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SABR 50 at 50 Highlights

As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, SABR has produced 50 at 50: The Society for American Baseball Research’s Fifty Most Essential Contributions to the Game, a collection of groundbreaking research essays from the Baseball Research Journal and the National Pastime. As the first step in the charter collaboration, the Pandemic Baseball Book Club’s Jason Turbow moderated “A Conversation Between Authors,” a panel discussion about the book and how it came to be, among its primary editors: John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian; SABR board president Mark Armour; vice president Leslie Heaphy; and board member Bill Nowlin, who served as the project’s lead editor.

The Pandemic Baseball Book Club is proud to join SABR as a charter community, with which its members can interact to exchange research, find baseball experts for speaking engagements, and expand the study of baseball for all involved.

Jim Overmyer, member of both SABR and the PBBC, extracted highlights from the conversation:

How did 50 at 50 get started?

Thorn: “It must have come to me after a couple of beers at a SABR board meeting that I was invited to attend, and it struck everybody instantly as a really good showcase for SABR. … The challenge was gathering from 15,000 stories the 50 that finally appear. … The only way we could see to do it was for each of the four of us to take a chronological period in SABR’s publication history and scour that.”

Armour: “Many of SABR’s best works have probably happened over a pint among collegial friends who started out talking about something else.”

The group ultimately reduced the field to some 200 entries, which they set to assiduously winnowing down to the final 50.

What was selection process? Were you all satisfied with it?

Bill Nowlin

Nowlin: “We wanted to make our own cut at it, and then we went to the various research committees in SABR to suggest items they felt should be represented. Then we opened it up to the entire membership, and we got quite a few individual nominations. ... The goal was very much to keep the articles in the same form as they originally appeared ... for the most part we fended off that wish to improve.”

Heaphy: “We relied on one another’s expertise and one another’s knowledge. ... I found it very enjoyable to read things that I had not read before, and to go back and read things I had not read in a long time.”

Armour: “I’m confident we got 50 great stories. ... My view of SABR’s publications history was very positive when I started this project; by the time I got to the end I was somewhat overwhelmed, and quite proud.”

What articles were particularly special to you?

John Thorn

Thorn: “The very first piece in the book, which to me is emblematic of how everyone in SABR stands on someone else’s shoulders. It is a story by Fred Lieb from the 1973 Baseball Research Journal, in which he recollects his old friend, Ernie Lanigan. Lieb, who was a SABR member in 1973, had commenced his career writing for Baseball magazine in 1909. Ernie Lanigan had commenced his career in 1898, working for Spink and The Sporting News. For us to think that we stand on the shoulders not only of those who have been in the 50 years of SABR, but the 70 years prior to that, is pretty cool.”

Armour: “An article that Pete Palmer wrote on the relationship between runs and wins. ... This forms the basis for virtually all player evaluation metrics today. ... Pete was the first person who wrote down how one could make this intellectual leap. If you read some of these early stories, you can see the wheels turning on some of these ideas that are now running baseball operations departments today.”

Leslie Heaphy

Heaphy, on the all-female Colorado Silver Bullets barnstorming team: “For me, it was a story that had not been told. I’m always interested in those kinds of ideas. [This story] looked at the Colorado Silver Bullets in a way that wasn’t just a here’s-who-they-are approach; it was asking some serious questions about how this happened and could it be successful and why did they come to be and why did they fail?”

What is the main takeaway you would like readers to take from this book?

Thorn: “This is a collegial organization, an organization of friends, an organization that shares insights and memories, where everybody is willing to work for somebody else. It goes both ways. I could not have attained whatever level in baseball I have had it not been for my association with SABR members.”

Mark Armour

Armour: “This book is in some ways a look backward, SABR bragging about all of the wonderful things we’ve done. I would also add that the future is even brighter. … It’s a lot broader organization than ever. We have committees and people that are interested in writing about a lot of areas that have not been as much written about in the past.”

Heaphy: “It’s the depth and breadth of the knowledge that is present in SABR. If you have an interest in any aspect of baseball at all, you’re going to find somebody else who you can share that with, and that’s shown in this book.”

Thorn: “For us it’s clear in this book that the past is a living thing. It’s not something we yanked out of a file drawer. This is a special and delicious pleasure.”


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