SABR37 recap

WARNING: This is really long. But don’t worry. You don’t have to read all of it. Read the intro so you know what it’s about, and after that you can skim it over, glance at the headers and bits in bold to see which sections you’d like to read.

This last weekend was the occasion for one of the great annual American get-togethers: the 37th annual meeting of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) in St. Louis. Last Wednesday the gathering commenced as hundreds of men (and perhaps as many as 15 to 20 women) met to renew old friendships, learn more about the sport, and most of all share in a mutual love in this great game. And, as an inadvertent side effect, cause the indigenous population of St Louis to feel much more confident in how cool they are.

In years past here at THT you’d read Aaron Gleeman‘s rather lengthy recaps of the weekend that was. Alas, contractual obligations prevent him from doing that, giving me the unenviable task of filling in for the big kid from Minnetonka reporting on the best weekend of the year. Gleeman focused on the social camaraderie of the time, filling his rundown with the fun. Me? Well, I’m taking a different approach. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life. Fun? Ain’t in the top 10. While I certainly enjoyed the socializing and meeting old friends like Gleeman, Anthony Giacalone, Sean Forman, Mike Emeigh, and dozens of others (this is already too long, so I’m not going to mention them all) while meeting new acquaintances like Dave “Boss” Studeman was the reason this is weekend is a must, I’ll let Gleeman focus on that element. Instead, I’ll focus on the different presentations I witnessed (or gave in one case).

The presentations

I managed to watch 13 (actually 12—I gave the 13th), plus a panel, a committee meeting, and a horribly played ball game. In order that they occurred.

Anthony Giacalone: “`I Want Some Hammer’: Whitey Herzog and the Rebirth of the Cardinals, 1980-1″ — Thursday, 6pm
Due to work obligations I missed almost the entire first day, but I arrived in time to see my roommate give the first of his two scheduled talks. He’s a natural public speaker and this was an interesting one. The story is basic: Herzog came in, figured out what he wanted done, and did it. There were some nice nuggets in here, such as Herzog’s predecessor claiming an A-bomb couldn’t pry Bruce Sutter from the Cubs just seven months before Herzog—the H-bomb—did exactly that. Giacalone also pointed out that the aging Gussie Busch was looking for a person he could trust to run the team and found a kindred spirit in the hard-driving, feather-ruffling, shrewd and talented Herzog. A decent story.

Committee Meeting: Statistical Analysis — Friday, 12pm.
Most SABR committee meetings are rather dry affairs of going over plans and ideas for group research. The stats committee is more free-form. New attendees are encouraged to stand up and state their names and interests. Then it goes into a free form discussion, this year centering on OPS+ and WPA. The most interesting part was the presence of Bob Ngo, a sociology doctoral candidate doing his dissertation on the sabermetric community. How cool must it be to have your lab rats line themselves up for you? He came to schedule interviews, and I had a pleasant one with him right after the meeting. If anyone sabermetrically inclined reading this would like to do a phone interview with him, I’d urge you to contact him.

Craig Lammers: “Bob Quinn: The Father of the Farm System” — Friday, 2pm
Quinn was a minor league operator a hundred years ago who established networks akin to what Branch Rickey would later benefit from. In fact, Rickey was one of the players in Quinn’s system. Interesting, but there was one problem: I had the pleasure to sit next to minor league expert Mike Emeigh for this one, and he said Quinn had the most extensive network, but similar arrangements existed with other teams. Lammers presented Quinn as one-of-the-kind for his era. Also, his presentation was exceptionally dry. I have no problem when the speaker has no visual aids, and I can cope with it when one reads from a prepared speech. But you have to be careful. That didn’t happen here. Some value, but it could’ve been better.

Dan Levitt: “Ed Barrow and a Third Major League” — Friday, 2:30pm
Levitt, co-author of the excellent Paths to Glory, gave a decent talk on one of the game’s great operators in his forgotten years. From 1911-7, Barrow ran the International League, and not once but twice tried to turn it into a third major league. The IL had financial problems, and trying to move up was his way to cope with the economic problems caused by the Federal League and World War I. He wanted to take half of the IL and half of the American Association and combine them, and even got MLB’s blessing to do this. But he wasn’t any good at backdoor politicking. Declarations of fiat only motivated those in and out of the IL who opposed him, sinking his plans and his role running the league. Just a story, but an important one, and a solid presentation.

Peter Morris: “One Strike and You’re Out: The Saga of Trailblazing African-American Trainer William Buckner” — Friday, 4pm
A two-time winner of best presentation (most recently two years ago in Toronto), Morris manages to keep the listener’s attention despite avoiding any visuals and just reading from his text. His story was completely obscure, but worthwhile nonetheless. Bucknor was a trainer for the Sox from the days of Ed Walsh whose life showed the possibilities and limits for a black person.

He was by all accounts a highly skilled trainer who opened the door for other blacks in the profession, but was nevertheless fired in the late 1910s for murky reasons; most likely talking back to a southern player. He regained his job and lasted long enough to become the first black in MLB to earn a “pension,” which consisted of being a manservant for the team boss, and being fired and rehired at the amusement of his superior. Morris brought in the larger societal context a little by bringing up the 1919 Chicago race riot, but the historian in me wishes that had been fleshed out a bit more. Still, it was one of the better presentations in that it used a great narrative to make a point.

Vince Gennaro: “The Dollar Value of Babe Ruth to the Yankees” — Friday, 4:30pm
In this talk Gennaro takes his economic valuation approach (which he has written on here at THT) to that most famous box office draw, Babe Ruth. Looking at both his on-field and marquee value, Gennaro argued that Ruth was worth $350 million in today’s dollars to the Yanks from 1920-34. Good stuff, but I had one problem. Gennaro used WARP as a baseline to figure out how much on-field Ruth gave to the club in those years. Well, the “RP” stands for replacement player. If there’s no Ruth, is Ed Barrow really going to settle for 15 years worth of replacement level play from a corner outfield position? I highly doubt it. Over that length of time for a loaded team like the Yankees, comparing Ruth to the average player works better. Hence, I think Gennaro overestimates Ruth’s valuation. Still, a good presentation and he did a good job using PowerPoint to clearly explain himself.

Michael Haupert: “Fair Pay for Fair Play: An Analysis of Race-based Wages in MLB and the Negro Leagues” — Friday, 5pm
A fitting follow up to Gennaro, in that they both discussed baseball economics and even used some of the same source material. Haupert compares average known salaries for Negro Leaguers to major leaguers, and both to average salaries for wages for normal white and black laborers. He then took it into the integration era to see what trends can be teased. The results were generally nothing earth-shaking: Whites earned more than blacks in and out of the game, and baseball paid better than other options for both races. The results weren’t shocking, but some findings still jarred. For instance, adjusted for inflation, Mule Suttles earned less per season than someone making minimum wage 40 hours a week would now.

I had one reservation with this. Haupert compared Negro League salaries with those of black textile mill workers. Well, I’m not sure that’s a representative job. Strange as that may sound, that was a relatively good job for many blacks. They frequently worked as poorly paid personal servants or rural sharecroppers. That latter were in so much debt that they literally saw no money, living on perpetual debt borrowing from the local store. When FDR wanted to pass the Social Security Act, to gain the votes of southern Congressmen, he had to exempt rural laborers and servants—but not textile workers—from it. Overall, a fine job, but I question some of the underlying assumptions.

Brewers-Cards ballgame — Friday, 7pm.
The highlight of any SABR convention is the trek to the local sports cathedral for a game. This year not only did SABR succeed in getting tickets, but they even managed to get the state of Missouri to waive the law stipulating that all entrants into Busch Stadium II must wear red clothing.

As for the seats themselves, well, they were the best of seats and the worst of seats. The downside was that they were in the left field coffin corner, where no wind came in to ventilate the sweaty band of SABRites. However, it was protected from the rain, not a small advantage given that the game was hit by not one, but two monsoons. Sure, the wind blew some in, but you didn’t anything landing right on top of you. And really, what are the odds you’d get leaked on in a new stadium?

As it happens, I had the wonder and joy to sit underneath a leak during the monsoons. And because God mocks all Cubs fans, the water kept landing right on my crotch, drenching my trademark gray gym shorts in the most embarrassing way possible. Fortunately, Boss Studeman was sitting next to me and had an idea to help me. Taking an empty beer cup, he stood over me collecting the rainwater, looking like the Statue of Liberty endorsing Budweiser. As the poor huddled mass yearning to breathe dry, I greatly appreciated his effort.

Aside from that, I had mixed view of the stadium. Personally I had a good view of the field, though I couldn’t see left field. I loved the way the sea of red seats looked before the crowd filled in. But overall Busch II left me a little flat. When I came in through the right field gate, I wanted to walk around the stadium, but the concessions area was such a labyrinth back there I couldn’t even figure out where I was in relation to the field. Oftentimes there’s a nice wheel of commerce you can walk around with ease. They let you walk around the stadium, but I found it unusually difficult to negotiate its passageways. Also, either the PA system stinks or their announcer is incompetent. I never heard the starting lineups announced nor did I catch the pitching changes.

It’s the fourth new-wave mallpark I’ve been to. It’s nowhere near as good as Seattle’s magnificent Safeco Field, but far better than Selig’s concrete tomb in Milwaukee. I’d put it a little below Cincy. Not bad, but certainly nothing special.

The game itself was a joke, with the Brewers winning in a laugher 12-2. Wow, who knew Mike Maroth wasn’t a good starter?

Umpires Panel — Saturday, 10am
SABR augments its research presentations with panels, where a group of distinguished guests sound off about a particular topic and answer questions from the topic. Traditionally, umpire panels are big hits with SABR members. This was the exception that proved the rule.

It didn’t work. First, they only got one umpire, former Ron Luciano compadre Bill Haller. The microphone wasn’t close enough to him, and pointed away from him. Correcting these problems didn’t make much difference because he kept facing the moderator sitting next to him rather than the crowd in front of him. Plus he kept mumbling. Who would’ve guessed that an umpire would have trouble making himself heard? Even aside from that, he wasn’t in storytelling mode. Given a wide-open question about Ron Luciano, Haller gave a few general sentences, and didn’t tell any tales about the game’s most colorful man in blue. Twenty minutes into the 90 minute panel, I bailed.

Cait Murphy: “Myths of the Early Deadball Era” — Saturday, 11am
I was so looking forward to hearing Murphy’s two presentations. I read several new books this year, and her Crazy 08 was easily the best. I thought she’d be a great choice to do multiple presentations because her book displayed both tremendous command of what happened in the 1908 pennant race (the subject for her second presentation) and of the surrounding era. Many of the book’s highlights were her discussing details such as rumors that the fix was in during the 1891 pennant race.

This talk focused on the era as a whole and while it was good, I was a bit disappointed. She focused on five myths that she learned were false since taking on her book in 2003. Call it Five Things I Didn’t Know 200 Weeks Ago. The debunked myths were fairly basic: owners didn’t care about money, players neither, men were tougher back then, play was primitive, and players were socially disrespected. Now, I’ve aware these myths exist in the public consciousness—well, I’ve never heard anyone say owners don’t care about money—but I already knew they were myths. She did a good job explaining them away, but I can’t say I learned much.

Actually, I took one opposite conclusion from her book than she did. While she has a point that play wasn’t primitive in that teams like the Cubs did a brilliant job signaling to each other without a word, I was struck by how horrible the fundamentals of 1908 baseball were when reading her tome. She fills her book with stories of fly balls dropping between players, men doubled off on pop flies to shortstop, and terrible judgment on routine plays. And keep in mind she focuses on the three best teams in the NL, who played sharper than most teams. I got the feeling reading the book that they stressed fundamentals so much in those days not because players knew what to do, but because they were so clueless. A manager who could drill fundamentals into his boys’ marrow could pick 10 extra wins.

Cait Murphy: “Cover-up: Gambling, Corruption, and the Wild Finish of the 1908 Season” — Saturday, 11:30am
Her second presentation was much better. The only reason it wasn’t the best presentation of the weekend was because she’d already made the information publicly available previously in her book, thus loosing the thrill of discovery. In short, just before the Merkle replay game, the Giants team doctor twice tried to bribe Bill Klem, the game’s home plate umpire. Evidence indicates he acted either on behalf of local gamblers (he was also personal physician to a high powered gambler), or John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and Roger BresnahanDUN-DUN-DUUUUNN!!! Furthermore, in the 1920s, a former Phillies player said a well-known Giants catcher (gee, wonder who that could be) tried to bribe his team to drop some games in the last week of the season). It’s a helluva story, and if you haven’t yet, you owe it to yourself to get a hold of “Crazy 08″ and read it.

Murphy came across this because the records she researched only recently became available at Cooperstown. She figures the not-so-good doctor acted on behalf of the gamblers, though she’d be the first to admit that it’s difficult to say either way. Certainly the owners’ response, prioritizing sweeping it under the rug, doesn’t give anyone pause. It was like a lot of presentations in that it was good research, solidly presented, that didn’t tell me anything entirely new. Of course, in this case Murphy herself was the person who had told the story earlier.

Chris Jaffe: “Starting Pitcher Leveraging” — Saturday, 3pm
I’ve had the good fortunate to have given presentations at previous SABR conventions. Based on my experiences, I’ve fallen into a pattern: 1) give a presentation, 2) screw it up badly, 3) realize why I’d botched it up and make sure I didn’t do it again, and 4) find a new way to ruin my talk. In Cincinnati, I didn’t bother to rehearse or really prepare for my talk. Shockingly, that’s a sub-optimal approach. So in Toronto, I went over it. I knew I had too much stuff, but told myself I’d figure out what to cut as I went along. Also, not the best of plans. Added bonus: it was the first time I’d ever used a microphone and I confused the concepts of speaking into it with eating it.

In Seattle I got the timing right and learned the ever so arduous task of speaking properly. I just botched up my content. For most PowerPoint slides, I focused on the 10% of the content that I thought was meaningless, assuming the audience could pick up on the other 90% on their own. In hindsight, that was incredibly dumb. With that mistake under my belt, I was fully ready to find some new, tremendously stupid way to bullocks up my talk.

By that standard, my presentation was a deplorable failure. Somehow, someway, shockingly … I’m pretty happy with the way things went. I didn’t want to kick myself when it was over. The hell? People kept telling me I’d finally figured out how to give a presentation at SABR. It was an accident, I swear. I made some mistakes, sure. I used an outdoor voice when speaking into a microphone, which is overkill. A few up front actually fled a few rows back because of the volume. Also, I forgot to notice when I started so I had trouble timing myself, but I fluked into a well-timed finish anyhow. Oh, as for the presentation itself? Most of it was nothing new to THT readers, except that I’ve increased my sample size to 92% of all starts up to 1969, whereas those articles were only based on “only” 67%. Actually, the real problem with the presentation was that the overwhelming majority of what I said had been previously publicly available. The advantage I have over Cait Murphy is that not nearly as many people read or were aware of my stuff. Um, lucky me.

Mark Armour: “The Progress of Integration, 1947-86″ — Saturday, 3:30pm
This was the presentation I was most looking forward to. The story of integration is often told as the story of just Jackie Robinson, or maybe Robinson and Larry Doby. At best, it’ll get taken up to 1959 when the Red Sox belatedly integrated. I’ve never heard a narrative beyond that. There are references to the Red Sox and other teams setting informal quotas for how many blacks they’ll allow or have on the field at once. I knew the general trend of increasing black participation through the 1970s, but I’d never heard a narrative explaining the facts behind the trend.

However, my anticipatory thoughts misread the title. Armour, Dan Levitt’s bearded co-author from “Paths to Glory,” never gave a narrative. He focused on the facts, using a series of graphs on PowerPoint to show how the varying levels of blacks in baseball over time. He had some impressive research, doing what he could to find the color of all players over four decades. Thus this is the most detailed factual record on integration’s pace ever presented. I appreciate his decision to include Latino blacks as (foreshadowing the next presentation) they are often marginalized in the story. Still, while a valuable and definitely the most detailed work on the study to date, I largely knew the facts. Integration continued upward through the 1970s, when declining numbers of blacks were offset by increasing numbers of Latinos. Still, detailed knowledge trumps hazy reckoning any day. And he made good points looking at league differences, quality of the game’s blacks vs. its whites, and other solidly researched bits. Not the presentation I expected, but one I appreciated.

Adrian Burgos Jr.: “Left Out: Latinos, Negro League Baseball and the Story of Race in America’s Game” — Saturday, 4pm
This was one of the best presentations of the weekend. This was an examination of how the Latinos are often overlooked in the story of the game’s integration. For example, he pointed out how the new book, After Jackie has a chapter on Ernie Banks as the first Chicago star to emerge after Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier, missing Afro-Cuban Minnie Minoso‘s earlier debut with the White Sox. Minoso is a pivotal figure in this story, as he embodies the problem: a former Negro Leaguer who became the first dark skinned Latino to star in MLB. Some black teammates told him he didn’t understand racism because he was from Cuba, while he had never lived in a non-racial context. The role of Latinos in baseball’s integration hasn’t been entirely ignored—and Burgos is aware of that—but in general the existence of Latino players and the integration of black players are treated as separate narratives in the popular imagination. This was the best presented argument I’ve heard for merging those streams when appropriate.

Anthony Giacalone: “`They Must Think We’re a Bunch of (Censored)’: Gussie Busch, Paternalism, and the Collapse of the Cardinals Dynasty” — Saturday, 5pm
Giacalone examined the Cardinals clubs in the late 1960 and early 1970s by examining owner Gussie Busch’s managing philosophy, how he responded to the challenges thrust at him in those years, and what impact that had on the team. Busch believed in being a benevolent benefactor which meant he would give his players perks, help them out in business deals, and try to look out for them. The dark side was that this depended on their acknowledging his authority and power over them. Benevolent despots are still despots and perks are dependent on the whim of the person in control to dole them out.

Well, Busch saw the rise of the union as a personal affront. How dare they demand things as theirs unless their authority figure deemed them worthy of having it. This coincided with social changes where he lumped together long hair, Vietnam protest, and player unionization. Players like Steve Carlton and Jerry Reuss who held out were a smack to his face. By 1972 he became a hardliner, and ordered his general manager to trade men like Carlton and Reuss posthaste or he’d get a new GM to trade them. The Cards’ collapse wasn’t solely due to Busch’s inability to understand how the changing times made his paternalistic ethos outdated, but it clearly played a role.

This was the best damn presentation of the weekend. It had all the right elements: 1) it was a good story, 2) it was a story that actually made a larger point about what was going on in baseball, 3) it was very well presented, and last but certainly not least, 4) it was something I’d never really heard before. Most presentations covered items one and three, and many contained two as well, but this was the only one that nailed all four. Am I biased because he’s my roommate? I don’t think so. His presentations have been well-received since he’s been giving them. (Gleeman called Anthony’s presentation two years ago the best one in Toronto). In the past I’ve generally been a little bit harder on his stuff than most people we hang out with. But this one it all came together.

Criticism? He went long. In theory, you’re supposed to last 20 minutes, though in practice it’s 20-25 minutes. I think he lasted the full half-hour, shorting out time for questions.

Jack Heidenry: “The First Definitive History of the Gashouse Gang” — Saturday, 5:30pm
Up to this point in time I hadn’t seen a real dog of a presentation. I should’ve quit while I was ahead. Heidenry wrote a book about the Gashouse Gang, that I endorsed with some notable reservations, but I thought this would still be a good talk. While he didn’t know much about baseball history surrounding the 1934 Cards, he did a good job covering that season. His presentation was another matter entirely.

It was just a series of disconnected anecdotes with no narrative line whatsoever. He spent the first five minutes on an opening anecdote where he got an autograph from Joe Garagiola and Yogi Berra as a lad. A cute story, but you only have 20-25 minutes, and that has nothing to do with the topic. He then spent the next 10 minutes discussing the personalities of Branch Rickey and the players without going into much depth. It came off like odds and ends. I began wondering when he was going to discuss the season. He never really did. He mentioned Bill Terry‘s infamous “Is Brooklyn still in the league?” quip, the Dean’s strike, the Dodgers’ revenge on Terry, and that the Cards won the Series. Forget trying to make a point about his story, there wasn’t a storyline.

Even worse, he presented the most well-known, and already widely reported facts about the club. A second-tier ESPN personality could whip this together on a half-week’s research. Heidenry has done a lot of research, and it shows in his book, but it didn’t come into play here. While saying very little, he managed to go on too long, taking a half-hour for his 20 minute talk. I left his talk far less sympathetic to his research than I had been when I entered.

Summing up

Overall, the presentations were very informative and well-done. Few broke virgin ground for me personally, but there was only one I learned nothing from. There’s nothing wrong with presentations that broaden existing knowledge instead of opening whole new doors. Furthermore, I heard some of the earlier presentations that I missed—in particular Steve Steinberg’s work on the 1922 Browns—were at least as good as the ones I witnessed. Some presenters were comfortable just telling tales instead of making a point with them, but that’s fine as long as the stories are good enough. In general they were. There might be only one presentation I’d give an A to, but there were more B ones than I’ve ever seen. (Besides, I’m a tough grader.). If SABR37 was a player, it would be Tony Perez or Jake Beckley—dependable, constantly very good, and fully capable of delivering for you.

Only a year until Cleveland! Hope to see you there.

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