Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Great American Book

I can still remember seeing it for the first time.  It was during the mid-1970s at the Worcester (MA) County Courthouse Law Library.  I may have been there to study for the bar exam or for law school or doing research for on my first job; I can't remember precisely why, but can distinctly remember seeing the book. I was a bit restless and walking around randomly looking around the library when I first saw it, a dark covered, large, hard-bound book that I had not known existed:

The Baseball Encyclopedia from Macmillan Publishing Company

I brought it over to where I'd been sitting and promptly lost myself in it, along with any sense of time.  It was a revelation and ended my law studies for the day .  As a kid, I'd always been fascinated by baseball statistics and history.  The problem was the only stats on the current season could be found once a week in the Sunday New York Times, while for history you had to rely on books, like the one my Dad gave me (around 1960) on the careers of Hall of Fame players, which had a basic summary of career stats. 

I could open The Baseball Encyclopedia, to any page and have multiple story lines laid out in front of me.  You could follow the game season to season, going back all the way to the National Association in 1871, read about the all-time leaders in pitching, batting and fielding and, most importantly of all look at the career and season records for everyone who'd played major league baseball. I can still remember one of the first players I looked up - Gavvy Cravath, who'd always fascinated me because of his name and that he'd been considered one of the great sluggers before Babe Ruth's arrival.  Here's his entry (picture is from the 6th Edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia (1985), which I own) in which we learned his full name was Clifford Carlton Cravath, born in Escondido, California in 1881. 

And just below it is that is an entry for Bill Craver, an infielder for the National League teams in New York and Louisville in 1876 and 1877.  Now, that is a great book, isn't it?

The man behind the original 1969 edition of the encyclopedia was David Neft.  He and his team went back to the original source materials to achieve their goal of creating the first comprehensive encyclopedia in American sport.  It proved to be a commercial success with the 2,338 page book eventually selling more than 100,000 copies.

Every time I returned to the law library I'd spend time with the encyclopedia, sometimes looking up specific players or seasons, sometimes just browsing for the sheer pleasure of finding something new.  Even when writing this piece, which took longer than planned because I kept losing myself looking at encyclopedia entries, I stumbled across Jim Kaat's pitching record and realized that 15 times in 16 seasons, he lost between 10 and 14 games - talk about consistent!  The only time he didn't was when he broke his hand sliding into second to break up a double play halfway through the 1972 season.  And, as all fans know, these records tell the story of lives lived, of success and failure, of glory cut short by injury or illness, unfulfilled promises, and surprising and inspiring comebacks.  It's the recognition that inspired Bill James' dream of creating a Fictional Baseball Encyclopedia.

And that goes to another wonderful thing about the encyclopedia; it provided a different relationship among data and players than my current go-to source for such information - Baseball-Reference.com.  Baseball Reference is a terrific resource but it provides you with the information you are specifically looking for.  When you find what you're looking for with The Baseball Encyclopedia, you are also seeing at the same time a lot of other interesting information.

Now, you'll have to excuse me, while I spend some more time browsing through the encyclopedia.


  1. When I first saw my friend's copy of the BB Encyclopedia in 1970, it seemed unthinkable it could even exist and that a fellow kid could own one. My copy, acquired in the 90's, sits in its original slipcover featuring the Yankee Stadium panorama. A treasure.

  2. Mine covers through 1975. When we moved last year and my wife suggested I ditch it ("It's all online!"), I demurred. Paper and the sense of touch.

    1. We are going thru the same process right now in anticipation of moving, but The Baseball Encyclopedia stays with us, for the same reasons.