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SABR 51: Chicago

It’s been a few years since I had the time and brainpower to write up one of these recaps of a SABR convention! Of course there were no conventions for a few years in the pandemic, so last year’s one in Baltimore had been delayed twice. This year was Chicago, where we returned to the beautiful but eccentric Palmer House Hilton.

The Palmer House is, apparently, one of at least four different hotels in the USA claiming to be the oldest “continually operating” hotel in the country—not counting COVID shutdowns. (Another one of them is the Omni Parker House in Boston.) You’d think it wouldn’t be hard for historians to settle this, but it’s in the interest of the hotels to each keep making this claim, so they are probably not interested in hearing about actual facts.

We are, without a doubt, in the Misinformation Age. We live in a time when politicians, marketeers, and individuals on social media will flat-out make stuff up in order to build social capital. Where does SABR fit in all this? While on the one hand we are drawn to the myth and romance of baseball, SABRites typically do not hold to the creed “never let facts get in the way of a good story,” because the actual facts make for a pretty damn good story themselves.

That doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate a good yarn. We had a three-way race this year for most colorful character speaking at the convention this year. Maybelle Blair, Mike Veeck, and Ozzie Guillen all provided a plethora of technicolor quotes and stories. A few folks grumbled that Veeck told some whoppers during his speech (Al Kaline most likely did NOT go out into the streets during the race riots in Detroit and quell the populace with his eminent presence…? Citation needed, Mr. Veeck…) but in my view, each of these folks is a living icon of their era. Their place in both factual history and in baseball’s mythology is well assured, and if they seemed to be anything other than their mythic selves, we’d have been disappointed.

One of the things that is most fun about SABR-style research to me is that for icons whose mythology or image looms large, bringing things back to the facts often produces new wonder and astonishment. “I FORGOT about that!” was one of the exclamations heard when Guillen reminded people that he played his rookie season on a team with Tom Seaver.

This is just as much fun, maybe moreso, as producing the “I NEVER KNEW THAT” reaction, such as from people who believed-assumed the narrative of A League of Their Own that after playing in the AAGBPL all the women just went back to being happy homemakers and never spoke of their involvement with the league again (at least not until Penny Marshall’s 1992 movie brought them back into the spotlight and public consciousness). In fact, as outlined by Dr. Kat Williams (who just joined the SABR board) in both the panel on women in baseball and her biographical presentation about Maybelle Blair, many of these women, empowered financially by the salaries reaped while playing in the league, went on to college and advanced degrees, some becoming school teachers, lawyers, and doctors, and many remained active in women’s sports and women’s rights causes.

So instead of just a list of my favorite things presented at this convention, I’ve decided to split them into two categories: things I never knew, and things I forgot about.


I forgot that John Sickles invented the term LOOGY (for Left-handed One Out GuY). As a writer and editor and all-around Word Person, I have specific interest in the the invention of new baseball lingo and how it gets used. There’s a neat bit by John about how it was invented here as a tongue-in-cheek term online at but much like the term “Three True Outcomes,” the the term is now often used seriously.

In his presentation “Is the Three Batter Rule the Demise of the LOOGY?” David Smith also coined the term OOGY to refer to the set of pitchers that includes both LOOGY and ROOGY. And in case you’re wondering the answer to the question posed in the title, Smith found that, no, there’s still plenty of work for LOOGYs out of the bullpen (and OOGYs in general) because, it seems, most of the usage of OOGYs both before and after the three-batter rule is to get the third out of an inning. I expect we’ll see the full write-up of the research on Retrosheet once Dave gets back from the convention.

John Burbridge Jr. gave a presentation about Miles Wolff, whose entrepreneurship in the realm of independent and minor league baseball is directly responsible for some of the independent leagues in existence today, and therefore indirectly responsible for some of the others. And I’d completely forgotten about his stint as owner/publisher of Baseball America.

One of Wolff’s leagues, by the way, was also home to some semi-pro women’s baseball for a while. The New England Women’s Baseball League operated under the aegis of the North Shore Spirit team, owned by Nick Lopardo, and played in Lynn, MA. When the Northeast League split up/reformed with the Can-Am League, the Spirit moved to New Hampshire and the 4-team women’s league went with them. The women’s league was a bit treated as an afterthought, and with the men’s teams struggling as it was, they eventually disbanded. But it was nice while it lasted. (Some day I probably ought to try to do a research project on this league, if I can get in touch with any of the former players. I tried out for it but did not make the cut, but I had played in the league’s precursor before Lopardo’s involvement.)

Melissa Booker gave a charming presentation on the baseball cartoons of Charles Schulz, in particular those involving Snoopy. I read a LOT of Peanuts cartoons as a kid. Someone in my family liked to buy the mass market paperbacks that collected the strip (probably my Dad), and of course I read the strip in the funnies almost every day. What I had forgotten was how many were about baseball! About 10%: Out of 17,897 total strips, 1,794 are about baseball, and 716 have both Snoopy and baseball. A charming and fun presentation.

I always learn something fascinating from Allison Levin’s presentations. This time she shared insights about the creation of celebrity images and personas and the ways that social media enables parasocial relationships. In particular she demonstrated how celebrification is dependent on location (context). One of her examples was a clip I had forgotten about, but it’s priceless. The Jimmy Fallon show had set up Aaron Judge during his sensational rookie season as an interviewer in Bryant Park. Just watch the whole thing. After all the hype over his 62-home-run season, it’s hilarious to see what it was like before anyone really knew what he looked like:

One of the elements of style that I have to correct most often in articles for SABR is misuse of the term “Major League Baseball.” Many people incorrectly use it as an synonym for “the American and National Leagues,” because of course “major-league baseball” includes other leagues (the Federal League, Negro Leagues, and others). And the corporate entity known as Major League Baseball didn’t exist before the year 2000. The first use of “Major League Baseball” to imply such an entity, though, came in 1966 when the commissioner’s office created the “Major League Baseball Promotion Corporation” which was later re-named the “Major League Baseball Properties Inc.”

What I hadn’t realized, until I saw John Racanelli’s presentation at the SABR Baseball Cards Committee meeting, was that MLB’s licensing entity was created in response to baseball card lawsuits about the right of publicity. UPDATE: You can read an article on the subject by John at the SABR Baseball Cards Blog: John is also the creator of a brilliant set of cards himself:


Nancy Faust is a national treasure, the longtime organist from Comiskey Park, and I am certain she deserves to be credited with many innovations in stadium organ-playing. She played throughout the convention’s opening reception (and I would like to petition to have her play every Ross Adell Memorial reception, impractical as that would be outside of Chicago, because it was an absolute delight). She played us out at the end of the reception first with “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” and then a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Until the screening of the film Last Comiskey, which we had a few nights later, followed by a Q&A with rookie documentarian Matt Flesch and former White Sox AGM and SABR board member Dan Evans, though, I did not know that Nancy was the pioneer in the use of “Na Na Hey Hey” to serenade a pitcher being knocked out of the game. (To this day, crowds at Yankee Stadium and elsewhere do this without an organist leading the way.)

Matthew Prigge presented on “Replacement Spring: Baseball on the Brink in 1995.” That was one of the years when I was not paying attention to baseball. I know it seems impossible to believe now that there was a part of my life when baseball didn’t matter, but while I was in college and for some years after, when my focus was on getting my career going and founding a small publishing house and stuff, and I just pad no attention to baseball at all. (The McGwire-Sosa home-run race was what brought me back in 1998.)

The fact that struck me most about this bizarre spring training–in which replacement players played spring training games before paying crowds–was that the Orioles played none of them. Because I’d never realized that Peter Angelos had been involved with labor law. He sided so strongly with the union as a result that his team played no games at all. Which also makes that the first good thing I’ve ever had to say about Peter Angelos.

I think my favorite presentation I saw all weekend was this one by Adam Daroski about the baseball team of the 25th Infantry, part of a Black division of the US Army. The whole subject of military baseball teams is fascinating to me to begin with, and this one even more than most. While the 25th was stationed in Hawaii, there was extensive newspaper coverage of the team in the newspapers, yielding box scores and game accounts over a number of years, allowing Daroski to build up a bit of a statistical record as well as anecdotes. What a treasure trove. I’m looking forward to seeing more of what he uncovers about this powerhouse team that ultimately provided many core players to the Kansas City Monarchs.

My second favorite presentation was probably Neal Traven’s on players who played all nine positions over the course of their careers. This is different from the 5 guys who played all nine in one game as a stunt (e.g. Bert Campaneris). There are fewer than 70 guys, including the Negro Leagues, who accomplished it, and there are two who need only to play a game at first base to join the club, one of whom is Isiah Kiner-Falefa of the Yankees.

A popular presentation was Katie Krall’s on how modern, advanced analytics are being communicated to and by coaches on the field to the players in the minor league system. Katie was in uniform last season for the Red Sox in the minor league system, as a stats instructor and first base coach for the Portland Sea Dogs. She talked a bit about the Red Sox system (without giving away any proprietary information, darn) and how they find it important to begin feeding the data analysis to the players in the minors so they aren’t suddenly hit with it when they get to Fenway and the major-league level. One key to that communicaton, she says, is emphasizing that this information was always there — spin rate was always important to pitch design, for example — it’s just that we didn’t have a way to measure spin rate before.

As first base coach she also was looking for, and relaying, pitcher tells. And then there were just general life skills, like helping the player who really needed to send a card to his girlfriend for her birthday the next day and literally didn’t know how to buy stamps or anything. (Of course, a question in the Q&A session was whether the card got there? It did — expedited — and they’re engaged now.)

I kept forgetting the name of the ballpark where the White Sox play, because it’s beem through a few name changes, and the current holder of the naming rights is the generic-sounding and hard-to-remember “Guaranteed Rate Field,” which sounds like it should be a reference to some kind of sabermetric stat, but is actually something else. (Is it a bank? Insurance company? I don’t even know. Which suggests maybe naming rights aren’t effective marketing, but I digress.)

What I learned from some native Chicagoans is that they don’t call it “Guaranteed Rate Field” either, and just universally refer to it as “Sox Park.” Presumably the term started out as “the Sox’s park” and it contracted to “Sox Park” with use.

Artist Andy Brown is known for live painting ballparks during games, but he took his artistry to the next level by painting during presentations at the convention! Here he captured my “How To Do Baseball Research” presentation. You can recognize my glasses, bun, and cardigan sweater!

There was much, much more at the convention. This barely scratches the surface. I didn’t get to go into what fun the game at Sox Park was, and I didn’t attend but heard fantastic things about the historic tours (both walking and by bus). And I missed seeing the presentation that won the best presentation award this time because it was during the women in baseball committee meeting! Congrats to David Firstman and I hope to see that written up somewhere, hint hint? I also hope at some point audio of Jason Benetti’s speech at the banquet goes up online. Keep your eye on to see what appears.

We don’t know where the SABR convention will be next year. Hotel chains have gotten more difficult to negotiate with, the MLB schedule isn’t released until September, and a lot of factors are in play. I’m really hoping for one of the four cities whose major-league ballparks I haven’t been to: Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta (where they built a new one), and Texas (where they also have a new one). But wherever we go, it’ll be a great time.

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