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Thursday, May 02, 2002

Basic Baseball Documents

Dean Sullivan Adds Late Innings

to His Essential Collection

Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1908

Middle Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1900-1948

Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1945-1972


(All compiled and edited by Dean A. Sullivan; available from the
University of Nebraska Press.)

There are a lot of people who make it their business to tell you
what books about baseball are “essential reading.” Such lists are all
over the Internet; in fact, you can’t help but stumble over them even
when you’re not looking for them.

Please don’t misconscrue (as Marvin Milkes once said to
Jim Bouton) what I mean by this. There’s nothing wrong with
those lists (except for their inevitable redundancy). Most of them
tell you more about the person who made the list, however, than they
do about “what you should know” about baseball.

Happily, however, Dean Sullivan has gone a long way toward
solving this “problem of the list.” No, he hasn’t written an annotated
bibliography of every baseball book ever published. (That would be an
undertaking guaranteed to wind up, as has been the case for
researchers in many fields, a posthumous proposition.)

No, he’s done something far more basic, and done it in a way that
is concise, entertaining and essential. He has developed three volumes
that tell the documentary history of baseball from 1825 through
1972. By “documentary,” I of course mean that Sullivan has assembled
primary and secondary source materials that take us back to the point
in time when a significant, noteworthy, or just plain interesting
occurrence in baseball history took place, and has by doing so brought
that moment back to us.

All in all, Sullivan’s three volumes provide more than 300
articles, essays, and historic documents that any serious student of
baseball history will be gratified to have easily
accessible. Sullivan’s headnotes to these materials are uniformly
excellent, providing thoughtful and thorough context for each item.

Sullivan’s bibliographies, which appear in the rear of each
volume, are also extremely useful for the reader who wishes to dive
into greater detail on any one of a variety of baseball topics.

Statheads will find only a few nuggets scattered here and there to
add insight to what they already know, but those few forays into
numbers are choice ones. One of these, from Middle Innings,
chronicles a memorable 9-9 tie between the Detroit Tigers and
Philadelphia A’s played in the waning days of 1907’s hotly
contested AL pennant race. Noteworthy amongst the game accounts is a
detailed examination of pitch counts, which provides us with a badly
needed reference point for the issue of average pitches per batter.

Craig Wright, using anecdotal information from the longest
major league game ever played (the 26-inning 1-1 tie between the
Dodgers and Braves on May 1, 1920), estimated (in his classic The
Diamond Appraised
) that pitchers threw about 2.8 pitches per
batter during the deadball era. The 1909 game shows that this estimate
is clearly too low: batters saw an average of 3.3 pitches per plate
appearance in this contest, and while this game is not necessarily
representative, either (after all, it was a 17-inning 9-9 tie!), it’s
clear from the descriptions in the article that pitcher-hitter
dynamics of that era are far more similar to what we are familiar with
today than what is often posited as a result of Wright’s estimate.

Probably the most interesting item for statheads will be the
article on Allan Roth that is included in Late
. (In fact, the material on Roth is extracted from a
fascinating book by Harold Rosenthal called Baseball Is
Their Business
, published in 1952). Sullivan’s excerpt shows Roth
describing some of the data collection efforts he engaged in, most of
which are now familiar features in the statistical landscape:

Every statistician looks for a different set of figures, but
generally I’m concerned with the following:

-Performance, home and away, day and night, team vs. team,
individual vs. individual (pitcher vs. hitter and hitter vs. pitcher),
team progress during the season

-Performance against left-handed and right-handed pitching

-Direction of hitting (degree of “pulling” the ball)

-Type of hit (ground ball, etc.)

-Power (number of bases stemming from one hit and percentage of extra bases)

-Getting-on-base ability (including number of walks)

-Batter’s performance (when ahead or behind in the balls-and-strikes count)

-Bunting performances and percentages

-Individual clutch performances (hitting with runners on base, and runs-batted-in percentages)

Roth also wrote about his discussions with Branch Rickey,
the man who hired him in 1946 to be the Dodgers’ statistician, and
their meeting of the minds on the issue of runs batted in:

-When I first approached Branch Rickey, then president of the
Brooklyn club, we spoke for a while. I soon discovered that one of the
things he liked best in my presentation was an opinion of the value of
runs batted in. He said that he didn’t think they were important and
hardly ever looked at them. I told him that I didn’t think they were
important either unless there were other figures presented alongside

I emphasized the fact that runs batted in meant nothing
statistically, unless the opportunity for runs batted in was presented
alongside the original information. In other words, a club owner or
manager certainly wouldn’t be interested in how many base hits a
fellow got in a season unless he knew how many times a fellow had gone
to bat. So it was, ran my argument, with runs batted in-in from where,
and under what circumstances? One particular player may have driven in
more runs than the next fellow, but how many additional opportunities
did he have?


While RBIs are still overrated, latter-day statisticians haven’t
tried to neutralize this matter in a way that might make the general
public more aware of the argument they have inherited from Roth-that
is, by creating a stat called RBI/opportunity. It’s clear that simply
arguing about the team-dependent nature of the stat isn’t having much
impact on the popular imagination.

But that’s really a topic for a different article. Sullivan
doesn’t dwell on stats, but when he does, he gets to the root of
issues that are still pertinent today. What makes his work so valuable
is that his coverage of myriad events/issues in the game and its
history is exceptionally broad. These three volumes are exceptionally
well done, and constitute an invaluable repository of source material
for baseball history. If this type of material holds even the
slightest amount of interest for you, then these books need to be in
your library. (Watch out, however-the paperback price for Late
is awfully steep,)

Don Malcolm Posted: May 02, 2002 at 06:00 AM | 3 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Griffin (Vlad) Posted: May 03, 2002 at 12:29 AM (#605170)
I think it's a perfectly valid decision to cut the last book off at 1972. Current events require time to mature into history, and Sullivan wouldn't necessarily have the perspective to properly appreciate more recent occurrances. The necessary amount of time is open for debate, but thirty years should be enough to satisfy most scholars.
   2. Lest we forget Posted: May 03, 2002 at 12:29 AM (#605172)
"While RBIs are still overrated, latter-day statisticians haven't tried to neutralize this matter in a way that might make the general public more aware of the argument they have inherited from Roth-that is, by creating a stat called RBI/opportunity. It's clear that simply arguing about the team-dependent nature of the stat isn't having much impact on the popular imagination."

100% agreed. This is a stat/baseball-philosophical-point that I've been pushing on my friends for years. RBI/opportunity is simply not available. Why, WHY?, doesn't a include a small box on its main home page with 2, 3 or 4 hand-picked stats such as RBI/opporunity, pitcher batting-average-against, and OPS as a standard alternative Stats Leader Board?

Bring it on; they will come, and they will learn.

   3. John (You Can Call Me Grandma) Murphy Posted: May 06, 2002 at 12:29 AM (#605182)
Perfectly said Nathan. The sad part about RBI Opportunities is I still know people that are resistant to it. They can see with their own eyes that RBIs are tied with opportunity and SL%, yet will here about what a great RBI guy Juan Gone is or Garvey once was in the seventies. Extremely discouraging!

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