Sports Collectors Digest: The Works of Lee Allen

By Marty Appel

If you haven’t noticed, the classic pitching windup is a goner. With the exception of Hideo Nomo, there really aren’t any pitchers who bring their hands over their head prior to delivery, an act that managed to survive for more than a century, but has quietly all but vanished from the baseball landscape.

Where did it go? Pitching tutor Tom House, the former Braves and Red Sox reliever (who caught Hank Aaron’s 715th homer), believes it was killed by the San Diego Padres pitching instructors, who included, besides himself, Roger Craig, Brent Strom and Bob Cluck. “A waste of energy,” he called it.

One guy who would have made sure to nail the exact time of the switch would have been Lee Allen, the godfather of baseball historians. And once every decade or so, it is important to bring his name back so that the current generation of baseball fans remembers who he is.

Lee died of a heart attack on May 20, 1969, and did not live to see the culmination of his work reach print – the first edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia, published by MacMillan later that year. But as the preface says, “Allen – long known as ‘the walking encyclopedia of baseball’ – specialized in accumulating facts about the players. He had spent thirty years collecting the largest baseball demographic file in the country. A lot of that time had been spent visiting state record bureaus, speaking to ballplayers, corresponding with the descendants of ballplayers long dead, and even pursuing leads to graveyards to look at burial markers in search of information.

He smoked, he drank, and he died at 53, while serving as historian at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I met him there while I was a college student at nearby Oneonta, and despite my extremely amateur status in the game (I was sports editor of the weekly campus newspaper), he couldn’t have been more gracious, and more welcoming. A nice man.

And what a body of work he left behind, apart from his precision record keeping. He was a prolific author whose human-interest stories mixed with the game’s history kept multiple generations entertained.

Lee was assistant traveling secretary to Gabe Paul of the Cincinnati Reds in his late 20s, (a position immortalized by George Costanza on Seinfeld, but which in fact, very few teams employ).

After World War II, he replaced Paul in the top spot, and wrote to G.P. Putnam’s Sons when he saw that they were embarking on a collection of team histories. The histories, now considered the first important histories of each of the 16 teams, had yet to include a Reds edition. Allen wrote to the publisher, and despite his having been unpublished to that point, got the assignment. The book was published in 1948 when he was 33, and launched him on a writing career that would come to include “100 Years of Baseball,” (1950), “The Hot Stove League” (1955), “The National League” (1961), “The American League” (1962), “The Giants and the Dodgers” (1964), “Kings of the Diamond” (1965), and his last, “The World Series,” (1969). Of course, he could well receive co-author credit for the Encyclopedia, and in 1990, SABR published a collection of all 133 columns he wrote for The Sporting News between 1962-1969, called “Cooperstown Corner.”

There really isn’t a loser among them. Allen was a genius when it came to mixing historical fact with the sweetness of personal stories.

His style is well illustrated in this opening to a 1963 Sporting News column:

“The gorgeous incompetence of the Mets in recently losing 22 consecutive games on the road is a feat of considerable magnitude, but it should not be thought that the accomplishment is without parallel. In fact, news dispatches were careful to point out that Casey Stengel’s sad band merely duplicated and did not exceed what had been done in 1890 by the Pittsburgh team of the National League.

“Not yet called the Pirates, the Pittsburghs of 1890 were known as the Troubadours, and it was a baleful tune that they serenaded National League company. It was, apparently, a much worse team than the modern Mets, and by the season’s end, had won 23 and lost 114 for a percentage of .168.”

There you go; if Lee didn’t have you hungry to learn more about these awful early Pirates, you were no fan of good baseball writing.

The Cincinnati chapter of SABR is named for Waite Hoyt, the Hall of Fame pitcher and long-time Reds broadcaster, and Lee, who died before there was a SABR, but who would not doubt have been a vital member.

Most of his books are out of print, although Southern Illinois University Press seems determined to reissue all of the 16 Putnam histories, which would restore the Reds book to “in-print” status. “The Hot Stove League,” just a terrific collection of baseball essays, was reissued in softcover by Total Sports by May of 2000, and remains available. SABR still has a supply of “Cooperstown Corner” for sale. As for the rest, good hunting; every one is worth the effort.

Marty Appel’s memoir, “Now Pitching for the Yankees,” is being reissued this spring by Sport Classic Books. He can be reached at