Creating Baseball Fiction with Numbers

April 12, 2016

                (This is the text of a speech I delivered April 1 at a baseball fiction academic conference in Ottawa, Kansas.) 

  

                This talk is about a dead dream of mine.   Since the 1970s, I have been fascinated by the notion that meaningful fiction could be created with numbers, or, to be more technically accurate, could be created in the form of a Baseball Encyclopedia.    Baseball statistics, more than the statistics attached to almost any other human activity, or entirely unlike other statistics, have the capacity to create stories.    The reason this is true is that the way that baseball statistics are processed by most people most of the time is as images of different skills and character traits.  

                Take, for example, the number "40" if it appears in the "Home Run" column.   This doesn’t refer to 40 of anything; well, it does, but it is not taken that way.   Forty in the home run column means POWER, great power.    Twenty in the home run column means "power"; 30 means "real power", and 40 means "great power".   A 50 means "historic power". 

                So it is with each number in each column of a player’s record; the number represents not an accounting of how many times an event has occurred as much as it represents the characteristics of the player which made those events possible.   A "50" in the stolen base column represents speed, outstanding speed.   A "30" in the stolen base column represents speed; an "80" represents historic speed.    A "15" in the triples column represents both speed and an ability to hit a slashing line drive.

                When we see a player’s batting record, we are searching that record for the answers to questions which have really nothing to do with numbers:   How fast does this player run?   How strong is he?   How well does he read and react to a pitch?    Is he learning, is he improving, is he getting better, or is he going backward?   Is he figuring out the league, or is the league figuring him out? 

                Each single number on a player’s record has meaning in this way, and therefore a chart of numbers, tracking what the player has done over a period of years and in 12 to 20 different areas, has the capacity to tell a story, in the same way that a paragraph of words has the capacity to tell a story, only, I would argue, more so.   It is more so because there is inherent meaning in the arrangement of the columns and in the form of the record.  

                Baseball statistics can be keys not merely to physical attributes, but to character and personality.   If a player is exactly the same year in and year out—that is, if he is CONSISTENT—like Gil Hodges, Henry Aaron, Luis Aparicio, Bobby Abreu or Tom Glavine—it may be assumed that he is a solid, stable, mature individual; I suppose this could be proven untrue, but I don’t know of any case in which it was untrue.   The consistency of the record can be seen as a psychological test of consistency, although we should note that there are in fact stable, consistent people who have highly inconsistent records because of injuries and other factors.   If a player controls the strike zone and maximizes his performance in other related ways, it may be assumed that he is probably an intelligent person, although I have certainly seen cases in which this did not seem to be true.

                Now, at some point you will object that the range and variety of stories which can be told in this form is more limited than those which can be told with words, and this is no doubt true.   The general limitation of baseball fiction is that it focuses on things that happen to young men between the ages of ten and thirty-five, and things like girlfriends and mothers and juvenile arrests and crises of faith are structurally peripheral to the narrative.

                I was trying to explain this concept to a friend a few months ago, and what my friend thought that I was saying was that charts of numbers can be created on which fiction can be based; in other words, that one could take each chart of numbers and imagine, based on that, the life and career that the player could have had.  But that’s not exactly it.   What I am actually arguing is that the story is created—the FICTION is created—by the numbers themselves.  While of course that story can be enhanced and developed by words, just as a story told in words can be enhanced and developed into a movie or a TV show or a comic book. …while of course that story could be enhanced and developed by words, the chart of numbers ITSELF represents the fixed posts of the story which give it its inherent shape, and much of its original detail.

                I have probably gone as far to explain that without an example as I can, so let me give an example.   Let us take the player that I have marked as Player 1 on the handout.

 

Encyclopedia1

 

                If you read through this player’s record, his story is told here in substantial detail.    He was a young player who came up with the Boston Braves at the end of the 1947 season, and had a tremendous first month.  He was a 4th outfielder as a rookie with the Braves in 1948, played OK.    He was a blindingly fast runner as a young man.   We know that he was blindingly fast because he hit 17 triples as a part-time player in 1947, which is a very, very high number, and he stole 28 bases that season and 42 bases the next season.   These are things that you cannot do unless you are a fast runner.

                He was also a good hitter, on the margins of being what we might describe as a great hitter, and for the next two seasons he seemed to be en route to a distinguished career, even a Hall of Fame career.   Early in the 1951 season, however, he suffered a very serious injury.   Having already stolen 21 bases in the first 39 games of that season, he missed the rest of that season and all of the next season with what we must assume was a devastating leg injury.

                In the main, I am trying to stress that this is not an optional reading of this chart of numbers, but a necessary and inevitable reading of this chart of numbers.   There is no way that these words could not be true, although there are no words in the chart.   However, there is an alternative reading here of the short season in 1951 and the missing 1952 season.   There were players in that generation, including Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Whitey Ford and Curt Simmons, who had shortened seasons about 1951 followed by seasons that were entirely missed due to the Korean War.    It is POSSIBLE, although this was not my intention, that the player described here did not suffer a serious leg injury in late May, 1951, but rather than he was drafted into the United States Army at that time.   But that’s OK; my understanding of the rules of fiction is that some ambiguity in a character’s history is acceptable.

                Returning now to my narrative in words of Player 1, when he returned to the game in 1953 he was not the same player.   He was no longer fast; the leg injury has taken his speed away from, although perhaps it was an injury suffered in action in Korea, but in any case he no longer ran well.  He had to cope; he had to adjust.  His team had moved from Boston to Milwaukee, and they had other young players that they placed more value on.    We know as baseball fans that in the winter of 1953-54 this team had a 20-year-old outfielder named Hank Aaron, although this knowledge is not directly given by the chart.    In any case, our player was traded to Philadelphia that winter, and resumed his career at a greatly reduced station in life, as a reserve outfielder.   He was not a particularly good reserve outfielder, at first, but over the years he gradually re-tooled his game.   He became a more selective hitter, and worked on developing his power game, since his speed was gone.   He gradually became a top-flight fourth outfielder in the model of Jerry Lynch or Wes Covington.   He was traded to the American League, where he was a fourth outfielder from 1958 through 1961.

                In 1962, at what we know must be an advanced age for a baseball player although we do not yet know what it was, he finally got the opportunity to play regularly for the first time in many years.   This was due to expansion.   What I will assume that you all know, although many of you may be foggy on the details, is that the National League expanded in 1962, creating the New York Mets.   Since the Mets needed players, several older players who were basically finished got one more chance to be regulars.    Our player was one of those expansion regulars, and he had a very good season.   For the first time in many years, he could think of himself as a star, although a very different kind of a star than he had been a decade earlier. 

                In the winter of 1962-63, however, Major League baseball re-defined its strike zone to help the pitchers, and this tossed many older hitters into a career-ending crisis.   Our player was one of those.    In 1963 Jerry Adair’s batting average dropped 46 points, Willie Davis 40 points,  Bobby Del Greco’s batting average dropped 42 points, Norm Cash dropped 118 points, and our player dropped 52 points.   This basically ended his career.    Although he did receive a trial of a few games in 1964 to see whether he could regain his form, as most players do, he was released early in the 1964 season.   He had a decent career, a modestly successful career, but blighted by that terrible injury that occurred early in the 1951 season.

                It is a fictional career, and my main point is that the fiction is not external to the chart of numbers or built upon that chart of numbers, but rather that the fiction is told in numbers more clearly than it could be told in the same number of words.    Numbers, like words, are capable of creating human images.  

                One of the first decisions you would have to make, if one were to create a fictional encyclopedia of baseball, is whether the fictional universe was embedded in the real history of baseball or was subject to its own rules.   In this case I have inserted Player 1—we will give him a name in a moment--into the actual history of the game.   This is reflected in his record probably in 50 different ways.   This player played for Boston in the National League in 1947.   The Boston Braves were an actual team, and they did move to Milwaukee in 1953, so the player moves with them.   There was an actual expansion in 1962, which did in fact give many older players one last chance to play regularly, and many of those players did have decent seasons in 1962 but then had terrible seasons in 1963.    Our player played 154 games in 1949 and 156 games in 1950.   In fact, many players in that era did play that number of games; in that era teams played to a tie once or twice a year, and if a player played in every game that was usually 155 or 156 games.  

                But in creating a fictional encyclopedia of baseball, you don’t HAVE to follow those rules; you can make up a universe with its own rules.  You can put teams in Buffalo and Indianapolis if you want to, and in Kansas City in the 1920s.   You can have 8-team leagues or 12-team leagues; you can have 30 major league teams in 1947 if you want to.   You don’t have to use a 154-game schedule up to 1962; you can use a 162-game schedule back in the 1930s, or you can use a 96-game schedule or a 180-game schedule or a 220-game schedule.

                In real baseball the 1960s were a pitching-dominated era, but in fiction this does not have to be true; you can create .400 hitters in the 1960s and pitchers with 300 strikeouts in the 1930s.   In real baseball there are very few relievers and just a handful of career relief pitchers before 1955, but in fiction this does not have to be true; you can have a pitcher who has a Goose Gossage type career from 1904 to 1920 if you want to.

                In real life there are statistical standards that dominate each era of play.   In the 1920s there were 89 regular players who hit for an average of .350 or higher, and seven who hit .400 or better, whereas in the 1980s there were only thirteen players who hit .350, and none at all who hit .400.   In the 1980s there were six players who stole 100 bases in a season, whereas since 1990 no one has done that or even come close.   In a fictional Encyclopedia one can follow those rules or ignore them and make up your own; it’s up to you.   In the 1960s and 1970s there were many relief pitchers who pitched 75 games and 130 innings in a season, but that type of workload is entirely extinct in real baseball; in modern baseball no reliever pitches more than about 80 innings in a season.   You can follow those rules, or you can decide that’s a stupid rule and baseball is more fun when relievers pitch like Dick Radatz did.   If you want to you can make up a Jewish Encyclopedia in which everybody is named Samuelson or Meyer, or a Native American Encyclopedia in which everybody is named Pahmahmie or Wahquahboshkuk or Angry Bear.

                What makes baseball records into words is the existence of statistical standards, or what we could call magic numbers.   Players hit .300, or they drive in 100 runs, or get 200 hits, or have 40 saves.   These are sometimes called magic numbers, although no one actually thinks that they are magical.   The existence of the magic numbers makes all of the other numbers meaningful.   The 100-RBI standard of excellence gives meaning to 90 RBI, or 80, or 70, or 110; all of the other numbers become something like words because of the existence of standards.

                Generally, I prefer to make up some of my own rules, but if you get too far away from the rules of the actual major leagues, the fiction ceases to be interesting, because the standards don’t apply anymore.    You can create a fictional universe in which players hit 110 home runs a season and drive in 400 runs a year, but it isn’t interesting because we can’t relate to it; the players lack not merely verisimilitude but in a practical sense they lack dimensions.   They are off the grid; they are irrelevant to us.   So generally, you have to follow at least some of the rules which have defined the real baseball universe over the years.    But on the other hand, you can’t insert a player too deeply into baseball history, either, or he displaces the players who are already there.   If you make this player the first baseman for the New York Mets in 1962, which I did, then he displaces Marv Throneberry, who was the actual first baseman for the 1962 Mets.   That causes problems, too.

                Now, Player One needs a name, and by the rules of Baseball Encyclopedias he is entitled to a little bit of biographical information—a date of birth, and a date of death, and a place of birth, and a nickname, a defensive position, and a note about whether he bats right-handed or left-handed.    The second page of the handout gives the player all of these things.    This has rules, too; for example, you can’t name a player "Kevin" or "Jeremy" if he played in the 1930s, because there were no Kevins and Jeremies who played in the 1930s.    If you are a serious enough baseball fan it will be obvious to you that Player One was a left-handed hitter and was an outfielder, and also he cannot be 6-foot-3 and weigh 220 pounds because there were no fast-running outfielders in that era who were 6-foot-3 and weighed 220 pounds.

                At this point we add the biographic information, and Player A becomes Edmund Barnes, who is on the back of the page:

 

Encyclopedia2

 

                Once you assign a player a name and a few biographical details, the player starts to merge into the world at large.   If this player was born in 1926, then it is likely that he saw action at the end of World War II, although we don’t know that for sure.   The fact that he died in Bethesda, Maryland, certainly suggests that he saw military service at some time, either in World War II or in the 1951-1952 period which is missing from his career register.

                At this point I have a confession to make.   Since I was twelve years old I have obsessively created what I think of as mythical careers for imaginary baseball players, which we will call for today’s purposes Fictional careers.    I create them every day; I am not saying that I never, ever miss a day, but there won’t be 15 days in a year that I don’t do it.  I have been doing this for more than a half a century.  I have invented hundreds of different ways to create fictional careers for baseball players.   In real life there have been about 18,000 men who have played major league baseball; that is, there are about 18,000 men who have played at least one game of major league baseball, although about half of those had just very brief careers.   I don’t have any idea how many fictional careers I have created in my lifetime, but it certainly is many more than 18,000.  I suspect that I may have spent as many hours creating these fictional careers as I have spent doing actual work related to my career.  Most of those fictional careers no longer exist; they were created on computers which have long since died, or were written in spiral notebooks which have long since been thrown away or on note cards which have been lost.

                As many of you know, Jack Kerouac had a very similar obsession, and I have met at least two younger people, both of them very successful writers, who confessed to doing the same thing, although I can’t share their names with you because they are public people and I don’t know that they want this information to be on the record.   I don’t actually know why I am compelled to do this.   I know that every day, when my mind gets jumbled up and my thoughts get tied in a knot, I switch over to Excel and create a couple of fictional players as a way of letting off steam.   Some of my ways of creating these fictions are very quick; others are tremendously slow.   Sometimes I will work for a week at creating a fictional baseball player, only to realize as I reach the solution to the puzzle that I have made some very basic mistake hours earlier or days earlier so that the player’s career turns out to be a mess that doesn’t resemble anything an actual career could be.   It is like a soufflé that doesn’t rise or a desert that doesn’t jell; the resulting player’s career does not meet the basic conditions of the exercise, and so the effort does not scratch that itch that I am perpetually trying to satisfy, whatever that is.   I don’t have any interest in superhero movies and am completely bored by them, but I suspect that what I get out of this stuff may be similar to what others get out of superhero movies.

                I do feel guilty about the many thousands of hours that I have spent doing this, but I will also note that doing this has occasionally yielded professional benefits for me.   I do in fact design and publish real-life record books for baseball players, and have done real encyclopedias; knowing how to do that is related to doing this.  One of the happy accidents of my career is that I used to create projected records for players. . . in other words, a record showing what Lorenzo Cain will do in 2016.   Whereas I think of most of what I do as a kind of scientific undertaking, I thought of THAT as just messing around, a part of my obsession more than a part of my work.   But when I was pushed (against my will) to actually publish those projections, we discovered to my surprise that there was substantial public interest in them, and other people almost immediately started publishing their own projections to compete with mine.   That was 30 years ago, and every real major league baseball team now uses projections of one kind or another to try to see what their team will look like before the season.   When you think about it. . .well, of course they do; how can you do any kind of planning or detailed preparation for the season if you don’t have some idea of what it is that you expect each player to do?

                Creating fictional careers requires a detailed understanding of the shape of actual careers.   You have to understand what normal ratios are.   You can’t give a player 86 games played and 416 at bats, because that isn’t a normal ratio, although there were some players in the 19th century who had ratios like that.   You can create a player who doesn’t reach his peak until he is 32 years old and then is good until he is 36, but you have to understand how tremendously unusual that is.   Probably the last star player who didn’t reach his prime until he was 32 years old was Mike Cuellar, forty-some years ago, although if I were to publish that fact no doubt the readers would turn up somebody else.

                Anyway, for many years I had the dream of creating a fictional baseball encyclopedia by taking a couple of thousand of these fictional careers, or more, and blending them into a complex but somehow unified narrative.   If you think about a real baseball encyclopedia, holding inside of itself 15,000 careers or thereabouts, every player is connected to every other player in there, and there are never seven degrees of separation in baseball; there are usually just one or two.   You can pick any two players at random, and if you know the history of baseball well enough you can very quickly find a pathway between the two players, and also you can find the things that unify those two players.   There are always things.     Ty Cobb and Henry Aaron.    One man—Fred Haney—was a teammate of Ty Cobb and a manager of Henry Aaron.   Cobb and Aaron were from the same part of the country, separated by just about 300 miles.    It can be shown that they played in many of the same parks, major league parks and minor league parks, and, of course, Cobb was a racist, while Aaron was a victim of racism.

                Well, apply that to a fictional encyclopedia of 10,000 players.   Do you see the possibilities?   Suppose that there was a team that had two supremely talented players, like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, but suppose that something always went wrong for that team so that, despite having these two players together for ten years, they never are able to win the pennant.   You don’t TELL that story; you create that story and put it inside the Encyclopedia, so that the reader, if he spends enough time with the book, will eventually discover it.   Or suppose that there is the opposite; suppose there is a team of players of modest skills, a team that normally finished fifth or sixth in an eight-team league, but suppose that they have one really good player, and suppose that that one star player dies tragically early in the 1964 season, and then almost every player on the team has his best season in 1964 and they win 107 games and win the World Series as a kind of tribute to the teammate they have lost.   Suppose that there are two sets of twins, brothers, and that in one set of twins one is the shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers while the other is the second baseman for the Yankees, and in the other set one is the second baseman for the Dodgers and the other is the shortstop for the Yankees.    You don’t TELL that story; you create that story and put it inside the Encyclopedia, so that the reader, if he spends enough time with the book, will eventually discover it. 

                You’re not exactly hiding the story in the Encyclopedia; "hiding" suggests that you are taking active steps to cover it up.   We’re not covering up the story; we are just creating the story and leaving it in there to be discovered by whoever is interested enough to discover it.  The nature of it being an Encyclopedia will effectively hide the story.   The unique nature of a Baseball Encyclopedia is that each player’s record is a story, but also each player’s record contains little directional arrows pointing you in a dozen different directions.   You can’t complete ANY player’s record without studying the records of his teams and the records of his teammates, which means that you can never really fully process any player’s record.   When you create a player’s record, it is easy to leave little clues as to whether the player is black or white, and because that is true in a fictional encyclopedia one could create the story of a team torn apart by racial animosity; one could create that story entirely out of numbers and biographical details, and then scatter the little pieces of the story across a two-thousand page book so that it might be years before anyone would discover that the story was there.    Finding those stories is like finding buried treasure. 

                As a part of this exercise I have created a little 20-player Encyclopedia.   I only have a few copies of that, for obvious reasons, but I expect to be able to post it somewhere so you can go online and download the Encyclopedia sample later if you are interested in doing that.    Speaking of which, as I am writing this I really have no idea whether most of you understand what I am saying and are interested in it or not, but I know that in this audience there will be SOME people who love Baseball Encyclopedias and love spending time with them, discovering the stories that are hidden there, and I know that those people at least will understand exactly what I am saying and will get the idea.

                Unfortunately, I believe that the time has come and gone when this fictional Encyclopedia of baseball could have been created and marketed.   It’s a derivative effort, its appeal derived from and limited to the appeal of actual baseball encyclopedias.   Baseball Encyclopedias are basically dead in print form now; their heyday was from 1969 to 1995.   An Encyclopedia has to run a couple of thousand pages or more, and those books are expensive to print and expensive to distribute and sell, and there’s no real market for them in the modern world; online Encyclopedias can expand to contain more information in a better form, tied together better.   The book I have been describing here could have been created and marketed in the 1980s, I think, but, like relievers who pitch 130 innings in a season, that day has come and gone.

                The value in what I am talking about, I think, is not in what could be done, but that it pushes us to think about "What is fiction?"   Good fiction, great fiction has psychological depth, it has imagery, it has cultural resonance.   Good fiction creates a world and draws the reader into that world, where the reader may feel regret, terror, anxiety, hope, exhilaration and relief within the pages of words.   Bad fiction is simply made up stuff.   I am not arguing that fiction created with numbers could do ALL of those things that good fiction does; I am arguing that it could do some of those things very successfully.   It could create a world of imagination, in which certain stories, which I acknowledge are stories of limited depth and power but which are stories of almost infinite variety, can be told.    There is some difference between fiction and a lie.   There is some difference between fiction and imagination; there is some difference between fiction and fantasy, but what is it exactly?     Should this really be described as fiction, or does fiction have to rise to some level of sophistication which could never be reached in this format?   I thank you all for your time and attention, and I will be happy to answer any questions you might have, whether about this paper or about other issues.   But don’t ask me anything about Jack Kerouac, because I’m pretty sure you all know more about him than I do.

 
 

COMMENTS (34 Comments, most recent shown first)

MidnighttheCat
Richallen7, I certainly can't address why you don't like it, since we all have literature or music or art that we do or do not like. Your opinion of Universal Baseball Association is as good as mine, in that sense, and I love it.

But to answer your question, as to why it is loved, I think it is for the following reasons:

First, it is a book about someone who thinks it worth his time creating and maintaining a baseball simulation. In a strange way it is a precursor to the world of Big Bang Theory (the TV show) and the kinds of people (people like me though I work in a different field than physical science) that are represented in an exaggerated way on that program. The simulation baseball teams I create online and the baseball worlds I play with OOTP at home matter to me. That someone else could write a good book about someone to whom such things matter strikes a chord.

Second, the book is about someone for whom his inner world is more important than the external world around him. I do not advocate this as a practical strategy for life, nor as a way of life. But let's face it: it is true of many of us and the world as it is at times seems less interesting than it could be to many of us.

Third, the real theme of the book in the end (SPOILER alert)...

is that the creation of fictional worlds is a godlike action and that such action requires ethical standards, and the development of moral codes or of a purpose for such a world and the lives within them.

Big stuff in other words, despite the seemingly ridiculous (to some) premise.

Plus it's about baseball. Or sort of. And even addresses why somehow a baseball simulation world is still more satisfying and practical and imaginable than one based on the economy, or politics, or world history and conquest etc. though there are now people working and living their lives playing in such created worlds as well today.
12:23 PM Apr 23rd
 
sdbunting
@Richallen, I'm glad it's not just me who has fought her way 20 pages into that and given up several times. I just...can't.
8:28 AM Apr 20th
 
Richallen7
Seems as good a place as any to bring up the Universal Baseball Association. I tried to read it again after reading Bill's piece, but no, still think it's awful. Why does it seem to be so beloved?
6:34 AM Apr 18th
 
mrvino
Bill: This is off the track, but in the ballpark. I am 65 years old today and have personally reread Spoon River Anthology about every three years since High School. My paperback copy was printed in 1971, is the 17th printing, and has my Mother's signature in it.
I have always thought that Paul Simon (Richard Cory) and Ray Davies (A Well Respected Man) must have been Masters fans and can imagine (in my twisted way) that Tom Lehrer was as well (I Got It From Agnus, The Irish Ballad).
Speaking of weird personal passions that could bear fruit, I would introduce you and your readers to a remarkable project that is more or less in your neighborhood.
I am a wine merchant, have been since 1972. One of my biggest pleasures is introducing new California wine projects to people. However, the most intriguing project in all my experience is going on right now in Missouri.
You Native Sons should stick together, so look into TerraVox winery, if you can. Owner Jerry Eisterhold (who builds museums for a living), fulfilling a crazy dream, has planted about 60 different Native American grapevines, hoping to resurrect an industry dead since Prohibition. I have tasted some of the wines and a few are shockingly delicious!
6:18 PM Apr 17th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Just googled Hilary Masters--dead, as of last June, at age 87. I also found this exchange www.nybooks.com/articles/1991/11/21/mastering-masters/ in which he corrected the critic Elizabeth Hardwick (who was also one of my professors, at a different university) about his father's life and work, and her response to his correction. So I guess there is some interest in E.L. Masters' work in academe.
5:34 AM Apr 16th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Edgar Lee Masters' son is an academic. He is the novelist Hilary Masters, and I dedicated my Ph. D. dissertation to him, because he was helpful to me when I studied with him. The last I heard, about 10 years ago, he was living in upstate New York, in Columbia County. It's fairly amazing that Edgar Lee Masters, whom I consider to be a turn of the century writer (that turn being the 19th to the 20th), could have a son who lived into the 21st century, but he did (or does. I'm not sure if Hilary is still with us.) When I was in grad school, 30 years or so or more, his father wasn't really studied very much by anyone who wasn't specializing in early 20th century poets, and not even very much by them. The only thing I remember about his poetry is his Spoon River Anthology and even there, all I remember at this point is that one of the dead people whose voices he wrote that in was a lover of Abraham Lincoln's, possibly Ann Rutledge.
5:25 AM Apr 16th
 
mauimike
Once upon a time, the Jews saw desert and not much else. They went to sleep and saw the sky. The sky was more interesting than the sand. A sky god was born. It wasn't a world, with rivers and trees. It wasn't a world of oceans and mountains, it was a world of sand and sky. They wrote the Talmud, the Old Testament. They wrote what they saw. We can make up what we like and we do. It's all fiction and it's all real. Some of us put numbers on what happens, it's just numbers, it's no more real than the housewifes of New York......or it's more real....if we want it to be. Or, it's all BS, it's life.....And imagine Kerouac and Neal, you and I on the plains of Kansas, thinking crazy things, inventing new worlds, before the baked beans were allowed and Allen wrote, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night."

Except for some, there was baseball.

And we made up our own worlds.
4:49 AM Apr 16th
 
MarisFan61
Breck: re 'why the Indians': Maybe because the actual Reds already had a good team and you were looking for an I-71 Series......
9:44 PM Apr 14th
 
Breckinridge
As soon as I looked at the stats and years I started composing the narrative in my mind. I believe you are absolutely correct about being able to create a story with numbers.
I used to create fictional players all the time as a kid...I once made the starting lineup of a fictional Cleveland Indians team that won the pennant. Don't know why the Indians, as I was and still am a Reds fan. Anyway, some of the players were at their peak that year, some declining, and some just starting out. A couple were with Cleveland their whole careers, but the rest came and went. I remember giving their catcher the shortest career. To this day, when at a meeting or training you will see in my notes rows of numbers, win-loss records for fictional pitchers, telling myself that they are still under team control this year, contract year next year, and so on.....Like Jwilt, I moved on to computer sims: Tony Larussa series, Hardball, Old Time Baseball, Front Page Sports, and finally (the best) Out Of The Park Baseball, where I can create fictional leagues stocked with computer generated players. But it started with a pencil, paper, and a love of baseball. Really enjoyed this article.

Regards,
Breck
9:21 PM Apr 14th
 
MarisFan61
Cool -- back on.
(Thank you Studes!)
8:58 PM Apr 14th
 
MarisFan61
HEY, THE "ENCYCLOPEDIA" IS OFF THE SITE!!

C'mon, we need that.........
8:01 PM Apr 14th
 
Cooper
I love the baseball reference tool which allows allows one to put a player in different context ....Joe Morgan playing for the Colorado Rockies in 2000....stuff like that. Much fun.
5:39 PM Apr 14th
 
Riceman1974
Have any of you gentlemen, in addition to fictional careers, altered actual careers?

I have many spreadsheets of actual star players whose careers I've altered a little. An example would be giving 101 rbi to a guy who had 98, and readjusting his career totals accordingly. Or adding more singles and at bats (to keep the outs the same) to boost career averages from .298 to .300. Or altering whole leagues (turning 1968 to 1930 and vice versa; basically using Bill's Willie Davis method to a whole league). A complete waste of time, but mad fun to me.

10:15 AM Apr 14th
 
jwilt
In 1988 I created a fictional third major league, perhaps un-creatively named the Continental League. I was 17 years old. The league originally had 10 teams, if I recall correctly. I ran it on a Commodore 64, this was probably about as early in time as you could do something like this on a home computer. I've switched computers and simulation/game software many times over the years, ending up with the Out of the Park series in 2000. But the league continues on. I'm 44 now, and the league itself is 26 years old. For the first 12 years all of the players were of my creation. OOTP allows the computer to take that task over and invent new players, and in fact create a universe where the real leagues of the world co-exist with the Continental League. I have thousands of fictional players who exist only to me, and many, many of them have long, detailed stories and careers and narratives that have unfolded over the past 26 years. None of my original players are still active, they've all retired years ago. Several from the early 90s are still active in their 40s. Players have spent 15 years on a team, some signed with big-market MLB teams, some traded or released and resigned dozens of times. Players have 3000+ hits, and 800 doubles and 275 triples. Guys have hit .400 and won 30 games. There are times when I hear a name and I'm not sure if they're real or fictional. There are times where I see a real player in a real MLB game and think "that guy is the non-fictional version of XYZ from the mid-2000s CBL."

I often wonder if I'm the only one quite this loopy. It's good to know that maybe I'm not.
7:33 AM Apr 14th
 
MidnighttheCat
I don't think Masters has an academic following, though I don't teach literature. But his book is immensely popular in Italy where I live.
4:40 AM Apr 14th
 
OldBackstop
I'll play. Barnes was born into a family of Kansas pilots, a crop dusting business. He went into the Navy as an aviator on his 18th birthday, catching the
end of the war and earning a reputation as a skilled pilot, which led to him being called back in 1952 for Korea (this parallels Ted Williams, of course.) In a training accident, he suffered lung damage, (like Christy Mathewson) an injury which became chronic, forcing him to miss large chunks of seasons and eventually killed him at age 44 at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda. (Mathewson died a few days after his 45th birthday.) The lung injury led to the deterioration of his speed and ability to stay well conditioned, but struck a chord within the dark patriotic hearts of the baseball lords, leading to a series of clubs extending opportunities as his skills waned. Unable to do much running, he moved to the infield and bulked up. While still able to play in 1965, he chose to retire to San Francisco, his phenomenal piloting skills landing him a gig as Ken Kesey's bus driver, which is how he met Jack Kerouac, the end.
1:11 AM Apr 14th
 
bjames
Edgar Lee Masters was a Kansan. I was actually wondering whether anybody READ him any more. I don't know much about him, don't believe any of his stuff is in print any more. I know that in his time he was immensely respected, but. . .does he have much of an academic following now?
10:50 PM Apr 13th
 
Cooper
My ex-wife (who is a very good lady) used to get upset because I would stay up all night reading the baseball encyclopedia and numerous other stat books. "How can you read a book of numbers?".....my answer was taken from you Bill...they tell a story and they give clues to context.

As a kid, I invented numerous leagues and stats for players and then attempt to hit in their imagined style. Lead off hitter -hits lefthanded and his BA is .323. He bunts often and likes to slap the ball the other way....i'd throw the ball against the house and wait for its return -let it bounce once and attempt to take on his characteristics....I did this for hours. We lived in a woods and there was no one to play with so you invent things. I invented whole worlds with numbers and skill sets to go along with them. Kept the whole thing to myself until today -assumed others would think it was odd.




4:48 PM Apr 13th
 
raincheck
After the encyclopedia is published, you could crowd source a thing like SABR's BioProject and a lot of people could waste valuable time writing and reading about this fictional baseball world. That would be a wonderful thing.
1:10 PM Apr 13th
 
raincheck
After the encyclopedia is published, you could crowd source a thing like SABR's BioProject and a lot of people could waste valuable time writing and reading about this fictional baseball world. That would be a wonderful thing.
1:10 PM Apr 13th
 
MarisFan61
BTW, re "If you are a serious enough baseball fan it will be obvious to you that Player One was a left-handed hitter":
I did immediately think it, but I'm not sure if everyone would get it because it looks to me like there's only 1 indication of it although it's a loud one. (Triples)
Are there actually more??

In the old "Stan and Freddie" article (BTW I'm not sure if that was actually the title) there were multiple indications of it about "Stan."
11:29 AM Apr 13th
 
Riceman1974
Back in the mid-80s, I would type up fictional careers on my Dad's IBM electric typewriter. I would do the math in various notebooks using long-hand and my Dad's old-school accountant tape calculator, then when it was all ready to go, type it out on the IBM. My favorite was Marshall Gray, who hit 906 home runs and drove in over 2,500 runs. He played until he was 52. I had no idea about aging patterns when I was 12. Good times.
11:09 AM Apr 13th
 
MidnighttheCat
"Well, apply that to a fictional encyclopedia of 10,000 players. Do you see the possibilities? Suppose that there was a team that had two supremely talented players, like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, but suppose that something always went wrong for that team so that, despite having these two players together for ten years, they never are able to win the pennant. You don’t TELL that story; you create that story and put it inside the Encyclopedia, so that the reader, if he spends enough time with the book, will eventually discover it. Or suppose that there is the opposite; suppose there is a team of players of modest skills, a team that normally finished fifth or sixth in an eight-team league, but suppose that they have one really good player, and suppose that that one star player dies tragically early in the 1964 season, and then almost every player on the team has his best season in 1964 and they win 107 games and win the World Series as a kind of tribute to the teammate they have lost. Suppose that there are two sets of twins, brothers, and that in one set of twins one is the shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers while the other is the second baseman for the Yankees, and in the other set one is the second baseman for the Dodgers and the other is the shortstop for the Yankees. You don’t TELL that story; you create that story and put it inside the Encyclopedia, so that the reader, if he spends enough time with the book, will eventually discover it. "

This part of your talk is most closely paralleled in literature in The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. Only by reading all the biographies do you piece together the history of the town and how different individuals were related to one another's lives.


10:00 AM Apr 13th
 
MidnighttheCat
This is a wonderful project. Not since "The Universal Baseball Association Inc., J. Henry Waugh Prop." has there been anything of this level of imagination.

An idea comes to me, which I will post at the risk of offending you which I in no way mean to do:

I am probably not the only one who subscribes to this site who plays Out of the Park Baseball. While I usually play leagues with historical players (though sometimes I create teams in Terre Haute, Austin (the Bluebonnets), Cedar Rapids, etc. many who play that game play fictional leagues, with fictional players generated by the algorithm.

It is not remotely comparable to your creative act of making up the players and the history and the story.

So...since that game is registered with, or whatever the right word is, with MLB, maybe it might be possible to get the makers of it to include your fictional baseball world and player data as an optional database for people to play seasons with. When complete, a 10,000 player encyclopedia could work for decades of simulation games and seasons and careers.

People could even report back to you about variations, how players whose stories you told overcame whatever tragic obstacles and circumstances this time around and were World Series heroes.

I get the impression from some of your other posts that you don't care for simulation baseball games, or at least not anymore. But I know I would pay to see your invented players play in a league of my own making, perhaps for the Hudson Valley Apple Pickers in the Empire State League, or for the Continental Baseball Association playing for Mobile Giants or the Wilkes-Barre Miners or North Dakota Farm-Laborers.

In any case, thanks for sharing this project with us, I know I look forward to seeing as much as you want to post.
9:08 AM Apr 13th
 
agcohen
In this record, Edmund Barnes played for San Francisco in the National League in 1957, and of course the Giants played their last season in New York in 1957. Was this entry a mistake, or a deliberate piece of fiction?
8:53 AM Apr 13th
 
sdbunting
Was at this conference/talk. (Actually gave the keynote the year previous so obviously they've done a major upgrade ;) ) My fellow presenters and I agree that we would read the heck out of this.
8:27 AM Apr 13th
 
SteveN
I recall that Tom Paciorek had a late peak, early 30 I believe, but, he only had 3 or so good years.

Have you read Troy Soos Mickey Rawlings mysteries? Mickey was a utility infielder (fictional) who played for several teams in the late teens. Good reads.
7:08 AM Apr 13th
 
Gfletch
He had the kind of imagination that could or perhaps even did result in a "...descent into madness." But the descent was actually from madness to that form of consciousness most of us recognize as sanity.

Fascinating. As a young lad I invented for myself a way to play season after season after season of NHL games, using dice and exercise books and rules to interpret results from those dice...I had scoring period by period...scoring races...penalties...you name it. Lost in the 50 year ago past are a few hundred exercise books with virtually indecipherable columns of numbers.

Somewhere along the way I lost touch with that version of myself. It was nice to be reminded, as you have reminded me. Thanks.
1:50 AM Apr 13th
 
RonMock
I also want to believe the time has not passed for such an encyclopedia. If it came out I would pester my family to give me one three times a year (Fathers Day, birthday, Christmas) until finally someone shelled out the $60 out of exasperation. I might lose an entire summer in there, though, so maybe it's for the best...

A fictional baseball encyclopedia would be a subcreation on the scale of Tolkien's work, at least. And it would be even better. There would be so many answers to so many questions -- including questions the author never meant to answer, or even to ask. Tolkien left his readers hungry for information on a scale like that, but he couldn't satisfy the longing because he WROTE his stories. He didn't have the time to write that much. Your method leaves the "writing" to the reader, given the clues you print.

Or from another angle -- it would be like a painting, only vaster and in more dimensions. A "Leaf by Niggle" only with more places to explore. Little things would be tucked away behind other things which have to be disturbed to reveal what's behind them. Other things you wouldn't be able to see over here until you've studied that way over there.

I would never condemn another person to the labor it would take to craft such a marvel. But if some angel (or demon) did the condemning, and the author accepted it with joy, I would be grateful.
1:20 AM Apr 13th
 
MattGoodrich
I keep my slow pitch softball team's stats and have a section where I basically divide the numbers in half to make them more 'understandable'. A .700 hitter becomes a .350 hitter, .600 becomes .300. Our cleanup hitter had 23 RBI in 12 games - what does that mean? Divide by 2 and calculate it per 550 plate appearances, you get a guy with 151 RBI. The numbers pretty much end up looking like real major league numbers that we are used to seeing.
12:55 AM Apr 13th
 
MarisFan61
P.S. clarification, re "not so young or inexperienced that we'd expect a decline....in amount and efficiency of base stealing": I know that seems weird if not backwards. I meant that in very early career, any which thing can easily decline and we wouldn't be shocked, because the guy hasn't really established anything. But this guy seems like he had established his base stealing, and I think we'd strongly suspect that both his SB's and his SB% would increase at that point in his career; anyway not significantly decrease -- especially the %.
If it had happened the previous year -- i.e. after just 1 prior full season, rather than after 2 -- I wouldn't have wondered much about it. Am I saying I think there's a significant difference for something like this if it's after 2 full seasons rather than after just 1? Yes.
11:38 PM Apr 12th
 
MarisFan61
A couple of things (unrelated):
-- I don't think the time for such an encyclopedia has gone.

-- I spent some time trying to figure out something about the record of "Player I" that you didn't say anything about: the decline from 1949 to 1950.
He was still young, but not so young or inexperienced that we'd expect a decline in power and in amount and efficiency of base stealing. I realize that none of those declines were great, but they seem pronounced enough that I figured you 'meant something' with them, although I also realize that maybe what you meant was just that such variation can happen at random or that maybe you meant nothing.

The slugging average went from a .501 to .438, which, although not that huge quantitatively, I think is very significant qualitatively -- the difference between very good, and fairly pedestrian for an outfielder. In fact you had his SLG declining the previous year too, but that decrease didn't yet seem so striking, maybe because it's still in the 5's which would be a silly reason, but .501 to .438 for a young star seems significant. And there's more: His SB's decreased (some, not a lot) and his SB% went from terrific to just good, and his triples rate, which had dropped significantly the previous year but we can figure maybe that was an aberration, stayed down.

I thought there was some message there, and I think if an actual player of that age had such a 2-year sequence, I think very likely there would be some known and valid reason for it.

10:08 PM Apr 12th
 
jdw
This is a very good read. The top half is something you've done a number of time in print or online, which those of us have read in the past would feel at home in your points.

The part where you depart into home much you do this, the amount of time you spend on it, for so many years - the feels new, at least for me. Which in turn probably hits a lot of us who have similar little creative/fantasy/fictional things we noodle on for whatever reason. Suspect some of us have spent similar hours on it, or know people who have/do. Seeing someone else talk openly about it does make it easy to get reflective.

Then the departure into a concept of a fictional Encylopedia... that's both thrilling and also a bit sad that the time has passed on it. I think it would have been a wonder creative item, and as you say with things buried in plain sight in it, but requiring immersion of the reader to find. Which a lot of fiction is all about: world building of numbing depth behind what seems initially a simple story. One wishes that you and a team could do it on an epic scale.
9:05 PM Apr 12th
 
MarisFan61
Was only able to flash on it yet, but wanted to say right away, I'm gonna love this. It's along the lines of the "Stan and Freddie" article in the old Abstract, which I've referred to many times and which I found particularly delightful, insightful, moving, memorable, and a few dozen other adjectives. As you said in that article, baseball statistics have acquired "the power of language," and yes indeed, stories of great depth could be built on it.
6:53 PM Apr 12th
 
 
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