Question of the Week: Most Unexpected Research Source
Updated: Jul 17, 2020
This week's question for PBBC authors is about their most unexpected source of has to do with unexpected source of great information as they researched their books. Sometimes the best details come from unusual places.
A great, unexpected source of information for my book came from Kevin Keating, the head autograph authenticator at PSA. He provided amazing background information, and in some cases firsthand accounts, which helped me tell some of the older stories in my book. It was essential to include some one-game MLB players who were no longer living, and Kevin was a treasure trove of information.
One story he told was of going to a Veterans Memorial fundraiser with Warren Spahn, with whom he’d become friends by the late 1990s. While there, he met Bert Shepard, a one-game pitcher who’d lost a leg after being shot down as a fighter pilot in WWII, and played his game on a prosthetic! This gave me a direct connection and a frame through which to tell Shepard’s story.
My interviews with Kevin came relatively late in the game, and his insights helped inform my writing and editorial decisions as I worked through rewrites and the closing chapter of my book.
When I started interviewing major-league umpires, I expected most of them to be reticent, reserved and reluctant to talk. Some were, but out of nearly 80, only four or five out declined the opportunity. Some were more loquacious than others, of course, but most were gracious and offered valuable insights to their lives and work. I talked to most of these umpires in person, waylaying them as they arrived before games at Boston’s Fenway Park. Several, including Ted Barrett and Chris Guccione, were particularly welcoming. Hunter Wendelstedt invited me to visit his Florida-based umpire school over the winter. I had my longest talk with Tim Timmons as he walked the streets of New York from his hotel to the Replay Operations Center, then followed up with him later at Fenway. I met Joe West once in Boston and later in a hotel in midtown Manhattan. I twice missed Tripp Gibson at Fenway, and then a third time at Yankee Stadium, but we finally caught up in Boston later in the year and talked while sitting on a grounds-crew cart under the stands. I wish I’d thought to have someone take a photo of us.
The SABR Baseball Bio Project, at SABR's website, contains volunteer-researched and written profiles of more than 5,000 players, coaches, managers, umpires and executives. Given that many of the players I was writing about did not have books written about them, I relied a great deal upon the Project's write-ups for source material.
I have found with many book projects over the years that the best place to do research is the library at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It is a treasure trove of rare pictures, books and articles, and was especially helpful for the 480-page, 2020 edition of The New Baseball Bible. I'm fortunate to live less than four hours away by car, and to have many friends among the staff, especially Bruce Markusen, Jim Gates and new Hall of Fame president Tim Mead. Also, I got used to wearing latex gloves, which we now need almost everywhere.
The most integral resources to me in writing "The Hall Ball" were Baseball-Reference, the BioProject of SABR, Protoball, and the Negro Leagues Database at Seamheads. It is not an exaggeration to say that with these four tools, there is not a lot of already-discovered baseball history that isn't covered.
My most unexpected source was a book called "A General Theory of Love," written by three UCSF psychiatrists. It explained the neuroscience of relationships — namely, how profoundly we are influenced both emotionally and physiologically by those around us. The book never mentions team chemistry, the subject of my book, but it's there on every page.
In 1988 my wife Ellen and I drove to Cooperstown, NY, for a Society for American Baseball Research meeting. While I was busy with that, she toured the Hall of Fame. On the way out of town, idling at the only stoplight in downtown Cooperstown, she asked, "Who was this Effa Manley, anyway?" She had spent part of her visit in the Hall's Negro Leagues exhibit, and at that moment she knew much more about the Negro Leagues than I did.
She urged me to write something about Effa, and I worked at getting smart about black baseball. I belonged to the Albany SABR chapter, which the following summer hosted SABR's national convention. While there, I buttonholed Dick Clark, one of the preeminent SABRites when it came to the Negro Leagues, looking for sources about Mrs. Manley and her Newark Eagles. He pointed out a guy sitting under a tree in Cooper Park, next to the Hall. “That's Larry Hogan,” he said. “Talk to him." Larry, a history professor in northern New Jersey, had just arranged for the donation of the Eagles business files to the Newark Public Library by the fellow who discovered them in the Manleys' old basement after buying their house in Newark. In the in the process of writing the first edition of Effa's biography, Queen of the Negro Leagues,I made about 20 research trips to Newark to go through those files, the greatest single source of original Negro Leagues documents anywhere.
That question at the stoplight, and the subsequent little chat in Cooper Park, paid enormous dividends.
I’ve spent weeks at the Giamatti Research Library at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The Sporting News archive made accessible by my SABR membership is invaluable. My most unexpected source of information, however, has been a single book, which I’d barely heard of before I bought it. Last published in 2005, it’s called The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, by Jonathan Fraser Light, and it’s a beast: 1,105 tightly packed pages of baseball history and arcana, alphabetically organized by topic.
Opening randomly just now, I get the following, under Bonus Clauses and Incentives: “ ‘Million Dollar Kid’ – Nickname for Lew Moren ... [who] earned the name because his father, a steamboat owner, reportedly paid him $100 every time he won a game. He made $4,800 on the deal based on his 48-57 Major League record.”
Or this, under Global Baseball League (1969), an entry detailing a league with teams based in North America, the Caribbean and Japan, which included Johnny Mize in a managerial role. The league folded very early in its inaugural season, but the kicker is this: “The Global League was eventually purchased by the Baptist Foundation, which apparently was part of a complicated scheme to defraud investors.”
There is literally more than a thousand pages of this. I love it so.
Before and during my time writing Stealing Home I was part of a writing group in LA that would meet every Thursday night, eat dinner, and workshop fiction. It was led by a writer/legend named Lou Mathews, and has been instrumental in helping me become a better writer. I happened to talk about book research to a friend there named Chelika, who worked at the Getty Museum. She mentioned that they had a big old archive of documents related to public housing in LA, and that I should come check them out. It turned out that they had even more than either of us realized: videos, oral history recordings, and tons and tons of photos. The Getty also turned out to be the most beautiful place possible to spend long days pouring through old files. The research I did there helped me write about the public housing issues with more authority and detail.
My unexpected source of information was Jim Bouton's basement. He was a pack rat who saved pretty much everything, so a trip down there allowed me to go through his life, item by item. I went there as an afterthought, in a sort of, "Oh, what's down there?" moment. That led to the treasure trove, with Bouton pulling out this and that, showing me how it was supposed to work or what it meant. So my advice for other authors is to check out Jim Bouton's basement. Because who knows, right?
Bill James, Rob Neyer, Tom Tango, Eno Sarris and Bill Arnold. Chapter 21 in “24” gets into Willie Mays’ statistics through the lens of today’s thinking, today’s analytics and how players are valued in today’s game. Mays won two MVP awards, and after conversations with these amazing writers/historians/ statisticians, I wonder if he should have won between eight and 11.
James, the godfather of the modern analytic movement, shared his thoughts on the Mays-Mantle debate and offered his Wins Shares metric to point out that Mantle had better peak seasons — as did other center fielders like Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker — while Mays had the superior career, especially when examining consistency. I absolutely loved one of Bill’s comments, which is featured on the back cover: “Willie Mays’ best season is ... every year. Just pick one. They’re all great.”
Neyer, whose perspectives of history I’ve long admired, including his many works on Mays, said that when judging Mays and Mantle, it should be known that Mays’ league, which was quicker to integrate, was “quite a lot better,” making it easier to favor Mays. Rob makes a case for Mays deserving more MVPs, and explained why he was actually better than his WAR, which shows Mays in the top three according to FanGraphs, and top five according to Baseball Reference.
Sarris was a major help. I bothered him a bunch to make sure that all my numbers were accurate and fit the storytelling. Eno called Mays “easily the best center fielder of all time,” and noted that his No. 3 ranking behind Ruth and Bonds “is Mount Rushmore for me.”
Tango, senior data architect for MLB Advanced Media, shared his thoughts on Mays’ famous catch in the ’54 World Series at the Polo Grounds, where dead center was a mere 483 feet from the plate. Tom was great helping me break down Willie’s five tools compared with those of the top players from 2019.
Arnold, my long-time press box neighbor and pal, supplied numbers that showed the uniqueness of Mays, including his popularity (the Giants consistently led the league in road attendance on Willie’s watch) and durability (from 1951 through 1962, he missed just 21 games — playing in 1,534 our ot 1,555, or 99 percent — during which the Giants’ record was 7-14).