October 22nd, 2013

Palmer, Thorn, and SABR

SABRTo this year’s World Series program I contributed a sidebar on the perenially debated home-field advantage. Coming upon a doubtful point, I looked for someone who would know. “As has long been my custom,” I write in the sidebar, “when presented a puzzle beyond my understanding, I consulted with old friend and collaborator Pete Palmer.”

Pete and I have not worked together on a book or web idea in some time, so it was a pleasure to reconnect even in this minor way. This morning the thought occurred to me that we might not have collaborated on all those projects had it not been for SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, which, if you are not already a member, I urge you to consider joining (http://sabr.org).

I take the liberty of publishing Pete’s contribution, and my own, to the question posed separately to each of us: “Why I Joined SABR.” 

Pete Palmer:

I joined pretty early; I think I was #27. If I had realized that Cooperstown was only a four-hour drive, I would have been at the kickoff meeting [on August 10, 1971].

Bob Davids was familiar with me since we both contributed to The Sporting News, and the fact that the editors decided to pretty much dispense with fan contributions encouraged Bob to start SABR in the first place. The three main reasons I have enjoyed SABR were meeting the guys, reading the publications and participating in research projects that would have been very difficult to do on my own.

Pete Palmer

Pete Palmer

This often involved particularly checking newspapers across the country. As a group, we collected research on 1927 AL caught stealing, 1912 NL sacrifice hits allowed, 1880s AA runs batted in and 1897-1908 batter hit by pitch. John Schwartz, Bob Bailey, Joe Ditmar, Ralph Horton, Bob Richardson, Walt Wilson, Herb Goldman, Joe Simenec, Lyle Spatz and others were very helpful. I worked with Bob McConnell straightening out [John] Tattersall’s home run log before it was computerized, and have corresponded with Frank Williams for over thirty years. Recently, I helped Jonathan Frankel collect batter strikeout data for 1897-1909.

I probably never would have met John Thorn. Our collaboration produced The Hidden Game of Baseball and seven editions of Total Baseball. Dave Smith and I have been helping each other out for three decades. Gary Gillette and I have carried on to do five editions of the B&N ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia. I am still busy at something I started as a hobby maybe 60 years ago.

I appreciate SABR recognizing my work.

SABR member Pete Palmer, part of the inaugural class of Henry Chadwick Award winners in 2010, has been a leading innovator in statistical analysis. His contributions to the game have been as particular as correcting Ty Cobb’s hit total and as grand as restating and evaluating all the game’s historical records through the prism of modern statistical measures. He was the first to recognize the mathematical relationship between runs and wins, and the one most responsible for the introduction of On Base Percentage into common parlance.

John Thorn:

I joined SABR thirty years ago, in part to cover that year’s convention in Toronto, on assignment for The Sporting News. Cliff Kachline — at that time the historian of the Baseball Hall of Fame, later SABR’s first executive director, and posthumously, not long ago, a recipient of the society’s Henry Chadwick Award — urged me to join. With my interests in baseball’s history and statistics, he assured me, I would feel instantly at home and would wonder why I had waited so long to join.

He was spectacularly right.

At the convention’s opening reception, the first two individuals I met were Pete Palmer and Bob Carroll. I went on to create many books with each, and in some cases both of them, and they became lifelong friends.

I had a fantastic time at the convention, despite being a little star-struck at meeting so many individuals whose work I had read. Immediately upon returning to Albany, New York, I filed my story with TSN. (I vividly remember transmitting it via 300-baud cupped-phone modem from the Western Union office on State Street.)

I have been a member ever since. I continue to be amazed at how many accomplished men and women I have met in the ranks of this merry band of baseball sleuths. I have continued to describe SABR as baseball’s best-kept secret — puzzlingly so, because its benefits are many for the advanced fan, the aspiring professional, or simply those who cannot get enough good baseball talk and text.

The perception among baseball fans has been, I suspect, that SABR membership is for those who are conducting ground-breaking historical research or game-changing statistical analysis, but that is not so. At your first convention or regional meeting, you will be seized with newbie jitters, as I was, but you will instantly be made to feel at home. Look me up; I will be one of many longtime members who will be glad you joined us.

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