A sign of the (L.A.) Times: How 50 years ago, The Baseball Encyclopedia arrived at six pounds, some 2,300 pages, and a statistical revolution was born
By Tom Hoffarth
The summer of ’69 had its lunar steps and its “Bad Moon Rising” at Woodstock.
With all that, David Neft, the first editor in chief of The Baseball Encyclopedia, is over the moon to be here today at age 82 and witness the marking of the publication’s 50th anniversary milestone.
As he says in our latest L.A. Times piece: “I realized two things from the start — one, I better damn well get it right, and two, whatever else I did professionally in my life, I figured that 50 years later, when I’m dead and buried, if anyone remembers me for anything, it’ll be for this book.”
We’re thankful to have made it out to San Diego for the annual SABR convention and see all the attention given to Neft and his project, as we are for the time Neft gave us to explain more about how it came about.
In addition to all we got into the story by way of notes, quotes and anecdotes, we offer even more tidbits:
== The book’s $25 original price tag translates to about $175 in today’s currency.
== A link to the SABR panel discussion from June 28 is here.
== Although Neft only did the first edition, the project led him to take the template and apply it to other sports – the NBA and NFL in particular – to generate a bound statistical history for them as well. The “real” version of the Neft-birthed Baseball Encyclopedia ended up with 10 more editions with updated material before finally stopping in 1993, all of them put out by Macmillian. That led to the book’s nickname among those who used it as “The Big Mac.”
Each new edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia would tout its new information — and new research that could have cleared up postings in the previous book. By the time the ninth edition came around in ’93, for example, the “complete and definite record of Major League Baseball” had an updated listing of more than 130 Negro League stars, including nicknames, and it had the official team record of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. This edition also explained how it dealt with challenges to the hitting records of Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins and Buck Weaver, and the pitching stats of Christy Mathewson and Cy Young.
It’s an evolving process, you see.
== Simon and Schuster produced their own The Baseball Encyclopedia from 1993 to ’96.
== Rick Wolfe of Sports Illustrated became The Baseball Encyclopedia editorial director in 1987, when the book expanded to 2,780, and wrote this piece for SI in 1990.
== The New York Times reports on the book’s pending arrival:
== Neft had only sketchy accounts of statistics provided before his project began. The first encyclopedia of all baseball records available to the public came out in 1914. The Baseball Cyclopedia by Ernest J. Lanigan in 1922 came from that, as did a series of “The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball” by sportswriter Hy Turkin and archivist S.C. Thompson between 1951 and revised through Thompson’s death in ’67. It’s the one Neft admits in the late ‘50s he once devoured as a teenager at a summer camp one year and got the idea to thoroughly resource his own based on things he thought were missing.
“What David did was a conceptual leap from what was done before, and he didn’t just expand on things, but looked at it all completely differently,” said Retrosheet.org founder David Smith said. “He went back to the beginning and started from scratch. When I finally started Retrosheet, that was a model for me, going back to the basic raw data.”
== Smith also said at the SABR convention: “One of the great values of this physical book is I take it with me to regional meetings with MLB player and I have about 50 of them who have signed this book, including Monte Irvin. They’re delighted to see their names on the page. That was very special.”
Smith also produced something that was rarely seen from the original published book: A paper calculator that could be used to look up players to see where they ranked.
== The timing of the first book’s release was also important in the game’s evolution.
In 1969, baseball was celebrating the centennial season of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings and the dawn of professional baseball. President Nixon participated in the selection of the all-time All Star team for baseball’s first 100 years. The season climaxed with the New York Mets’ “miracle” championship in the first year of the NL and AL having a West and East division after adding the San Diego Padres, Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals), Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots (who moved to Milwaukee in 1970).
From a stat-freak point of view, the pitching save was first recorded in ’69.
== If Neft had what he said was “one small regret” about his project, it’s that he could not fit on-base percentage into the hitting tables. The stat was created in the 1940s by famed Dodgers statistician Allan Roth, and not only became official, but was augmented to pair up with slugging percentage to create the OPS stat, or on-base plus slugging.
== In the original edition,
== The New York Times’ Jimmy Breslin reviews the book:
== Check out a story entitled “The Macmillian Baseball Encyclopedia, the West System, and Sweat Equity,” by Robert C. Berring, in the Fall 2010 Baseball Research Journal.
== A fantastic 2017 piece by Rob Neyer entitled “Before Baseball-Reference, Statheads Relied On The ‘Big Mac’,” for FiveThirtyEight.com.
== On Baseball-Reference.com, which arrived in 2000, a webpage tribute for it the book includes: “The statistical record compiled for the first edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia has formed the backbone of all subsequent encyclopedias. There have been a handful of subsequent discoveries that were missed when the Encyclopedia was compiled, but it remains a landmark.”
== One of our favorite pastimes with the original book is to look up famous players — take, Babe Ruth, page 1,427 of the player register and 2,090 in the pitcher register — and find other players who can say they shared the same page in the record book with him. One such player is simply named “Rust,” with no first name, who played for the 1882 Baltimore AA team. In one game, he was 1-for-3 as both an outfielder and started the game as a pitcher, going five innings, giving up 10 hits and was the losing pitcher with an ERA of 7.20.
All that’s known about him that could be listed was that he was born in Louisville, Ky., and is now deceased. In future editions, names that didn’t include both first and last seem to be omitted.
On the other side of the page from Ruth in the pitcher register is Ryan Lynn Nolan of Refugio, Tex, who had a career record of 6-10 with a 3.35 ERA for the New York Mets in parts of two seasons.
== And if anyone asks, yes, we got David Neft to sign our 1969 copy of his book.