For diehard baseball fans, a world without Sean Forman’s Baseball-Reference.com is difficult to imagine. But the site is relatively new; it didn’t grace the Internet until 2000. Before that, for seamheads interested in baseball statistics there was only … print. Print? Yes, print. You remember print.
One of those print compendiums of baseball information was a 6.5-pound behemoth nicknamed “Big Mac,” and it changed how people think about the sport. A world without the Big Mac might not just mean a world without Baseball-Reference.com, it might also mean a world without Bill James, which might mean a world without sabermetrics, a world without “Moneyball,” a world without the analytics that have transformed so many other sports. As John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, says today, “It was a revolution. This was the ‘Moby-Dick’ of baseball statistics, not only for its size, but also for its place in baseball history.”
There have been annual compilations of baseball statistics for nearly as long as there has been professional baseball. In 1922, the first “Baseball Cyclopedia” was published, collecting rudimentary career statistics for thousands of major league players. And almost 30 years later there was the first edition of “The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball,” which became the standard, and really only, resource for retired players’ career statistics and remained so well into the 1960s. But those books gave each player only the barest of statistical attention: games played, batting average (for hitters), wins and losses (pitchers).
But in 1969, a better baseball encyclopedia arrived, one whose rigorous research and comprehensive scope would create a foundation for virtually every significant statistical compendiums that followed.
To understand how it happened, let’s first go back to 1954 and visit the spot on the map where New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York come together. That’s where David Neft, who grew up just a few blocks from the old Yankee Stadium, had just taken a job. He was only 17, two years too young to work as a camp counselor. So instead he was assigned to watch the camp’s gate, where not a whole lot happened.
“Look,” Neft’s boss told him, “you’re going to have a lot of dead time, so you should bring stuff to read.”
Neft, who had been playing around with numbers for most of his young life, worked out the math. “I started figuring out how much I would need to bring to read,” he recalled in a recent interview. “Eight hours a day, six days a week, eight weeks. So I took a different tack.”
Neft bought a copy of “The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball,” first published just three years earlier. With the encyclopedia as his guide, he immersed himself in major league baseball’s historical record: eight weeks in the summer of 1954, eight more a year later.
Back in New York, Neft began haunting the public library’s main research branch, where he found a collection of books and other ephemera once owned by Hall of Famer Albert G. Spalding, one of the 19th century’s great baseball figures. Neft realized that other encyclopedias were leaving too much undone. “And that was it,” he said. “I thought, ‘Someday, it would be neat to do a better job of this.’”
A decade or so later, Neft was working as a professional statistician when he visited TV Guide’s new printing facility, which was controlled by IBM computers. A light bulb flipped on. The encyclopedia Neft wanted to make would necessarily be massive, far larger than any statistical encyclopedia published before. All the typesetting could be done manually … but only at enormous cost. But computers changed everything.
He and his employer, Information Concepts Incorporated, found a publisher at Macmillan — hence the “Mac” in “Big Mac” — where editor Bob Markel saw an opportunity to issue the definitive baseball resource. “If The New York Times was the newspaper of record, we could be the publisher of records,” Markel told me.
And so Neft got to work. He was already armed with the voluminous biographical research compiled by the Hall of Fame’s in-house historian, Lee Allen, and next ICI purchased amateur researcher John Tattersall’s tremendous collection of 19th-century data for $25,000. But much, much more was needed. So Neft placed a small ad — headlined “WANTED — A BASEBALL NUT” — in The Sporting News, not knowing if anyone would respond.
“We practically needed a truck to deliver the résumés,” Neft said.
Neft chose the best of them. Then, as Alan Schwarz writes in his book “The Numbers Game,” “The staff of 21 thus began its … Kerouackian odyssey all over the United States, from library microfilm rooms to long-lost graveyards, mortar and spades always in tow, to build the greatest book of statistics sports had ever seen.”
After that yearlong slog, it came time to input the data — the computers were still using punch cards. When everything was done, the first edition of “The Baseball Encyclopedia: The Complete and Official Record of Major League Baseball” arrived in 1969, professional baseball’s centennial season.
In his New York Times review, the late, great Jimmy Breslin wrote, “The book is so heavy that the mailman bringing it to the house stumbled and suffered a severe groin injury.” Its weight would result in an enduring nickname, “Big Mac.” But its enormous size and $25 price tag (equivalent to more than $150 today) still didn’t deter people from buying it: The first edition is said to have sold 100,000 copies.
Several more editions were issued up until 1996 but, as Thorn said, “There is no question, that first edition was the best.” The second edition somehow contained less information and was less accurate. Still, according to Jeff Neuman, an editor who worked on the fifth and sixth editions, it made money for Macmillan, especially after ICI collapsed and the publisher came to own the book outright. As Neuman told me via email, “You knew you were going to sell 50,000 copies, at 25 or 30 or (later) 40 dollars apiece, and pay no royalties. Which made it a very profitable enterprise.”
Today, the Big Mac’s legacy is everywhere we look.
Thanks to Neft and his dedicated researchers, there would ultimately be numerous gargantuan print encyclopedias, including “The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia,”1 Thorn and Pete Palmer’s “Total Baseball,” and Neft’s own “Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball.” Every important statistical compendium since 1969 owes a debt to ICI research, especially if you’re looking up just about anything that happened between 1876 and 1920. Without that research, we still wouldn’t know how many games Cy Young really won, how many runs Honus Wagner really drove in, how many hits Cap Anson really collected.
And now, of course, it’s all on the web.
“The whole genesis of Baseball-Reference,” site creator Sean Forman told me, “was taking what was in ‘The Baseball Encyclopedia’ and making the pages connectable. In the printed books, if you wanted to find Joe DiMaggio’s teammates, you would have to go to DiMaggio, then flip to the team roster somewhere else, then flip back to each of his teammates.”
So the research, now connectable and sortable and indispensable, endures and will outlast us all.
But the reach of Big Mac stretches far beyond one tremendously useful website. Beginning in 1969, people could finally answer, in just a few seconds, nearly every question about MLB history, which opened up all sorts of possibilities for folks of particularly curious bents.
“I got out of the Army in October 1973,” Bill James told me, “and by then I was aware of the Macmillan and wanted a copy of it. When the second edition came out in the spring of 1974, I bought one as soon as I saw it and spent the next several months familiarizing myself with what was in it. The Macmillan certainly had an enormous impact on my career; absolutely it did. Ten years earlier, I would not have been possible.”
Yes, the print encyclopedia is dead. The internet killed it. But for roughly 30 years, the Big Mac and its literary progeny revived and restored decades of diamond history that had previously eked out an existence as little more than rumors and hazy memories. All because a teenager watching a gate through a couple of idle summers didn’t feel like schlepping a pile of books to work every day.