldog, aggressive and pugnacious. He was so prone to brawling that he was even suspended from the elite Lambs Club, a private club founded by actors but also home to other New York celebrities, where even during prohibition one might find liquor flowing. On August 20th, 1920 after the game in which the Giants lost their shot at the pennant , McGraw and Francis McQuade (also a Lambs club member) went drinking all across Manhattan. Around 2 am, they ended up at the Lambs club with some other drinking buddies. Around six in the morning, after they had been drinking all night, the conversation turned to which were superior, American or British actors. McGraw of course took the side of the Americans, and grew belligerent, swearing. Actor William Boyd needled him by saying that McGraw should not use such language in front of the two women there who were cleaning up. McGraw paid each of the women five dollars, but the argument devolved into a full out destructive brawl. The evening ended around 7:45 in the morning, outside McGraw’s apartment where two of his associates, Winfield Liggett and a comedian named Slavin, had dragged him in a taxicab. McGraw pushed Liggett back into the cab saying he’d go from there alone, but Slavin continued with him. Supposedly shortly after that the cabbie and Liggett “heard a thump.” It was the body of Slavin, who was discovered to have two teeth missing, a cracked skull, and other severe injuries. Slavin would later say that he had no memory of what happened, whether McGraw had attacked him or slammed a door in his face. McGraw had to tell the Giants, meanwhile, that Johnny Evers would have to take over the club that day (as McGraw himself had two black eyes and after drinking and brawling all night long was in no shape to manage a game that day).
The ensuing brou-ha-ha included a police investigation, a liquor charge, the club being investigated, and so on. Although the police at first tried to whitewash it, McGraw was too significant a figure for it all to die that quietly. Eventually both the assault charge and the liquor charges had to be dropped though because of a lack of witnesses. Slavin brought a civil suit of $25,000 against McGraw, which McGraw’s top notch lawyers, who were known for their sometimes “loony” defenses won for him. McGraw showed up to the court room on crutches, first of all, supposedly having hurt himself hitting fungoes. The jury took a mere five minutes to acquit him, although supposedly McGraw later settled privately with Slavin.
Then came another historical presentation, actually a double-presentation, on the summer of 1965 and the race between the Dodgers and the Giants.
“Getting No Satisfaction: The San Francisco Giants of 1965,” by Steve Treder
and â€œBut for the Tense Situation Locally”â€¦: The Los Angeles Dodgers and Summer of 1965,” by Anthony Giacalone
This was a one-hour presentation made up of the two presenters swapping off from the Giants to the Dodgers point of view and back again as they went along. Each put his team in the context of the national and local issues in the news.
Nationally, Congress had passed the Civil Rights act of 1964, the “freedom summer” of voter registration took place, 35 year old Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was given the Nobel peace prize, Malcolm X was assassinated, and in Selma there was the Bloody Sunday. 1965 was also the year of the first amateur draft, Astrodome opened, the first national TV package for MLB games, the Angels got a new home and new name, debacle with the Braves moving from Milwaukee in 1966 announced, commissioner search dragging on, etc…
Up in San Francisco, the Giants were seemingly representatives of a bygone era, a hokey pastime that was being forgotten by the counterculture, which had its ground zero right there in the Haight. Their manager, Alvin Dark, had been fired during the offseason for making racially insensitive remarks, but in the first half of the season their biggest (non-white) stars, Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda were both struggling. Cepeda would end up lost for the season.
Meanwhile in LA, the entire coaching staff had been replaced and GM Buzzie Bavasi had traded away all the team’s power to remake them for their ballpark, a pitcher’s park with a huge outfield. He was ridiculed for this (the Dodgers would never “win a 1965 pennant with a 1915 team”) but was eventually proved right. The result of the trades was that around a small core of veterans they had a very young team. And in LA the youth movement was in full swing, with young folk taking over the Sunset Strip, Laurel Canyon, and the Hollywood Bowl. The Dodgers seemed to fit this youth zeitgeist.
However, the Watts riots also happened, after which the Dodgers saw their attendance drop, as white fear gripped the city. The Dodgers also had to contend with the surging Giants, as Mays recovered his stroke The Giants went on a 14 game winning streak, and eventually caught up in the standings. The Giants, who had looked so irrelevant while losing, brought together the people of San Francisco regardless of class, creed, race, or counterculture.
But the season wasn’t over yet. On Labor Day, the two teams faced off in a heated contest that boiled over into an ugly brawl in which Giants pitcher Juan Marichal, while at bat, smashed Dodgers catcher John Roseboro over the head. Willie Mays was the one to break up the fighting, gripping Roseboro (his opponent) by the face and calmly telling him “You’re hurt, John.” Roseboro kept trying to fight but Mays persuasion eventually sank in.
In the end, though, the Dodgers prevailed. Alston went to essentially a three-man rotation of Koufax, Drysdale, and Claude Osteen over the final 25 games (Johnny Podres started two) and the strategy worked. They won the race and went on to win the World Series.
Amazingly, I have yet to see a “stats” presentation. Herm’s presentation on finding the errors in the RBI record wasn’t really a statistical presentation so much as meta-stats, and more like history as it was about what happened in the press box in the 1930s. But I believe there are more stat-heavy things coming up tomorrow.
I skipped the banquet luncheon, though I did see that Bill Nowlin won the Bob Davids award. Boy, was he surprised! And Dennis Gilbert won the Roland Hemond Award, and then delivered the luncheon keynote address, which I did not listen to because I was busy typing all this up!
The rest of today is taken up with the women in baseball committee meeting for me, and then the ballgame at Angels Stadium. (Tomorrow night, Dodgers Stadium.)
(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)