Alexander Cartwright by Monica Nucciarone: a short review

A pretty much straightforward biography, very well done, with the bulk of the baseball content in what amounts to an appendix. The overall general conclusion is that Cartwright was an important early American settler in Hawaii; the baseball conclusion is that he was indeed a pioneer, though not exactly the pioneer we’ve been led to believe.

Revision History:

Base Ball Pioneers and Base Ball Founders by Peter Morris et al, editors: a short review

Here are two impressive, and rather bulky, companion books, written by a couple dozen authors who’ve been researching the origins of the sport. Both concentrate on the years when base ball was developing from its New York roots into the National Pastime. Both books are excellent, and the overall project is a delight. These books begin around 1850 and end around 1870, though those dates were clearly treated as guidelines rather than boundaries. Base Ball Founders considers the development of the game in the northeast, while Base Ball Pioneers covers clubs in the rest of the country.

Generally speaking, both books are organized geographically. For each city or region considered, there’s an overview essay about development of the sport in the area, followed by notes about clubs that played in that vicinity. While there’s some slight variation in format, the typical club essay begins with an overview describing the club’s beginning, its ending, the social origins of its membership, the most important members, a number of specific games and/or seasons, and an assessment of the club’s importance in the sport’s development (or, in some cases, in local society). Most club essays are followed by biographical sketches of the club’s members. All have short bibliographical notes, and sometimes-interesting footnotes.

Each club essay is designed to be self-contained, which generates a certain amount of redundancy, but that turns out to be relatively painless. Although the books have a large number of authors, there are no jarring stylistic or organizational changes from essay to essay, which speaks well of the editors. The important differences between the club sections result from varying documentation–while some clubs are extensively documented, others left only light paper trails. (There are similar differences in the biographical essays, which is aggravated by the difficulty of researching the lives of folks with common names.) For those interested in such things, watching these researchers cope with varying resources is part of the enjoyment; these folks are quite aware of their sources, and discuss some of them at great length. And a surprise: The authors’ extensive use of quotation shows that “national pastime” became part of the sport’s lexicon much earlier than I’d expected.

These books are primarily about clubs who played early baseball–that is, the New York game. The Massachusetts game gets some coverage as many New England clubs began playing that version before accepting the national consensus, and other varieties of the sport get occasional mentions, but except in a couple club essays there’s little discussion of the reasons the New York game prevailed. This is a book about clubs and regions, and only incidentally about the sport’s roots and rivals.

All in all, two excellent books. Both should be in the library of anyone with a serious interest in the early history of the game baseball.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

The Baseball Analyst Issue 8, edited by Jim Baker: a review

Bill James published 40 issues of The Baseball Analyst in the 1980s. All are available on SABR’s website.

The eighth Baseball Analyst, dated October 1983, is quite strong. It featured six analytical pieces and a delightful “letter to the editor” by Dallas Adams commenting on Issue 7 (more favorably than I did, by the way). And this is the issue that Bill James used to launch Project Scoresheet, which eventually wrought a revolution in baseball analysis. All in all, it’s a difficult issue to fault.

The first “real” article in the issue was by Barry Mednick, who did some scoring sequence analysis of play-by-play data he’d collected during the season. The study of course suffers from sample issues–all the data was from A’s or Giants games–but it’s an interesting early pbp study, with a bit of analysis and a couple pages of numbers. Mednick finds some interesting differences reflecting the characters of the two ballclubs in the study. A good start.

Warren Johnson’s “On Handedness and Pitchers’ Fielding” was a followup on Mark Lazarus’ study reported in Issue 4 of the Analyst–specifically, Johnson was reacting to a question Lazarus raised about “junk-balling lefties” and team defense. Johnson concludes that some relationship exists–a result he’d not expected–but that the effect is both weak and different from Lazarus’ hypothesis. He also finds that there’s a league effect involved. This is an excellent study, far more than just an extension of the Lazarus paper, and worth seeking out.

Clem Comly–credited here as C. Comly–offers a single-page exploration of pitchers’ range factors which fits quite nicely as an addendum to the Johnson piece. Comly’s main intention is to show the shape of the data, so he (and we) would have a better grasp of the capabilities of individual pitchers.

Dick O’Brien’s contribution to this issue is a study of K/HR ratios for power hitters. This is similar to his work in earlier issues of the Analyst, but by now he’s discovered that adding more explanation to what he’s exploring is worthwhile, so the article’s easier to follow. One of his conclusions is that truly high strikeout rates cannot be balanced by production.

David Aceto’s short essay explores the mathematics of a single ballpark effect–the impact of an enlarged foul territory on batting average. The math looks OK, but the conclusion that it takes about 8 foul outs per game for a team to lose 20 points on BA seems, well, wrong–at best it’s the correct answer to the wrong question. The author notes the study is flawed because he has no data to test his hypothesis (which he apparently borrowed from Bill James). I’m guessing that the reality is more complicated than the author’s model. Perhaps someone followed up with real data.

The final sabermetric essay is John Schwartz’ very short exploration of the advantage a left-handed batter has on the basepaths. He’s mostly raising questions with this one, but the small table he provides is worth a look.

Jim Baker’s second issue’s far more interesting than was his first. Besides the notes from Bill James and Dallas Adams, mentioned at the top of this review, he’s sandwiched the issue with requests for material from the readers. The first reimagines the periodical as a supermarket tabloid paper; the other as a Max Patkin movie. They’re not really worth the price of admission, but they probably tell us something about Baker.

Revision History:

The Baseball Analyst Issue 7: a review

Bill James published 40 issues of The Baseball Analyst in the 1980s. All are available on SABR’s website.

The seventh Baseball Analyst, dated August, 1983, has to be called a disappointment. Not only was there no outstanding piece of research in this edition, what did appear can mostly be characterized as uninteresting. Most of the contributions rehash issues already discussed in earlier editions. It happens that the seventh issue was the first edited by Jim Baker, but it’s certainly not his fault that the submissions were weak. This issue, as do many, begins with a plea for more material. Young Jim was perhaps too polite to ask for better material.

Dick O’Brien repeated the study on Batting Order Position production he’d reported in Issue 2. Adding more data turned out to pretty much reproduce the original result. This is worth reporting, but it’s hardly exciting.

Dallas Adams’ contribution, “On the Probability of Hitting .400,” we’ve seen before–I briefly mentioned it in my review of the 1981 Baseball Research Journal (which I posted a few days ago). The two essays are substantially the same, but this version appears to date from 1977–it had presumably been hiding somewhere in Bill James’ office for six years. Despite the redundancy, this article’s quite good.

Gary Brown’s “A Trend Analysis of Batting Averages” is simply weak. It’s mostly a commentary, with a few graphs, about changing tendencies in BA over time. His main point is that professional ball makes occasional adjustments to keep offense and defense in balance. The essay would have had some value at two pages; at ten pages it’s got to be considered filler. The Adams piece made similar points, in far fewer pages, with far better analysis.

John Schwartz offered a one-page note on the relative values of relief wins, losses, and saves, framed as a way to improve the TSN and Rolaids “Firemen” awards. The math here looks good, but it’s not clear that the exercise was worthwhile.

Finally, Pete Palmer’s brief examination of “The Distribution of Wins” briefly summarizes the literature on the subject, extends it a bit based on his own research, and throws in a statistics lesson based on a Dallas Adams contribution from Analyst Issue 1. All told, though, this is more interesting as a window into Palmer’s mind than as a contribution to baseball research. Pete was building a system for analysis; this was one of his blocks.

Revision History:

Baseball Research Journal 1981 edited by Bob Davids: a review

This BRJ edition is available online via the SABR website.

The tenth Baseball Research Journal, published late in 1981, is perhaps a step down from the previous edition, largely because it doesn’t contain any classic research essays. What it does contain is mostly solid research, well presented, on a wide variety of topics.

This edition’s first two articles, Emil Rothe’s “Was the Federal League a Major League?” and Raymond Kush’s “The Building of Wrigley Field” are not really related, but their topics overlap a bit and because they led off the issue I rather expected more Federal League material. Rothe, by the way, gives his question a qualified “Yes” answer. The evidence is mixed, as he shows.

The issue contains two biographical essays built around interviews–Allen Quimby on Red Lucas, and Eugene Murdock on Leroy Parmelee. Jim Riley and John Holway profiled black players Dave Barnhill (a Negro Leaguer) and Jose Mendez (an early 1900s Cuban barnstormer). Robert Cole told about radio broadcaster Al Helfer, who did “Game of the Day” broadcasts on the Liberty and Mutual Networks after the Second World War. The edition’s best profile is of Ray Fisher, written by Dave Proctor, who examines Fisher’s playing career, why he got blacklisted by the Commissioner, and his subsequent life, most prominently as coach at the University of Michigan. The Fisher profile may well be the longest piece ever published in BRJ–but it’s quite excellent. Others profiled include Walter Johnson (by Ron Liebman), Hurricane Hazle (Tom Jozwik), and Ted Lyons (Thomas Karnes)

Sabermetric efforts included William Akins’ attempt to identify the best fielders of the late 1800s and Dallas Adams’ nice attempt to draw the parameters necessary to study the probability of hitting .400. Bill Rubenstein’s useful extension of the Dick Cramer study (in the 1980 BRJ)–Cramer demonstrated increasing major league batting skill over time–identifies a few significant issues (and there’s a response from Cramer at the end). Cliff Frolich and Garry Scott contributed an exploration of “Where Fans Sit to Catch Baseballs”–this study’s weaknesses include some sampling issues and a less-than-fully-explained methodology, but their conclusions seem reasonable. James Skipper’s examination of player nicknames has a sabermetric appearance–tables and numbers–but is all in all unsatisfying, as I quibbled with his definitions and learned less than I’d hoped. The same is true of James Maywar’s examination of strikeout pitchers, which just seemed misguided.

A personal favorite article in this issue is John Pardon’s “A Bizarre Game of Baseball.” Not only was the game played in a predecessor of the Midwest League, it was absolutely preposterous. (Read Pardon’s item here; I’ve quoted it elsewhere for other purposes.) The issue’s other minor league piece describes a Minor League All-Star Game played at Cooperstown in 1939, and discusses why the effort didn’t continue.

There were fewer entries in the List with Explanation category in the 1981 edition. Ray Gonzalez’ “Pitchers Giving Up Home Runs” is a pioneering effort in that direction, and as usual with this author is quite well done. William Akins’ fielding study, mentioned above, fits the list pattern but this list is pretty short. Joseph Donner listed all the major league cycle hitters. Bob Davids’ piece on steals fits the pattern, too. Another short list was James Maywar’s examination of strikeout pitchers, which I dismissed a couple paragraphs ago.

For the record, I found this edition of Al Kermisch’s “Researcher’s Notebook” to be weak. It read more like an assigned piece than actual research notes.

The issue ends with a look at the 1892 season, which (like 1981) was a split season, and examines the parallels, differences, and consequences. I’m guessing this unattributed article was composed by Davids.

All in all this is a fairly strong issue, but there’s nothing really special here.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

The Burlington Fire

The recent fire at West Michigan’s ballyard set me to searching for coverage of the only comparable event in Midwest League history, the fire at Community Field in Burlington, Iowa, on June 8, 1971. The best treatment I could locate was in the Des Moines Register on June 10.

The caption under Larry Neibergall’s front page photo read:

Firemen play streams of water on the burning grandstand at Burlington’s Community Field early Wednesday in a futile effort to save the stadium. Loss in the fire, which swept through the wooden structure, was estimated at $75,000. John Cox, general manager of the Burlington Bees professional team which plays its home games at the field, said he was working in the office at the stadium late Tuesday and though he heard a noise outside. He went to investigate and found a section of the grandstand in flames. Cox escaped moments before the grandstand collapsed.

There was more detail on page 2-8:

Burlington Damage Set At $75,000

A fire Tuesday night which practically destroyed Community Field, home of Burlington’s Midwest League baseball team, caused an estimated $75,000 damage, authorities revealed Wednesday.

The Bees’ office said workmen were tearing down the charred remains of the grandstand in preparation for this weekend’s action. The park’s new lighting system, with the exception of one pole, remained intact.

Bee General Manager John Cox was working in the team’s offices at the park when the fire broke out. Cox said he heard what sounded like footsteps outside his office at about 11:30 pm.

Cox investigated, but found no one. A short time later, he investigated again and discovered the first-base stands ablaze.

The fire destroyed one dugout, a concession stand, the press box, the team’s offices, a ticket booth and most of the wooden grandstands.

A car parked outside the grandstand belonging to Bee player Tommy Sandt was destroyed by the blaze, but three other autos and a camper were moved in time after their windows were broken. The Bees’ home uniforms were at the cleaners and escaped the fire.

The ball park, constructed in the 1940s, is owned by the American Legion, which leases it to the city. The city, in turn, leases the facility to the Burlington Baseball Association, which operates the Bees.

The Bees, who were playing at Appleton, Wis., Tuesday night, are scheduled to return home Sunday night for a game with Quincy, Ill. A high school doubleheader between Assumption of Davenport and Burlington was played at the stadium just hours before the fire.

The Burlington High School Invitation baseball tournament will go on as scheduled Saturday at the stadium, which will have temporary bleachers.

Burlington’s current facility dates from the 1973 season.

Found the newspaper coverage via

Revision History:

Weaver on Strategy by Earl Weaver & Terry Pluto: a very short review

An extremely readable book describing Earl Weaver’s approach to managing the Baltimore Orioles. To all appearances the intended audience was mainly fans. Best read in March, methinks.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Baseball Research Journal 1980 edited by Bob Davids: a review

The 1980 BRJ, like most editions, is now available on SABR’s website.

This is the strongest Baseball Research Journal edition yet. It features one of the classic works of sabermetric analysis, some excellent biographical portraits, a look at minor league umpiring practice in 1900, a glimpse at the 1880 opening of the original Polo Grounds, some analysis of why Fulton County Stadium was a launching pad, and an interview with Joe Oeschger about the longest major league game and other memories. Authors included Stew Thornley, Seymour Siwoff(!), David Smith, Ted DiTullio, and Richard Cramer. This issue has, of course, some variations in quality, but there’s really nothing you could fairly characterize as filler in this edition.

The classic sabermetric piece is Dick Cramer’s “Average Batting Skill Through Major League History,” which uses a moving average based on Cramer’s Batter Win Average (BWA) statistic (discussed in the 1977 BRJ) in an attempt to discover whether player performance has increased or decreased over time. I’d read this piece before, and been concerned about Cramer’s treatment of outliers, but this re-read has convinced me that he handled my concerns adequately. There is room for some quibbling, of course, but his basic point–that the talent level of major league players has increased substantially over the years, and that it continues to increase–is well argued and well supported by his data. This article is often cited as an important early analytical effort, which it is; someone should apply modern methodologies to the question and see how things hold up.

The early chapters of the 1980 edition are devoted to the post-playing careers of Billy Sunday (by Robert Muhlbach), Alfred W. Lawson (Lyell Henry), and Frank W. Olin (Tom Hufford). Henry’s Lawson piece is particularly interesting.

A number of events are commemorated in this journal, including The Last Tripleheader (A.D. Suehsdorf), a 1880 night game between two department store teams (Oscar Eddleton), and the Polo Grounds opening mentioned above (John J. O’Malley). Seasons considered include Joe Bauman’s 72 HR campaign (Bart Ripp) and the 1884 St. Paul Unions (Stew Thornley–I think his first SABR publication). Biographical treatments, besides those mentioned above, included Negro Leaguer Cannonball Dick Redding (John Holway) and nineteenth century star Jim Sheckard (Gregg Dubbs). There’s also a cute little piece on Rube Waddell playing college ball, writen by Harold Esch.

More or less sabermertic pieces, besides Cramer’s effort, included Seymour Siwoff’s accounting of some previously-undiscovered RBI records, David Smith on stolen bases (using Maury Wills data–and evidently Smith’s first SABR pub), and John Schwartz’ look at Intentional Walks.

Robert Kingsley’s look at Atlanta home run rates and Richard Burtt’s similar look at Pittsburgh triple rates both seem inadequate, as both explicitly discount what seem to be obvious causes (altitude in the Atlanta case, field dimensions in the Pittsburgh case). I think this is partly a case of we better understand these dynamics nowadays, and partly willful blindness on the authors’ parts.

There are, of course, the usual array of lists-with-explanatory-paragraphs; I shan’t list them here. Al Kermisch’s Researchers Notebook looked, among other things, at a postponed game in the 1918 World Series, Silver King’s no hitter, the 1889 Louisville player’s strike, and a recording error in Harry Schafer’s fielding records. Along the same lines was Arthur Ahrens attempt to pin down a story about an oft-misreported Bill Lange catch–Lange supposedly went through the outfield fence. Ahrens offers a plausible reconstruction which suggests that a couple odd incidents in a single game got garbled as folks retold the story.

So there’s some biography, some excellent historical work, a couple minor league pieces, and a key analytical piece. Something for every SABR audience.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Joel’s Lansing Lugnut Notes: an introduction

Although blogs hadn’t yet been invented, seventeen years ago I kept a Lansing Lugnuts weblog, which I called Joel’s Lansing Lugnut Notes. The 1996 Luggies were a new team. I began keeping the online journal because I’d been watching Midwest League (MWL) play for several summers and figured I had something to contribute to the Lansing discussion. As things worked out I did a writeup after each series, and composed a few other pages as inspiration struck. I plan to repost all of the weblog entries, and most of the other pages, to this journal over the next few months. Most will be posted 17 years to the day after they were originally written.

My MWL website, A Fan’s Guide to the Midwest League, was a spinoff from my Luggie journal. I’ve discussed this transition elsewhere on this blog, and will doubtless do so again.

Our Main Characters

Lansing’s team was (and remains) owned by the Chicago-based husband-and-wife team of Tom Dickson and Sherrie Myers. They’d purchased the Waterloo, Iowa, team after the 1993 season and moved it to Springfield, Illinois, when lease negotiations with the Waterloo city fathers broke down. This occurred shortly before play began in ’94. Early in 1995 they committed to move the team to Lansing, and we’d all been impatiently waiting for the team’s arrival.

In 1996 the Lugnuts’ general manager was Jim Weigel. The team’s on-field host was Jason Colthorp Michael Baird [see Jason’s comment, below], and Mike VanderWood (note the spelling change) was the Luggies’ radio voice

The original Lugnut team was a Kansas City Royals affiliate. The Royals assigned Brian Poldberg, a minor league lifer, to manage the team. Poldberg was assisted by hitting coach Curtis Wilkerson and pitching coach Mike Moore, both of whom were former major league players. Jeff Stevenson was the trainer.

Forty young players appeared on the field during Lansing’s team’s inaugural season. Seven of those players–Carlos Beltran, Carlos Febles, Kevin Hodges, Mark Quinn, Jose Santiago, Matt Treanor, and Jeff Wallace–eventually appeared in the majors. Beltran, of course, is nearing the end of what may be a Hall of Fame career, but played only briefly in Lansing. Treanor was still catching in 2012, though his prospects for playing this summer appear slim. But my story’s as much about the other guys, all of whom will be able to tell their grandkids they played professional ball.

I will, of course, also mention (and sometimes discuss) other 1996 Midwest League players as their (remembered) teams pass through Olds Park. In retrospect the big names were David Ortiz (Big Papi was going by Arias, not Ortiz, in 1996) and A.J. Pierzynski. In 1996, of course, it was by no means clear who would become major league stars. Frankly, I didn’t care. I still don’t, for that matter.

My Plan

Since I’m already a few entries behind, I plan to catch up to today-seventeen-years-back over the next few days. Thereafter I plan to post entries in time-delayed real time. I expect to post most of those exactly as I originally wrote them, even when I said something obviously stupid (I’ll likely add some hyperlinks–and either delete or fix some broken links). It’s also likely that I’ll add some commentary in each entry’s first comment.

How I plan to publicize postings:

  • I’ll list new entries in the first comment on this page. You could bookmark it, and check from time to time.
  • You could bookmark this Lugnuts Notes directory page, and occasionally check there for new listings. The difference between this option and the “comment” option is the descriptions.
  • I’ll create link-back pages on this blog pointing to the new (back-dated) entry every time I post something. The link-back pages will be temporary, as I plan to delete each as the next link-back is posted.
  • I’ll mention the new entries on Facebook, which of course will only notify my FB friends. I’ll do the same on my Google+ page, which is a bit more public.
  • I’ll mention the new entries on my Twitter feed.

I expect this to be fun, and I’m looking forward to the feedback. Thanks for reading.

Bill James Presents The Great American Baseball Stat Book (1988) edited by Don Zminda and Project Scoresheet

My review of the first book in this series set attracted a note from Geoff Beckman, who helped edit both editions. It would likely be worth your while to read Geoff’s comments before reading on….

Geoff considers this the weaker volume, and on the whole he’s right, as it lacks the zing of the initial edition. There were 338 player essays (up from 240), but on the whole they’re less interesting. Too many read like spring training player profiles, emphasizing the player’s tools and potentials while downplaying his demonstrated weaknesses. This is not meant to imply that the essays are all bad. For instance, principal editor Zminda portrayed a stubborn and still-valuable Carlton Fisk on a Chicago team that didn’t much like him. Craig Wright’s commentary on Bret Saberhagen gives clues about the value Wright provided the Rangers as an early professional sabermetrician. Beckman’s own Mel Hall essay used six methods to frame Hall’s value and is absolutely delightful. Mike Kopf made an effort to get into Bo Jackson’s head. And Susan Nelson offered a fine look at Dennis Eckersley in transition from starter to reliever.

Nelson’s Eck portrait, in fact, illustrates the book’s unplanned theme: In 1987 baseball’s pitcher usage was in transition as most managers had largely abandoned the four man rotation and were retreating from their long-held preference that starting pitchers finish ballgames. In retrospect it’s pretty clear that the late eighties were a turning point, formalizing long-developing pitcher usage patterns in ways that few would have anticipated.

The second edition of the book added team essays, which were uniformly forgettable. These were followed by a set of truly interesting, but unsystematic, manager essays. For this reader, these justify the book’s existence.

There’s some worthwhile stuff in the back of the book. Gary Gillette–or perhaps the scoresheet project in general–offered some interesting measures of defensive ability, reworking range factor to measure opportunities more precisely. I’m not sure whether anyone followed up on this effort, but it’s certainly interesting. I’d like to see more work along these lines.

Gillette and Dave Nichols did something similar with base runners, measuring steals in terms of opportunities rather than attempts. This, too, seems to be a one-off effort, and again it would be interesting to see further work in this vein. The same authors also took a brief look at baserunner advancement on hits, not offering much analysis but presenting a few tables.

Mark Pankin followed up on his discussion, in the previous edition, on Markov Chain Analysis, mostly presenting better data but not really extending the earlier essay. Matthew Lieff and Gary Skoog considered a similar, but less calculation-intensive, approach to using the same data to examine the effectiveness of in-game strategies.

In other end-of-book essays, David Gordon looked at Quality Starts and found them meaningful. In contrast, Merrianna McCully offered scads of data about the weakness of contemporary pitching–a piece that I’d characterize as more entertaining than informative. And Brock Hanke described Whitey Herzog’s playing career, and pondered how it shaped the Cardinals organization when he became the team’s GM. The Hanke essay was a good preview of the work he’d later do elsewhere. It was also the book’s only piece I still remembered when re-reading 25 years later.

This was the first time I saw Hanke’s name in print. The same is true of several of the book’s other contributors: John Benson, Sherri Nichols, Stuart Shea, and Sean Lahman come quickly to mind. (Tom Tippett was there, too, as one of the project’s programmers.) Just bringing these folks (and Pankin, in the previous edition) to my attention is plenty of justification for the effort.

This was the last GABSB produced in this guise, though Gary Gillette would resurrect the title for another project a few years later. It was certainly a worthwhile experiment, but apparently wasn’t sustainable.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History: