Nerd Is the Word

This is the keynote speech delivered at SABR’s 42nd annual convention on June 29, 2012. On September 22, 1884, the Boston Unions were playing the St. Louis club when shortstop Walter Hackett, who had played in nearly all the club’s games, showed up too sick to play. Outfielder Kid Butler shifted to short, as an amateur named Clarence Dow was called in from the stands. He played the whole game in the outfield and did well—you could look it up, and with this audience, I know you will—but never played another big league game, instead becoming a baseball statistician and reporter for the Boston Globe.

Right now I am feeling a bit like Clarence Dow. Why have I been plucked from the audience to play before my peers? I suspect that the reason I am standing up here, rather than seated in my accustomed spot among you, has something to do with my role as Official Historian of Major League Baseball.

Last year, within days of my appointment by Commissioner Selig, I spoke before the New York City regional chapter of SABR. I said then that, gratifying as this post might be to me, it was also a bouquet toss to SABR, without which I could not have come to understand and serve the game. Several of you in the audience have collaborated with me in Total Baseball and other sabermetric efforts, in historical research, and in SABR publications. Truly, if today I occupy a high standing in baseball it is in good measure because I stand on your shoulders. Thank you.

SABR has been great for me, for its members, and for the game … but now I think it is poised to be even better. The “New SABR”—in its new location, with new leadership, a new digital publishing program, and a new initiative of sponsored conferences—has been embraced halfheartedly by many longtime members. They liked the “Old SABR” just fine the way it was, and have opined, in effect, that if a thing ain’t broke, why fix it? Given the troubling demographic trends of our membership, the question confronting the Society appears to be whether we may continue to enjoy it as we always have—in my case for thirty-two years—or whether we ought to do some “estate planning,” to leave something of enduring value to those who follow.

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. Set aside for the moment whether—as a byproduct of, for example, SABR’s newly announced relationship with Major League Baseball Advanced Media—membership increases, remains stable, or marginally declines. Set aside whether the new readers SABR gains at mlb.com will be researchers or, more likely, consumers, unconcerned with how the sausage was made. Writers ought to want readers, and more of them rather than fewer.

Will the New SABR have to change its focus? Will those who loved the Old SABR be cast out of the revamped organization, at the hands of some death panel? I would like to suggest that the new opportunities to extend our message and to enhance our value require the very traits that have permitted SABR to continue into a fifth decade. We are nerds, you and I. We endure the predictable slings and arrows on the whole cheerfully, not only because we know who we are but also because we live in the age of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and other nerds for whom data, when shared, become life’s most rewarding currency.

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. For many years SABR’s officials bristled when its members were painted with a broad brush and called sabermetricians. They protested that Society members were also interested in history, and culture, and ballparks, and the Negro Leagues, and the international game. True, true, but I think it is a good thing that now we do not protest quite so much. The success of the SABR Analytics Conference in March is testament that Bill James did us a great favor by coining the term sabermetrics.

Change can be painful in the short run, but change is good. My take on the changes in SABR that have vexed some veteran members is that the 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.

You meet the most interesting people at a SABR gathering such as this one—those who believe that it’s what you know, not whom you know, that counts. For me, that is almost a definition of nerddom, a subject of deeply personal interest. I have sometimes thought of writing a book about SABR’s most unusual members, but each time I have turned away because objectivity is impossible. How could I write about nerds as them when it so aptly describes me? In my hastily conducted case study, a baseball nerd, a baseball fan, and a baseball fantasy player are all united by their intense interest in something which they know, in the end, when matched against faith or family or philosophy, may not matter much.

Here we are in mid-summer, the acme of the real and natural world of baseball. Yet for some of the game’s most ardent devotees, like those of us here, the seasons pass almost without notice. For them … us … the grass does not turn brown, ever; in the green fields of their minds there is a perpetual thrill of the grass. Always, there are baseball statistics to digest, projections to make, fantasy transactions to contemplate, and history’s attic to excavate.

Jocks may call such studious fans nerds, intending to deprecate their 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.

I have walked the nerds’ walk and talked their talk not only in my years as a writer on baseball history and statistics. I have always been one of them—literally an old boy, a strangely earnest lad—as long as I can remember, even before nerd was a word.

It has always been easy to be nerdy, even when my detached, obsessively focused demeanor seemed to be a problem for others. (“Why can’t you be normal?” my exasperated mother used to wail.) Being odd has been the source of substantial solitary pleasure and a lifetime of wonderful friendships with other like minds, who signaled their membership in the nerd tribe not by their devotion to baseball, necessarily, but simply by the intensity of their curiosity, regardless of its object. These were people worth knowing.

In recent years nerds have begun to distinguish themselves from drips, dweebs, geeks, and duds, pejoratives applied by the cool kids for a century and more. While the dictionaries continue to treat square and nerd as synonyms, ask around and you’ll find that nearly everyone detects a difference: while both terms connote a measure of social ineptitude or at least discomfort, nerd has come to be associated with intellectual aptitude. It is worn as a badge of honor, even by those not reduced to quivering jelly in the presence of the opposite sex. Indeed, times 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 If I Ran the Zoo (“And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo / And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo / A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!”). The first citation in print after that came in the February 10, 1957, issue of the Glasgow, Scotland, Sunday Mail: “Nerd—a square, any explanation needed?” Like the square peg in the round hole, in the age of conformity the 1957-model nerd came to be simply another term for misfit. Fifteen years later, nerds began to drift into Silicon Valley and Wall Street, and such newly sprouted “nonconformist clubs” as SABR. Sport proved a particularly fertile ground for alternative viewpoints: the very term denotes peculiarity, as in “sport of the litter.”

The stereotype of the nerd is one who is more comfortable with computers (or, back in the early days of SABR, index cards and shoeboxes!) than with human beings. The nerd has a keen scent for phoniness and opposes the dominant culture. The nerd regards information as the most valuable of all currencies, as it permits him or her to show up the fatheads who run major software companies, news organizations, and the like. Globally, techno-nerds are united in their hunt for covert data. No bit of information is too trivial for consideration, as long as it was not previously known. This, by the way, describes SABR at its most mockable level.

It is the prestige of ownership that makes a data hound into a geek among geeks; I offer myself as, occasionally, a case in point. It’s pretty childish, really, because the most accomplished nerds, and the ones who gain the respect of their kind, are those who are most disposed to share and least inclined to preen. And yet … the lure of late-night web trawling is that you will find something, very nearly in plain sight, that had been overlooked for eons until you, oh perspicacious one, spied the gold amidst the dross.

A nerd trait we might term stubbornness (or independence, or principle, or tenacity) might as easily be called arrested development, a broad and amorphous label that is marked by three essential qualities: a treacly nostalgia for a false childhood, one more imagined than lived, with unrealized adult benchmarks; an affectionate attachment to the media kitsch of one’s childhood, such as the theme song to Gilligan’s Island; and, most importantly, an improbably preserved childish sense of curiosity and wonder. A veneer of cynicism may also present in a self-protective way, but it will be easily penetrated: scratch a cynic and find a sentimentalist.

In the further classification of nerds it may be noted that they don’t like to be fussed over, be confined in small places, or have their personal space violated by strangers. (They may themselves, however, be fussy, pushy, and insensitive to the social requirements of others.) Like Amazon headhunters, they collect things, either mementos of experiences they may have had or wish to have had, or items associated with persons of power, from Winston Churchill to Babe Ruth. With their active imaginations nerds generally have little need for the company of others, though on the odd occasions when they are feeling companionable, the absence of companions may seem a cruelly personal affront.

In my own life as a nerd, I learned to read by deciphering the backs of cereal boxes and baseball cards. Like all lonely boys I became a listmaker and daydreamer, able to slip into a warm fuzzy fugue state. I built models, I collected fetishes—from baseball cards to bottle caps, from comic books to back-date magazines—and thus fortified myself against the demands of the outside world, in my intense devotion to mastery as the amulet against … who knew what. Even today, when I might look back on a long career, I remain on the lookout for the next thing, the way a man will look over the shoulder of his date at a dinner table to check the woman who’s just walked in the door. There’s nothing that is as much fun, Yogi Berra ought to have said, as learning something you didn’t know before.

Far more than social disability, it is the delight of knowing things and gathering tales that defines nerddom. Despite nerds’ public show of odd interests, there is a secret joy that pervades their lives, blurring the distinction between work and play, between adult and child. This may serve either to perpetuate childhood or to make up for a childhood missed.

My parents, given to second-guessing my every move when we were in the same place, went off to work daily and thus were occupied elsewhere much of the time, permitting me to spend a significant part of my youth playing ball and pursuing vice (with only middling success in either). This is how and when I was made a nerd. Finding a place of retreat was, as I saw it, a path to happiness, a world of my own making.

For many Future Nerds of America that world would be off in the future, a science-fiction playground. For me that safe haven was in the past. Old books, old music, old film, old folks long dead but not to me. This was a private world, a world that was perfect … if, perhaps, not perfectly sane. It was fitting that, as I progressed in baseball and early on gravitated to statistics, I should be described as a “figure filbert,” that old-fashioned term for a stats nut.

Which brings us back to the one-game major leaguer whom I mentioned at the head of this speech, Clarence Dow, who became a sportswriter. Upon Dow’s untimely death at age 38, Boston Globe sports editor Jacob Morse wrote:

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 gloated over his statistics, and many of his tables were entirely original with him. His matter in the Boston Globe every Monday during the base ball season was devoured with the greatest avidity by the base ball cranks. 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. “He can’t be replaced,” Jacob Morse said of him, but of course he was—by Ernie Lanigan, by F.C. Lane, by Allan Roth, by Pete Palmer, by Bill James, and legions more. Baseball has not lacked for nerds. But until Bob Davids came up with the idea of SABR, back in 1971, there was no place for them to convene and consult with their brethren. There was no way but through lone and lonely effort, sadly unpublicized, to advance our understanding of this great game.

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 invoke the words of The Most Interesting Man in the World:

“Stay nerdy, my friends.”

8 Comments

John, Great insight into the inept, obsessed, & intelligent fan-atic! Sorry I wasn’t there to hear your talk in person.

Thanks, Tom! Hope to see you at SABR 43 in Philadelphia.

John, We all sell ourselves short by using the term ‘nerd’. In the school system where I taught we called such students ‘gifted & talented’. I think that term aptly applies to you and all the members of the Old SABR and the New SABR who have worked so hard at preserving the history of baseball, insuring the accuracy of its statistics, and honoring its many personalities both on and off the field. Thanks to you and to all!

Steve,thanks but I’ll take “nerd” over “gifted and talented.”

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John, I am, to some degree, death. To which degree you can either believe Camille’s exagerations or my meek denials. Although, I thoroughly enjoyed “hearing” your keynote address last week in Minneapolis, having the opportunity to read it now and grasp all that was said makes it all the more enjoyable and meaningful. Great job. Thank you for sharing it here.

John,
Thank you for letting me know you were going to post your keynot address here. I enjoyed it a second time around. Thank you for signing your baseball card. I love those Writer’s cards.
-Emma

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