Sports Collectors Digest: The Evolution of Baseball Encyclopedias

By Marty Appel

Long before lovers of baseball stats fell in love with Total Baseball, and before that, The Baseball Encyclopedia (“Big Mac,” after MacMillan, the publisher), there were three important works that preceded it. And although they are long out of date, and as such, not especially important anymore, they were the roots from which Big Mac and Total Baseball emerged. It is worth remembering them.

Annual listings of past champions and league leaders could be found in the annual Spalding and Reach Guides, but the first to appear as an encyclopedic book was called “Balldom: The Britannica of Baseball,” and if it didn’t quite use the word encyclopedia in its title, that was close enough. Written by George L. Moreland and published in New York in 1914, it contained each team’s yearly roster, including defunct teams. And while not alphabetized, it did provide the first such compilation, and included additional charts and long-forgotten anecdotal information, such as “Some Costly Fires and Accidents” at pro ballparks. It was 304 pages long, and it cost a dollar.

Then came a fellow named Ernest Lanigan, who in 1922, published “The Baseball Cyclopedia.”

Lanigan, born in Chicago in 1873, was related to Taylor Spink, the publisher of The Sporting News. He battled tuberculosis and repeated bouts of pneumonia throughout his life, later alcoholism, and he entered and exited Organized Baseball through various statistician and secretarial jobs. He was a founding member of the Baseball Writers Association and considered the force behind listing RBIs in box scores and in season statistics. (People knew RBIs existed, they just didn’t officially compile them among hitting stats until 1920).

As he neared 50, he became intrigued with the idea of developing a compendium of all the game’s history and statistics into one volume. The dictionary says “cyclopedia” is merely short for encyclopedia, and that was his choice of a title. Turning to his own personal scrapbooks, to the World Almanac, to the Baseball Guides published by Spalding and Reach since 1876, to Balldom, and to Who’s Who in Baseball, which had been published since 1916 by the Baseball Magazine Company of New York, Lanigan went to that same publisher with his idea for a book.

The Baseball Cyclopedia, a 216-page volume, which also sold for one dollar, included “…a review of Professional Baseball, the history of all Major League Clubs, playing records and unique events, the batting, pitching and base running champions, World’s {sic} Series’ statistics and a carefully arranged alphabetical list of the records of more than 3500 Major League ball players, a feature never before attempted in print.”

Yes, the player list would be the heart and soul of this volume and all future such attempts. Acknowledging that some may be missing, and encouraging readers to send information that they may know of, the list begins with Edward Abbaticchio and ends with Edward Zwilling, and includes no more than name, position, teams and years played. But it was a start. (“Dutch” Zwilling, by the way, still holds the honor of last place today).

How many were sold is unknown, and it very seldom appears at auction. A reprint edition was published by Ralph Horton of St. Louis in 1988, who did a “Balldom” reprint a year later. An original of either, hard to find, are among the few old baseball books to crack the $100 mark when available.

Lanigan was named curator for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946, and later its historian. “He loved minor league ball more than major league baseball,” recalled former Hall of Fame Director Howard Talbot, who worked with him beginning in 1951. “Once a player went to the majors, his interest in him waned, and he picked up new minor leaguers to follow. He had an encyclopedic mind, but his own eccentricities. He was never around for Induction Weekend. He would instead go to New York and see Broadway shows, with tickets arranged by Spink.” Despite his frail health, (“He never ate three meals a day,” said Talbot), he lived to be 89, dying in Philadelphia in 1962.

And so fans had to make due with Lanigan’s work on through the Roaring ‘20s, the Great Depression, and World War II. Some, however, were keeping their own records at home, expanding on Lanigan’s work, just having fun with the National Pastime in their own way.

Two such fans were Hy Turkin, a New York Daily News reporter, and S.C. “Tommy” Thompson, a part-time statistician at the Elias Baseball Bureau, who happened upon each other in 1944, after Turkin revealed his address while reporting on a mild earthquake in Manhattan. Thompson wanted to show off his baseball collection to Turkin. It turned out, they both had an interest in expanding on Lanigan’s work by including birth and death information, as well as statistics.

The two teamed up and spent the next seven years preparing the first edition of “The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball,” which was published in hardcover in 1951 by A.S. Barnes & Co., in conjunction with Baseball’s Diamond Jubilee – the 75th anniversary of the National League. Lanigan was among those who helped, and 50,000 copies were sold.

So well received was the book that it was updated in 1956 and again in 1959, after which both Turkin and Thompson passed on. Roger Treat did the fourth edition in 1962, and upon his death, his daughter-in-law, Mrs. Peter Rowe Treat did editions five and six. (Two competitors, the Roland Encyclopedia of Baseball, and Nelson’s 20th Century Encyclopedia of Baseball failed to pull readers from Turkin-Thompson). Eventually, Pete Palmer took it through its tenth and final edition in 1979, by which time its importance had been far exceeded by the MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia. Because it is a book constantly requiring updates, its value on the auction market is not especially strong, but those who remember the pre-MacMillan days know how important it was.

The MacMillan edition was perhaps the greatest birthday present baseball gave itself for the 100th anniversary of pro baseball in 1969. The first edition, in a slipcase, seems primitive today, but for most of that year, baseball fans spoke of little else in the way of research. Eventually, Total Baseball (with Pete Palmer still involved), was published to compete, offering an extension of the kinds of stats SABR members relish. The Baseball Encyclopedia, with first Joe Reichler and then Rick Wolff as its guiding lights, went through nine editions; Total Baseball, championed by John Thorn, is on its seventh. (Also worth mentioning is the enjoyable Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball, updated in softcover annually.)

The coming together of baseball games and statistics was perhaps inevitable from Day One, and the early champions like Moreland and Lanigan should be remembered as we comb through today’s modern marvels of reference.