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.

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