Whatever Happened To The Baseball Encyclopedia?
Ever hear of a former major league baseball player named Archibald Wright Graham?
You might know him better by his nickname “Moonlight” Graham.
Legend has it that famed novelist W.P. Kinsella was going through The Baseball Encyclopedia many years ago, and was struck that Graham, an aspiring outfielder, had played in only inning in a major league game back in 1905 for the New York Giants. He never came to bat in the game.
After that one game in the show, Graham never again got a shot in the Bigs, and was seemingly lost to the baseball ages. Except that Kinsella was so moved by Graham’s brief appearance that it inspired his best-selling novel, Shoeless Joe, which led to the classic baseball tear-jerker, Field of Dreams.
And it all started with Moonlight’s stat and bio line in The Baseball Encyclopedia. In fact, in the movie, there’s a wonderful scene in which James Earl Jones is sitting in the metal bleachers at the Field of Dreams in Iowa watching a game, and he’s holding a copy of The Baseball Encyclopedia.
For those of a certain age, The Baseball Encyclopedia was THE book that every baseball fan had to have. As thick as a Manhattan telephone book (remember phone books?), The Baseball Encyclopedia should be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Except that The Baseball Encyclopedia is no more. It’s gone.
Most baseball fans who grew up with the 3,000 page book, which was updated generally every three years, can tell you stories of how they would look up a particular ballplayer’s statistics, and then would become enchanted and mesmerized by the unusual names and nicknames of the individuals listed on the pages. The stat lines and bio lines were straightforward and simple -- this was long before the invention of abstract analytics such as WHIP or WAR -- and the lines were easy to read. Readers were left to their own imaginations as to how a ballplayer got his nickname. You’d wonder why a 19th century ballplayer would be named “The Freshest Man on Earth” (Arlie Latham) or “Death to Flying Things” (Bob Ferguson).
Ken Samelson and I had the distinct privilege and pleasure to have worked on three editions of The Baseball Encyclopedia together. We took on this editorial task with extreme respect and the utmost responsibility as we knew that all baseball fans everywhere viewed the book as the Bible of the National Pastime.
That’s not to say we didn’t make changes. When we discovered there were mistakes in our data base, we corrected them. For example, for several early editions of The Baseball Encyclopedia, there was a fellow named Lou Proctor listed in the book. According to the book’s earlier editions, Proctor had appeared in a major league game for the St. Louis Browns in 1912.
But thanks to careful research, it was discovered that Proctor was actually not a big leaguer, but a telegraph operator who somehow inserted his name into a Browns-Red Sox box score. Once this fact was brought to Macmillan’s attention, he and his “playing record” were then deleted from the book, and his plate appearance was credited to the appropriate player, Pete Compton.
Over the years, we had other unusual requests. The great Yankees pitcher, Allie Reynolds, called Ken one day out of the blue when Allie was in his 70s. The ”Superchief” wanted to “confess” that he had always lied about his real age during his playing career, and he now wanted to set the record straight before it was too late.
Then there was a notable pitcher who had pitched for several years in the show, and who called me one morning to complain how disappointed he was that we had left his name and pitching records out of the book. I had to sheepishly explain to him that The Baseball Encyclopedia was divided into two sections: Players and Pitchers. He had apparently searched in vain for his name in the Players section, somehow not realizing that there was a separate section for Pitchers. And of course, his name and stats were indeed all there.
The pitcher may have been embarrassed by his call, but he was clearly grateful and happy that his long career had not been overlooked in the book.
Statistically, who was the best hitter who ever played major league baseball?
You may be thinking that perhaps it was Ted Williams or Ty Cobb? But no. John Paciorek went 3-for-3 with two walks in the only major league game he played in 1963 for the Houston Colt .45s.
John -- one of three Paciorek brothers with an entry in The Baseball Encyclopedia (Tom Paciorek played 18 major league seasons with six teams between 1970 and 1987, the same year that Jim played in 68 games for the Milwaukee Brewers) -- finished with a lifetime batting average of 1.000. You can’t do better than that. And nobody ever has since.
Ken and I were proud that we were able to add statistical records for many players from the old Negro Leagues, and also listed the rosters of the women who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was made popular in the hit movie, A League of Their Own.
There were, of course, a few critics of The Baseball Encyclopedia. As noted, Ken and I religiously reviewed the internal data base for the book, and when we found discrepancies, we felt it was our obligation to make corrections. For example, in reviewing some of the stat lines of some of the older ballplayers, we would sometimes discover the numbers didn’t add up. That is, just as a box score for a game has to balance in terms of outs, hits, and so on, we found that with some players in TBE, we were not finding balanced stats. For example, if the player’s totals did not match the team’s totals, it would be flagged and we would try to reconcile the data.
There was some criticism for when we lowered Honus Wagner’s lifetime batting average to .327 from .329. Some critics howled. But the simple truth was that, somehow, along the way, we were struck that a bunch of hits had been credited to Wagner’s life-time stats – and had been added without any logical explanation. (Our theory was that a previous editor of TBE had quietly changed TBE’s stats on Honus so that they would match up with the numbers on his “official” record in Cooperstown.)
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Knowing that we always viewed TBE as a work-in-progress, we corrected errors when they popped up. Many corrections, including the case of Lou Proctor, were supplied by a new group of researchers which called themselves the Society for Baseball Research, now better known as SABR. From what we could tell, a number of these SABR fellows would spend their off-days visiting cemeteries of deceased major league ballplayers and researching death records, in order to uncover correct death dates. Hard to believe, but true. But to their credit, most of the time the SABR findings were indeed correct.
Bear in mind that TBE sold hundreds of thousands of copies each year, and that the thick doorstop of a book retailed for $50 or more. Plus, when the original baseball researchers originally sold the book to Macmillan back in the late 1960’s, apparently they sold it royalty-free, meaning that there were never any royalties to be paid to an author by the publisher. That extra cash just added to Macmillan’s bottom line.
Back then, Macmillan was owned by the highly-controversial British impresario Robert Maxwell who unexpectedly died in 1991 at sea under mysterious circumstances. When that occurred, the publishing house was then acquired by Simon & Schuster. The last edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia, edited by Jeanine Bucek with Ken’s help, was published in 1996. A couple of years later, Simon & Schuster sold the rights to TBE to IDG (the “For Dummies” imprint), who then sold the rights to Wiley & Sons.
In short, the wonderful book was never published again. It’s hard to figure out why as it clearly brought so much fun and hours of joy and enchantment to so many millions of baseball fans.
Sure, there are lots of online baseball stat and reference sources today. But as good as they are, there was something always very special about losing oneself for an afternoon in The Baseball Encyclopedia.
Yes, there’s no question that today’s on-line databases are quick and easy to use, and always up-to-date.
But that being said, where will the next generation of baseball fans be able to find the next Moonlight Graham? Or Lou Proctor?
RICK WOLFF is a former minor league second baseman in the Detroit Tigers organization. These days he is a senior executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
KEN SAMELSON is a freelance editor for many national publishers and the author or co-author of several sports books.