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SABR42 Day Two: John Thorn’s keynote speech

I overdid it yesterday. As I was posting my blog entries last night, my nose started to run and my throat started to hurt. Blame the freezing cold AC in the ballrooms. Blame Neal Traven: he came up to me in the bar last night and said “I have a cold.” More likely, the blame lies with the fact that I’ve been so overworked and underslept in recent months that every time I travel I can’t fight off whatever viruses I come into contact with.

The result was I slept through Terry Ryan’s GM speech this morning in an attempt to make myself functional for the rest of the convention. I got up in time to catch the first research presentation and then the awards luncheon, though. So… here is my writeup of John Thorn’s keynote speech.

John Thorn, who is one of SABR’s most distinguished members, was recently appointed as Official Historian of Major League Baseball, and was asked to give the keynote speech at the awards banquet at the convention. The topic he chose was SABR itself, or perhaps meta-SABR: nerdhood. (Nerddom?) A subject close to my heart, as just as the game of baseball is something more than a bunch of guys running around on grass, SABR is–socially and sociologically–something more than just a bunch of smart people who like numbers and letters.

I did not come close to capturing all of Thorn’s speech. Normally when doing the kind of note taking I do with simultaneous typing, I can capture up to 80% of what someone says. But Thorn is so articulate, and the logical threads of his thoughts carry through so long from paragraph to paragraph, that I would say this represents no more than 50% of it and I may have dropped some important connections. I think audio and/or video of it may be on the SABR website later for those who wish to hear the whole thing more accurately represented.

UPDATE: John has posted the entire “Nerd Manifesto” on his blog! Check it out here:

Below I will excerpt just a few of my favorite quotes:

“I like talking off the cuff, but I figured if I did that to you guys AND the lunch was disappointing, that would put the burden too much on the culinary side. So I did prepare a little talk just for you.”

“In 1884 the Boston Reds club of the Union Association was to play a game, but Walter Hackett showed up too sick to play. An amateur named Clarence Dow was called in from the stands to play. You could look it up… and you will.*


He never played another major league game. Instead he became a statistician and writer for the Boston Globe. I feel a little like Clarence Dow, plucked out of the audience with you, to speak to you.”

“I have long described SABR as baseball’s best-kept secret. That was once a compliment but became a problem. I believe that SABR’s leadership, in a moment of crisis, has seized an opportunity to promote the Society’s work before a broad fanbase, and to raise awareness of the broad benefits to baseball of historical study and statistical analysis.” [See previous post about SABR’s new partnership with MLBAM.]

“Writers ought to want readers, and more of them rather than fewer.”

“Ernie Harwell once said: “SABR is the Phi Beta Kappa of baseball.” That remains true, and the New SABR cannot succeed by pretending to be less smart than it is. This is especially true in the Age of the Nerd, in which knowledge is, at long last, cool.”

“[T]he New SABR, as it rolls out, will be remarkably like the Old SABR. Like baseball itself, on any given day it will be the same but different. Even if we fit into the larger baseball community a bit better, we will continue to be nerds, proudly self-identified misfits.”

“Jocks may call such studious fans nerds, intending to deprecate the drive to gather, interpret, and invent new ways of understanding the grand old game that jocks have always thought they understood pretty damned well. Jocks and nerds are both stereotypes, but in the intensity of their dedication to “mere games,” they are more alike than different.”

“[T]imes are good for nerds right now, and not only at the helm of Microsoft or Apple: the internet has brought myriad ways for birds of a feather to flock together and to influence mainstream society and culture.”

“Dr. Seuss created the nerd in “What If I Ran the Zoo.” The next appearance of the word in print is in the 1957 Glasgow Scotland newspaper: “nerd: a square, any explanation needed?””

“Upon Clarence Dow’s untimely death at age 38, his obituary read, ‘He was pre-eminently alone in his line. There was no one to vie with him, no one in his class. Dow was the greatest statistician the game ever knew. … He can’t be replaced, because no one can he found who can or will take time to undertake the tremendous amount of work necessary to produce like results.”

“Clarence Dow, a pioneering nerd, is a neglected patron saint of SABR.”

“If the New SABR is to reach greater heights, as I believe it is bound to do, it will do so upon the foundations built by the Old SABR. If we are to continue to record and preserve the story of baseball, and to provide a virtual think tank for its analysis, then the Old SABR must play the vital role—simply by continuing to be itself.”

To conclude, I will invoke the words of the “most interesting man in the world.”
“Stay nerdy, my friends. ”

*[I looked up Clarence Dow and he went 2-for-6 in that one game. Out of 978 players who only played a single game in the major leagues, he is one of only three to have six at-bats in that game. -ctan]

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