Sunday, August 28, 2005

Encyclopedia Baseballica

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I love my Baseball Encyclopedia.

It is a thick, thick hard covered book that looks like, well, an encyclopedia. Its cover is gray and it has long ago lost its paper jacket and the spine is coming unglued from the pages and some of the pages themselves are crinkled and folded and it weighs a ton but I love it.

Let me say to all the guys reading this, it is a great library book. And when I say library, I mean the, ummm....lavatory. You can now all wipe....the grins from your faces.

A good "library" book is a book that can be cracked open, wherever, and you can dive into it at that point. You can look at it out of context whenever you want. There is no story to read. You simply open it up and start absorbing.

I don’t even remember how I came upon my Baseball Encyclopedia (yes, it is worthy of capitalization, and besides, that’s its title, so there!). But I’ve had it for years, though I am not its original owner. It is the edition printed after the 1978 season, which is fine, because I don’t have much use for anything that happened from 1979-present anyway. It’s much more fun to peruse the game’s history through journeymen who played for the 1911 Reds or the 1925 Dodgers.

Here’s how my B.E. experience usually goes: I enter the library, plunk myself down, and haul the book from its resting pace, which is on the floor, leaning against the wall, always within arm’s reach. Then I open it and start reading. That’s all. Nothing much to it. But oh, the fun I have by doing that.

As you can imagine, the B.E. contains everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, about the national pastime, dating from the days of the American Association, which was just about ten years after our president was named Lincoln, to in this case, 1978. Every player who ever pulled on a big league uniform is listed alphabetically, complete with date of birth, death, height, weight, place of birth, place of death, and any nicknames he may have had. Also listed is whether he batted left, right or both, how he threw, and of course, his season-by-season statistics in detail, including games played by position. Pitchers are listed together behind the hitters.

But I realized it’s much more interesting and fun to browse the non-stars. Sure, I could look up Babe Ruth or Tris Speaker or Ted Williams, but as I run down the list, page-by-page, I’m much more intrigued by the guy who appeared in one game a long time ago and who may have incomplete personal data, like "Duke Kelleher" (an actual entry), who caught one game in 1916 for the New York Giants, never coming to the plate to hit. All we know about Duke is that he threw righthanded, which may have been an educated guess by the editors since how many lefthanded-throwing catchers have you ever seen? We don’t know if he batted left or right; maybe because he never came to bat. But we do know that he was born 9/30/1893 in New York City and died 9/28/1947 in Staten Island. Poor Duke (real name Albert) didn’t quite make it to 54.

Did you know that former Tigers third baseman and announcer George Kell had a brother named Skeeter who played for the 1952 Philadelphia A’s? After one season and 213 at-bats and a .227 average, Skeeter never emerged in the majors again. But he and his brother did combine for 2,101 base hits (George had 2,054 of them). Speaking of combos, here’s one that could be called the Combo That Isn’t Really A Combo: the great Chicago Cub Billy Williams had 2,711 base hits in his 18-year career. But I’ll wager a Ball Park frank that you weren’t aware there was another Billy Williams, who played for the 1969 Seattle Pilots and went 0-for-10. So combined, the two Billy Williamses.....well, you get the idea.

Kell had a brother in the big leagues -- who'd a thunk it?

I guess I enjoy my B.E. because I love the romanticism of a time when all the games were played in daytime, which means all those numbers and statistics were compiled before dinnertime...
You can find some pretty amazing coincidences, too, in the good old B.E. My grandfather passed away a few months ago at the age of 96. He was born March 2, 1909. Anyhow, a month or so after he passed, I was telling my wife and mother-in-law about the great Mel Ott (not sure how we got on Mel) and that he was a Tigers announcer after his playing days. I also told them that Ott died tragically in an automobile accident. I decided to look up the date of Mel’s death, and discovered that he was born on the same day and year -- 3/2/09 -- as my grandfather. Things like that further enrich the B.E. love affair.
The great Ott shares my grandfather's birthday -- and you can look it up!

Every year’s worth of standings is listed, along with small capsule stats of each team’s top 12-13 position players and 5-8 pitchers. It tells you who the manager(s) was or were, what each skipper’s record was in the case of managerial changes, and the league leaders in various offensive and pitching categories. You can also head for the Manager Register, which lists every man who managed, his record, and the position his team finished that particular season. But the B.E. doesn’t stop there. In the cases of in-season managerial changes, the Register lists the team’s position before a man took over, its position after he left, and -- bonus -- if there were three managers that year and you’re looking up the middle guy, the Register tells you the team’s position at the end of the season, too. This even includes Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner, who tried to take over the reins in 1977 but was removed as manager after one game -- a loss -- by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. So there Turner resides, in the Manager Register, his 0-1 record forever preserved.

Of course, there is a year-by-year breakdown of every World Series, including small capsules of every game, Associated Press style. Here’s a random entry, taken from Game 2 of the 1905 Series between the Giants and the Philly A’s: "Bender, the Athletics’ tall Indian, evens the Series with his shutout and is aided by Lord’s two RBI’s." That would be Chief Bender and I am assuming Lord is not God (he’s not; he’s Bris Lord, a 22 year-old rookie from Upland, Pennsylvania).
All-Star Games are included along with the familiar capsules. Award winners, year-by-year, can be found. A history of the game and its rules changes are in there. I bet you didn’t know that the game went back and forth over whether a sacrifice fly should count as an at-bat, or that it waffled over how many balls should constitute a walk -- they started at eight and worked their way down to four over the game’s initial years -- or that for a time the spitball was legal. Inside the B.E. you will also find lifetime major league rosters for every team, with each player’s name and the years for which he played for that particular team -- listed, of course, alphabetically.

In fact, if there is something about baseball you want to know and you can’t find it in the Baseball Encyclopedia, it’s not worth knowing anyway. What more about the game do you need to know than the fact that Erskine Thomason threw one inning for the ’74 Phillies, striking out a hitter? Or that John Paciorek -- he was born in Detroit and went to U-M -- came to bat five times for the 1963 Houston Colt .45’s (they weren’t the Astros until 1965) and went 3-for-3 with two walks in his only game as an 18 year-old? How would YOU like to have a lifetime batting average and on-base percentage of 1.000? Pretty cool, huh? By the way, Paciorek’s appearance was on the last day of the season as the Colts started the youngest lineup ever -- on purpose. They got their tails kicked.

I guess I enjoy my B.E. because I love the romanticism of a time when all the games were played in the daytime, which means all those numbers and statistics were compiled before dinnertime until the mid-1950’s, when night baseball became more prevalent. Plus, just about every time I crack it open, the B.E. gives me another gem of trivia that literally makes me say, out loud, "HUH!" Like the fact that third baseman Ken Boyer hit 24 homers four years in a row in the 60’s. Talk about consistency.
A picture of consistency: Ken Boyer
I also like the anomalies -- the guys who had one very good season amongst a bunch of dreary ones. For example, let’s take Orioles outfielder Sam Bowens. The man never had more than 243 at-bats in any of his seven seasons except one -- 1964. That year, the 25 year-old Bowens put it all together, slugging 22 homers and driving in 71 runs while batting .263. Overall, a solid year, right? But in ‘65, Bowens fell all the way to .163 in 203 at-bats. The pact with the devil must have run out on New Year’s Eve, ‘64, because only once more did Bowens hit above .200, and that was .210 in 1966.
Oh, there are a bunch more examples I’ve found like Bowens and Boyer (can you tell I was browsing the "Bo’s" when I found them?), and the best part is, there are a bunch more I have yet to discover. They await me, leaning against my library wall, available after the next large meal.
So for all the Sam Bowenses in the world, and the Bris Lord’s and the Stuffy McGinnises and Eddie Gaedels (yes, the midget who batted against the Tigers), I bow to my Baseball Encyclopedia. And to be honest, I literally do have to bow to grab it. You’d have to see my library to understand.

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