Sports Collectors Digest: Big Mac, New stats unveil another Ruth home run

January 19, 2010

By Marty Appel

And now, a word about “Big Mac.” I’ve been spending a lot of time at lately, finding new twists and turns, and admiring all that it includes. What a fabulous site it is.

I paused the other day to think about a book now 40 years old that produced the same “ooooh’s and aaaahs” when it arrived in the mail in conjunction with baseball’s gala centennial celebration of 1969 – commemorating 100 years of professional baseball.

The Baseball Encyclopedia was the successor to the Thompson-Turkin Official Encyclopedia of Baseball, a much loved, much updated be-all and end-all book that gave you every player who ever played in the majors, and just the briefest summary of their annual stats.

The Baseball Encyclopedia was the first computer-driven sports publication, and the first book of any kind typeset by computer. It came to be called “Big Mac” – both as a nickname for the publisher (sometimes it was called the Macmillan Encyclopedia), and a contemporary nod to Willie McCovey, the MVP in the National League. If you’re a baseball fan, it is no “stretch” (another play on McCovey) to say that this was the first truly valuable use of computers in the dawning computer age.

A company called Information Concepts included baseball stat geeks and people who understood the value of the coming computer age. This was before personal computers, but big IBM mainframes could be used to crunch statistics. The data was entered onto punch cards (which you were told you could neither fold, spindle nor mutilate).

The editorial staff was headed by David Neft, director of research, and Robert Markel (executive editor at Macmillan), with nods to historian John Tattersall and to Lee Allen, historian at the Baseball Hall of Fame, who was an inspirational force in getting the project done, even if, like Moses, he never did see the promised land. Lee died on May 20, 1969 at age 54, having seen page proofs, but not a bound edition.

The book was published in August, and launched with a big press conference in New York presided over by Bowie Kuhn, the Commissioner of Baseball. The New York Times devoted a four-column story to it. It cost $25.

“It took just seven hours to print the 2,000 pages,” noted Neft, “but a year and a half to tell the computer what to do.”

The project was broken down into three staffs: historical, research and the programming people.

The biggest additions were the full lines of games, at bats, runs, hits, doubles, triples, etc. that were common on baseball cards and in the annual Who’s Who and Baseball Register, but not in an encyclopedia covering all of the players in history. There were about 10,000 then – there are about 17,000 now.

The researchers also went back with box scores and calculated missing stats – like RBIs, saves and earned run average – which were not calculated in the game’s early years, and which were able to be recovered and listed from the beginnings of time. That created legitimate all-time leaders in those departments. Ed Walsh was the all-time ERA leader at 1.82. We didn’t know that before!

The findings stirred up some early controversy when it was disclosed – prior to publication, that researchers had unearthed a 715th home run for Babe Ruth! Based on a rule in which balls that bounced into the stands counted as home runs during a stretch of time, (1926-31) one would be added to Ruth’s total. (The wall had to be less than 250 feet from home plate).

This provoked wide coverage and yes, outrage. Hank Aaron would be shooting for one more than we had always thought. The public reaction was so strong that the researchers found a way to say “never mind” after baseball’s rules committee got involved with the study.

I especially liked that pitcher’s batting records, year-by-year, were included. I’d never seen that published before. It was dropped in later editions, making it necessary to hold onto the inaugural edition if for no more reason that that.

Working in the Yankees PR office at the time, Bob Fishel, Bill Guilfoile and I decided to add a page to our press guide showing the top 20 Yankees in each statistical department, all-time. For players who had divided seasons between the Yankees and another team, it was impossible to determine the break in numbers. So we called on the researchers at Big Mac, and they provided it in a day. That was my first personal memory of dealing with those good people.

So expensive was that inaugural volume, handsomely presented in a slipcase, that I bought it in a plan that called for four monthly payments, and it included a copy of Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times.

Neft, along with Roland Johnson, Richard Cohen and Jordan Deutsch, all in their late 20s and early 30s, would stick together over the years to produce the annual Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball, which ceased publication after it’s 2007 edition. Neft, now 72 and retired in Manhattan, still takes great pride in the breakthroughs provided by the book, and enjoys the modern work of researchers, particularly those involved with Project Retrosheet.

The enormity of baseball fans’ joy at the publication of this book is almost hard to reconstruct today, when so much is expected from baseball stat sites. It was common to call it the book you would want with you if marooned on a desert island. My own copy is a little worn because of all the times I would just pick it up and browse through it, without any research need called for. It was the best of all baseball gifts in the year of the game’s centennial.