Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Tomorrow Gray Fink

Tomorrow I will begin a several-day post on some of the new research that Gary Fink has produced.  Gary has done work on a number of individual ballplayers, but also has done some interesting work on the American Association, and— along with Karl Knickrehm— some groundbreaking work on the Sunset League.

Some of you who are new to baseball research may ask: Why are they doing work on those two leagues? hasn’t it all been done by now?  Well, the short answer is— No.  Even into the 1950s, players who appeared in less than 10 games were not included in the guides, and there were cases where the Hall-of-Famer slipped through the cracks.  When the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia was first published in 1969, the authors stated the project was begun with the idea of presenting a “full and accurate statistical record of major league baseball,” or something to the effect.  Those of us laboring in the Elysian Fields of minor league research are attempting to do the same thing for minor league baseball, but our project is at least hundred times larger, and a thousand times more difficult.  Each one of us have carved out a little section of the map, and are filling in the unknown data.  

Minor League research is the most satisfying of all baseball research precisely because it is the most challenging (i.e., difficult) to do.  In minor league research, we don’t even have any idea of how many leagues existed.  Prior to 1902, the National Association (i.e., the official minor leagues) didn’t exist.  Most leagues in the USA were not signatories to the National Agreement (which predate the NA, and only was a group of leagues that), and were independent leagues, and have been long forgotten.  I have found thirteen or fourteen pages of professional leagues here in the state of California between 1878 and 1956.  For sure, a goodly number might be considered semipro leagues.  But other leagues, the San Joaquin Valley League, for example, was paying more than the Coast League in some seasons to their star players.  To give an example, pitcher Sailor Stroud— who refused to sign his contract with the San Francisco Seals one season— had his NA Contract sold by the Seals to the Yankees, and he then even refused to report to the New York Yankees because, as he stated in the newspaper, he was making more pitching for Hanford than he’d make as a Yankee. Another league of note— long forgotten— is the Midwest League of the early 1920s.  Try finding anything on that league, and you’ll come up empty, but at the time, it had to be considered one of the top leagues as far as baseball talent was concerned.  Hippo Vaughn went from making $3,500 per season as a Cub to pitching for the Beloit club in the Midwest League at $7,500 per year.  The six-team league signed everybody they could out of the American Association, and picked up a smattering of major leaguers to boot.

And, apart from independent leagues, poor and incomplete record keeping has plagued minor league recordkeeping throughout its history. We deal on a daily basis with towns where there is only one newspaper, and sometimes that is only a weekly.  Even the PCL compiled only sketchy pitching record for its first decade of existence.  (Howe News Bureau and Bill Weiss, long-time statistician for many minor leagues, stand out as exceptions.)  Even last season, the records were kept so poorly by a new company brought in to compile stats for the minor leagues that researchers fifty or a hundred years from now will be pulling their hair out trying to put together a “complete and accurate record” of the 2004 minor league season.  Redoing and compiling statistics of long past leagues, and long past season of league still around will keep researchers in business for as far as they eye can see… And so it goes.  There will never be an end, but like Sisyphus…

Tomorrow, say hello to Gary Fink….


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