Last week, we shocked ourselves by deciding to postpone the last scheduled election in the Hall of Miller and Eric’s Pioneers/Executives wing. We had between us agreed upon Vin Scully. And on Monday, May 1st, Rob Neyer happened, and we had to ask whether we’d dumped David Neft too quickly.
We like Rob’s work a lot, and he’s a trustworthy researcher and voice with connections all over the baseball world. He was, as most of you know, Bill James’ research assistant prior to launching the ESPN column that pushed sabrmetric thinking into the mainstream (and spawned a love of flannel shirts among analysts). So when he tells us this, we listen:
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.
We’d always understood that The Baseball Encyclopedia (aka the Mac or Big Mac) represented a true first in the annals of the game. In fact, it is an annals of the game. It was the first that scrupulously combined meticulously researched consistency with the breadth of categorical completeness we now associate with BBREF or Total Baseball or any compendium online or in print. As Neyer and Mark Armour’s SABR Chadwick Award bio tell us, there were other encyclopedic sources, but they resembled the Big Mac as an IBM Selectric typewriter resembles the Mac I’m using to compose this article. (I see what I did there….) We had, however, underestimated its influence on the game’s analytical revolution when we crossed Neft off of our list months ago.
We might think of the Mac as part of a statistical and analytical timeline that goes like this:
Baseball-Reference.com (Sean Forman)
Baseball Prospectus (BP gang)
Total Baseball (Pete Palmer and John Thorn)
Baseball Abstract, etc. (Bill James)
Baseball Encyclopedia (David Neft)
The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball (Hy Turkin and S.C. Thompson)
The Sporting News (The Spinks)
Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player; Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide, etc. (Henry Chadwick)
Now, that’s a pretty impressive list of annuals, periodicals, and encyclopedias. Each represents an increment of evolution, but the Mac stands out both because the leap it made was so big compared to anything in the 100 years since Chadwick’s first guides and because that large of a leap enabled a decisive quickening of subsequent leaps (especially in combination with the miniaturization of higher computing power).
Of course, that’s just the book itself. David Neft is the guy we’re talking about. In order to be worthy of the Hall of Miller and Eric, we need evidence that he was the force behind the Mac. Consider the people above. While Bill James was the one driving force behind his work and Sean Forman the force behind his, the Baseball Prospectus enclave has been an evolving cast of characters with distributed workloads. It’s much harder give anyone in that group a plaque, nor even all of them, perhaps, because of the collective’s comings and goings.
But Neyer’s article explains clearly that Neft made that 6.5 pound, 1200-page book happen. He worked with biographical research legend Lee Allen, purchased a collection of 19th-century data from another important researcher, John Tattersall, and then put together a staff of 21 people who raked through microfilm and periodicals collections nationwide to gather and validate (with multiple box scores) the data that would comprise the book. That level of work had never been done before on baseball’s statistical history, which prior to 1920 was especially sketchy and prone to inconsistencies. Neft conceived the book, got it funded, and project-managed the whole thing.
That, however, is not the end of it. Neft’s great innovation made every latter day encyclopedic book possible to manufacture and sell at a cost that people might actually be capable of paying. You saw in Neyer’s article that the book retailed for the equivalent of $150 of today’s money. Total Baseball would cost $60 and more in later editions. But without Neft’s forward thinking, they would have been prohibitively expensive to make.
Neft recognized that a book like the Mac required a few things that would make it too costly to produce and sell:
- Massive typesetting costs in both money and time
- Massive proofreading costs in the same
- A truckload of pages because of the overwhelming amount of information
- A stitched, hardback binding—no mere glue would hold all those pages.
Worse yet, the typesetting costs by themselves carried additional risk for the publisher. if you happened to mistakenly drop Lou Boudreau’s 1938 season from his entry, and it caused a line in someone else’s entry to move to a subsequent page, you’d now have to reflow every single page remaining in the batting records or perhaps the entire book. It’s not as though you can simply edit a player’s season out of existence and be credible. Hundreds of hand-reflowed pages, friends, is a bookmaker’s nightmare because it massively increases typesetting costs and lengthens the production schedule.
But Neft came to the vital realization that typesetting via computer could reduce overall typesetting costs and also make the book relatively easily reflowable. I work in the publishing industry, and my wife is a Production Editor (the person who takes manuscript and turns it into a printable book while keeping a strict budget to ensure profitability). When I asked her about it, she said that without computing technology the book would be possible but so expensive to produce that no one would buy it. And it would take forever to get print-ready.
Why am I going into that level of detail? Of course, because it’s a crucial piece of Neft’s story, but also because it demonstrates why The Baseball Encyclopedia became so important. As the research community used it, found discrepancies, recommended adding this or that, the book could change and grow. So now could any baseball book that relied on a background database. Which eventually gets you to BBREF. The rapid evolution of baseball research, analytics, and publishing were enabled by Neft’s breakthrough thinking. As Armour writes,
It can be said without hyperbole that everything that followed—the creation of SABR, the widespread interest in baseball analysis, fantasy baseball, the popular statistical websites of today—owes a large debt to the work of David Neft and his team for what they did in the 1960s.
So on Friday we will name our final honoree in the pioneer/executive sweepstakes. But first, tune in on Wednesday for Miller’s analysis of the case for Vin Scully, our other finalist.