Player Biographies

April 16, 2017

I’ve been working on a SABR biography about one of my favorite ballplayers, Bill Wakefield, who set a Mets’ team record for pitching appearances in 1964, the only year he played in the major leagues and Casey Stengel’s final complete season of managing, so you know that he has some stories to tell. In doing this short biography, it occurred to me that the SABR biography series has taken the place of one of Bill’s outstanding projects, the alphabetical series of biographies he started with Rob Neyer (I think)  in the 1990s and abandoned somewhere in the "A"s. No one can replicate Bill’s prose style or Rob’s research skills, of course, (except maybe Bill can research, and Rob can write, at each other's level of skill)  but these SABR bios are pretty uniformly well-written and are a real contribution to historical and factual understanding of the lives and baseball careers of the thousands of MLB players who have never been (and will probably never be) the subject of book-length biographies.

Very often, I suspect, the lives of these thousands of players have been written in bits and pieces, newspaper accounts of various ballgames and seasons, articles written about the teams of which they were a part, overviews of issues in which their names come up, etc., but these hit-and-miss pieces often contain contradictions and downright incorrect information.  (Wakefield’s signing bonus, for example, has appeared in print as $30,000, $50,000 and $60,000.) By devoting an entire article to straightening out these facts, semi-facts, and fictions through the research standards demanded by SABR, these player-bios are raising our level of understanding of baseball and of American culture.

When you read a few of these SABR-bios, most of them longer and far more detailed than Bill’s and Rob’s were (though devoid of Bill’s and Rob’s perceptive analysis, for the most part), you come to understand how doomed the original alphabetical approach was: before they ever started the "B"s, several new outstanding players whose names began with "A" must have debuted in the majors, now all too late to be included properly in the alphabetical listing. Even if Bill and Rob had begun a parallel project, that of adding names retroactively to the alphabetical listings, that, too, would have eventually required that there be an addendum to the addendum, a never-ending project that would only take away from their ability to make progress on the "B"s and the "C"s.  Simply, two men (or even two supermen like Bill and Rob) are just too few to tackle a project as huge as this one was, but the membership of SABR is, I think, sufficient to the task.  In addition to being a huge project in itself, this was also a project that was doomed by being in print, as opposed to on-line, where revisions, additions, omissions, corrections, and new bios can easily appear.

I’m having a lot of fun researching and writing the Bill Wakefield chapter. For one thing, it gives me a real charge to be in communication with someone I’ve admired since I was eleven years old, and admire more now that I’ve met him, spoken with him over the phone, and exchanged more emails with him than I can count. That’s just fun for me.

Wakefield is a rarity, a highly intelligent, highly educated (Stanford ‘66) professional athlete who is both articulate and eager to share his experiences. I imagine your average ex-athlete to be far less accessible than Wakefield is, being either dead, suspicious of "reporters," non-English-speaking, non-verbal, in ill health, or just a bad interview, but even those are not insuperable barriers to writing a good biography, just barriers to having as good a time as I’m having writing Wakefield’s.

Anyway, I may print here some of the Wakefield piece when I get it finished, or a summary or something of the sort, but my main point here is to ask if anyone is interested in doing their own biographies of players they admire. Chances are that many of your favorite athletes’ bios will already have appeared on the SABR site, but there are still many yet to be done—I thought that some of you BJOLers would be interested in a player whose bio is as yet unwritten. In the "Comments’ section, if you’re one of these BJOLers, whose biography would you’d most like to do? Even if you don't ending up writing it, tyou might inspire someone else to take a shot at it. It might be a favorite of yours, as Wakefield was of mine, or just some obscure player who caught your eye for any reason, or someone you happened to see play a few times and have wondered about, or anything, really. Through the force of sheer numbers, I’m hoping that SABR will eventually (in my lifetime? Maybe not) account for every significant player in MLB history.

There are a lot of really good writers on BJOL, so many of you will just be able to write a bio straight out of the box. But if anyone is feeling that his research skills (or motivation) exceeds his ability to put it all down in prose form, I’m sure you could find a co-author among the professional-level writers here on this website. I’ll be glad to share my own opinion of suitable co-authors for any one entry. There are enough skillful writers here that you could easily find a collaborator, who may be willing to share the research burden, or the documentation-style burden, or any other part of the project that seems intimidating to you. In the writing-professor part of my life, I’ve often paired up writers whose skills complement each other, or offered suggestions as to what needs to be worked on further, or techniques they might want to try.

But let’s start by seeing the names of players whose SABR-bios are lacking, and anyone who might interested in moving that project along. The FAQ is here: http://sabr.org/content/bioproject-FAQs but I’ll pass along some facts you may not be aware of. (That link may not work if you’re not a SABR member, but I assume there are many here who are. You will need to be a member to submit a player bio. BTW, I keep calling them "player bios" but they also include owner, manager, ballpark bios. I just read the one on Hilltop Park in Manhattan, the proto-Yankees’ first ballpark and was pleased to learn that I actually worked on that site one summer long after it was torn down—Columbia built its medical school and hospital on the site, and that’s where I worked, installing air-conditioners and TV sets in hospital rooms in the summer of 1973. WARNING: leave a lot of time to cruise the SABR players-bio site. This stuff is worse than Pringles.) Anyway, the facts, ma’am, are that it’s fairly amazing how many famous players have not have their bios done, and how many obscure players have.  You may be astonished at the Hall of Famers (Johnny Bench, to use their example) are missing bios. (Dan, your go.) And negligible players (their contrast to Bench is Bob Montgomery) have complete write-ups. So check it out and see if there isn’t someone whose life you know well, or want to know well, who’s on the list of the missing.

 

 
 

COMMENTS (30 Comments, most recent shown first)

those
It's more just, Bill has the credentials to be going off on a personal tangent, like saying he punched in :44 on his microwave when his coffee gets cold as a tribute to Hank Aaron.

The biographies were part of "The Bill James Baseball Book." If SABR had one writer who was good enough (and had enough time to not write anything else), we'd take the tangents, even appreciate them. There were some when Dewey and Acocella did their Biographical Encyclopedia, and they were great. With anonymous, unpaid, contributors, not so much.

By the way, I swear at one point Mike Gimbel had a SABR bio. Remember him? He was Dan Duquette's advisor who bragged he never watched games, and in a Rob Neyer profile he claimed the Expos would have won the division one year if the team had just done everything he said (of course, Felipe Alou later said Gimbel wanted him to bat Tim Spehr cleanup, which wasn't in Neyer's profile).

I remember when Bill was hired by the Red Sox, he made a comment about how that was like being a movie reviewer and not actually watching movies, to sort of prove to the press that he wasn't another Gimbel.

Anyway, I remember reading a SABR bio of Gimbel years ago -- it was a fawning portrait, and early on it talked about the Mets-Braves 4th of July game from 1985. There was a quote from Gimbel about Keith Hernandez during that game.

Now, apparently, that bio (which probably never should have been written) is gone. Anyone know what happened?
8:00 AM Apr 22nd
 
MarisFan61
Well said about the 'colorful' aspects of the Baseball Book bios not necessarily being appropriate or even acceptable for something more official, like the SABR bios.

I didn't remember the thing about Vin Scully. It seems pretty cringeworthy now.

So really, what we're saying is, we love the colorful stuff, except when we don't. :-)
And I think we'd have to say that it means there's a good reason for the SABR bios not to be like that. Maybe there could be some good territory in the middle ground, but it might be hard to find.
3:24 PM Apr 21st
 
Steven Goldleaf
TKissane--The folks at SABR tell me that the 1977 Series seems to have been corrected. Is this how the passage read when you looked a few days ago?

"In 1977 Randolph’s numbers improved, and he posted a batting average of .274, an on-base percentage of .347, and a slugging percentage of .387. He was once again named to the American League All-Star team, and set an All-Star Game record for most assists (six) by a second baseman in a nine-inning game. During the ALCS against the Kansas City Royals, he had five hits and 2 RBIs in 18 at-bats. In the World Series he had four hits and scored five runs as the Yankees defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers."

Or was it another passage? I'll PM you to make sure you read this note.
8:40 PM Apr 20th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Sometimes the bios in The Baseball Book got a little too lively by SABR’s standards, I think, and would probably be toned down for publication in the SABR-Bioproject, which is fine. I loved reading the colorful comments in The Baseball Book’s bios, and would probably push that envelope because I value lively (and well-researched) writing, but SABR’s standards in creating a reference work (which The Baseball Book was not trying to be) include avoiding personal opinions, especially where unsupported by facts. In its bio of Mel Allen, the Yankees’ announcers, the 1990 Baseball Book goes off on a bit of a side-discussion of the various styles of announcing games that were developed as the craft emerged in the 1950s, basically of announcers who considered themselves “newsmen” (like Red Barber and Bob Elson) and those whose style was more emotional (such as Allen and Harry Caray), including this remarkable sentence: “Vin Scully, a hack in love with the sound of his own drone, has been glorified as if he was some sort of a damned demi-God….” I’m not sure who wrote this particular sentence. (The bios are sometimes signed: this one was signed “M.K. and B.J.”, but we can’t be sure if this opinion or this phrasing was more Mike Kopf’s or Bill James’, though we do know that Bill has expressed more recent, and more appreciative, opinions of Vin Scully’s broadcasting style.) In any case, this jibe at Scully is the sort of thing that would be out of place in a SABR-bio, lively though it is to read, and the entire side-discussion of announcing styles would probably be considered inappropriate in a bio of Mel Allen. Nonetheless, factual controversies are not to be avoided categorically, and I look forward to including accurate accounts and summaries of various controversies where SABR considers them appropriate.
3:13 AM Apr 20th
 
MarisFan61
(....BTW, what I meant by "as you sort of indicated" was where you said "I'm not suggesting that I (or anyone here) could match Bill's writing")
10:45 PM Apr 18th
 
MarisFan61
I don't think it's the best thing to say that people in general should use Bill's way as a model. As Yogi said (and as you sort of indicated), if you can't imitate him, don't copy him. I imagine you wouldn't disagree that people do best when they do whatever their thing is, and it could well be that most people write their best bios when they follow something more like what's in most of the SABR bios.

That said, I don't hesitate to say that I'd rather see more of the bios having more of an evident personal touch -- like, don't be afraid to let your hair down, if you have some :-) -- and maybe that's really all that you meant too.
10:43 PM Apr 18th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Great to hear from you. I sent a few corrections to the email address listed on each bio's page, which is a different one from yours. I'll resend them to your address, plus any others I notice in the coming days as I read bios to gain familiarity with your house style, and I hope others will too. This is a project with great potential, especially with input from knowledgeable members and readers.
2:27 PM Apr 18th
 
wpcorbett
I’m the head of the SABR BioProject’s fact-checking team. We verify the accuracy of all bios before publication. We do want to hear about errors and we do correct them, since the fact-checking unit was formed four years ago. Send your corrections to me at wpcorbett@hotmail.com. Please include a source to verify your information.
Some of the criticisms here are valid. The quality of our bios is uneven, because we’re dealing with volunteers and few of them are professional writers. I’m sure the leaders of the project would join me in saying we welcome new contributors.
Since Mark Armour created the project about 14 years ago, we have produced more than 4,000 bios and dozens of books about teams. That is a monumental accomplishment, but we have a long way to go.
Warren Corbett
12:44 PM Apr 18th
 
wilbur
I discovered the SABR bio section a few years ago, and will attest the quality of submissions is a bit uneven. I've noticed a few errors along the way, but have never bothered to submit them to the staff. I'm surprised to hear they aren't followed up on, but then who am I to complain?

One of the biggest disappointments of my reading life is when the 1991 BJ book came out, and he had discontinued the bios that year. I was really anticipating his essay for Ernie Banks, but greatly enjoyed all of them. It was a gargantuan undertaking.
12:02 PM Apr 18th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I got a chance last night to read the 1990 Baseball Book and compare it to the account of some of the same players that SABR did its bios of. Grover Cleveland Alexander was a real contrast.

Compare this account of game three of the 1915 World series: SABR: “Dutch Leonard beat Alex, 2-1, in Game 3 as Duffy Lewis singled in the bottom of the ninth to score Harry Hooper” with the Baseball Book’s "…on October 3, the game was tied 1-1 going into the bottom of the ninth. The Red Sox got a leadoff single, and after a sac bunt, an intentional walk to Tris Speaker and a groundout had runners on second and third with two out. Pat Moran, then managing Philadelphia, let Alexander choose whether to pitch to Duffy Lewis, at bat, or Larry Gardner on deck….[goes on to describe the advantages of each choice, and the one Alex made that lost the game for him]” –the difference is clear: Bill’s account makes you feel like you were there watching the game, while SABR’s version is just what you can glean from reading the box score. It's not just that Bill included many more details--it's WHICH details he chose to use that makes his account come alive.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that I (or anyone here) could match Bill's writing, but I think if we were to try a bio, we should use the Baseball Book as a model. SABR will edit any submissions, but I don't think they're looking to edit out all the juiciness, just any errors or awkwardness in the writing. On the contrary, I think they'll appreciate lively writing. They just can't get it consistently from their contributors. We can do better, I think.

6:46 AM Apr 18th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I'm curious, MelHubbell, which of the areas I wished were touched upon in the Randolph bio struck you as sensationalizing, or relying on anything other than facts?
8:07 PM Apr 17th
 
those
Well, I think there's some middle ground between "extremely dull" and "salacious for the sake of being salacious." A representative sentence in the Randolph bio is, "In 1976 his batting average was .267, his slugging percentage .328, his on-base percentage .356, and he had 37 stolen bases. Yes, you're getting the facts, but what's the point of writing a biography of someone if you're just going to adjust his stat line to make a sentence?

So I think what Steve is doing and advocating is great. There are some SABR bios which are better than the Randolph one. The Bill Terry bio has some great stuff, stories I had never heard and that tell a lot about the man. If I read an online bio of Willie Randolph, I want to know why he never got another shot at managing, not just a quote that he was shocked to be fired and a list of his jobs after.
7:42 PM Apr 17th
 
MelHubbell
Not remotely interested in a "juicy stories" approach in the SABR bio section of bb-ref. I go there for facts.

Anybody wants a "Baseball Babylon" type website is free to start their own.​
7:14 PM Apr 17th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Yeah, those, that Randolph bio is extra-dry. I can think off the top of my head of some juicy quotes emerging from his tenure as manager of the Mets that illustrate the complexities of the man. He gave a commencement speech at Fordham (his daughter was graduating from there) that showed the disconnect between his principles and his actual managing techniques that I would certainly have included some snippets from. And he was amazingly thin-skinned as a manager--his miserable relationship with the press (and with the truth) are worth another few paragraphs. And his boasting, when he took the job, about how he's a winner (the Yankee tradition!!!) and how he could easily teach these losing Mets some of those winning Yankee ways (paraphrasing here), kind of rubbed some Mets' fans the wrong way (including me). And his prickliness about not being offered managerial jobs (because he was a black man) when in reality he had been offered jobs, just jobs that didn't pay as well as he thought he warranted (as a first-time manager). There is IOW a ton of controversy that could have been included in the space allotted to his stats, And I'm sure much more in his playing career with the ultra-controversial Yankees of the late 70s. You're totally right, those, about the Randolph piece. That's an example of the type of bio that I'm trying to avoid. We can read the stats anywhere.
4:00 PM Apr 17th
 
those
The Willie Randolph bio is a good example of the dryness Bill was talking about. There's something like 11 paragraphs on his playing career, and it's pretty much like reading his Retrosheet page.
1:37 PM Apr 17th
 
OldBackstop
"....but SABR went with the facts alone. Doesn't have to be that way."

Not my project, but the history of baseball seems to have plenty of non-factual anecdotes. If you tell a "non-factual" anecdote about four (living) guys in a bar tussle....I don't know, seems sabermetrically lazy, if not a smear.

I'd rather read something relating to their performance on the field, or at least something that ties to the team. Teufel was a goody-goody, the contrast to platoon partner and red ass Wally Backman is interesting...Darling an academic from Yale, his relationships might be interesting.
8:57 AM Apr 17th
 
Steven Goldleaf
That's awful, TKissane. The whole advantage of crowd-sourcing a huge project like this is that corrections get made in a timely fashion. I'll be sure to bring this up as I have dealings with the people who run the biography project. If anyone else has found an error, let me know about it as well, and I'll add it to the list I present TPTB with.
8:46 AM Apr 17th
 
TKissane
The SABR bio project is terrific, but doesn't seem to take advantage as it should of the benefits of reader comments. Over a year ago, I read the Willie Randolph bio and wrote in to advise it erroneously had the Yankees losing the 1977 Seiers. Just went back and see it's uncorrected.

Such mistakes are inevitable, but a major benefit of the format is the abilility of "crowd sourcing" to correct them (and I expect thi one, being fairly glaring and in living memory, got a bunch of responses). Just an anecdote, don't mean to give the impression I'm being critical because "my" edit didn't get through -- but it suggests the project lacks a structure to ensure a benefit that should be central to the project.
8:18 AM Apr 17th
 
Steven Goldleaf
For an example (I'm in the "A"s now) this is how one incident is told, purely factual:

"On July 18, during a series in Houston, Aguilera and three teammates were in the wrong place at the wrong time. On a team known for its rowdiness, four of the more quiet players were Aguilera, Bob Ojeda, Ron Darling, and Tim Teufel. They went to a place called Cooters Executive Games and Burgers to celebrate Teufel’s becoming a father for the first time. As they left Cooters, Teufel was holding his unfinished glass of beer and was confronted by local policemen who were providing security for Cooters. A scuffle ensued, and the four players were arrested. In January 1987, misdemeanor charges against Aguilera and Ojeda were dismissed.

In the first game after the Cooters incident, Aguilera struck out a career-high nine batters...."

I'd imagine you could insert some more colorful quotes (from the Houston PD and from players), interpretations, fan opinions etc into this piece without being inaccurate or libelous, but SABR went with the facts alone. Doesn't have to be that way.
5:58 AM Apr 17th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks, Gary. There's no reason these bios HAVE to be dull, other than that non-professionals don't know how to make them as interesting as Bill and Rob do. They do have to include some material (birth, current health, parents' full names, signing of etc.) and they are mostly written in a coloring-book manner, just making sure that all the boxes are filled in, but it would be great if a professional could set a higher standard, which is what I (and some other folks on BJOL) could do with subjects we're motivated to write about. I've been perusing some SABR-bios, and they do provide a box for contacting them about factual errors. So far I've found two (they have Billy Klaus playing for the Mets when it was his brother Bobby, and they have the Mets-A's facing off in the 1963 series, which would have been one sorry series if that was the case) so their fact-checking needs to improve too. But this is a great idea, especially with the corrections and updates possible. There are so many of these guys who are actually alive today, and capable of being interviewed, like Wakefield, that it seems a shame to let these opportunities go by.

W.T. Mons10--I should have verified, but Bench is their example of a bio that hasn't been written yet. Guess they need to update their FAQ page as well.
5:46 AM Apr 17th
 
Gfletch
That's a great project, Steven. Another feature of Bill's little biographies was that whether the player was an all time great, or just a forgotten item, Bill was always on the lookout for just a few colorful details or stories that weren't just cute, but somehow projected an image of the player as a human being.

I forget who the player was...Jesse Burkett (?)...there was a story about him attempting to rescue a drowning boy who nevertheless died. The story tells how years and years later, when this incident was brought up, Jesse would simply stop talking, unable to deal with the emotional baggage of the memory.

That's the sort of thing to be on the lookout for. Not just tragedy, of course, but little known but illustrative stories and facts that flesh out both the ballplayer and the man.
12:13 AM Apr 17th
 
those
Maris, in the foreword to Neyer's book on baseball legends, Bill wrote something to the effect that the SABR bios were rather dry, precisely because they didn't have the anecdotes, legends, etc.
8:48 PM Apr 16th
 
MarisFan61
BTW, I don't have the impression that the SABR bios really follow in the footsteps of Bill's thing. Without going back and looking at that material of Bill's, my impression is that it had a much higher amount of narrative, chattiness, and anecdote, not at the expense of the usual kind of baseball facts but in addition.
8:29 PM Apr 16th
 
W.T.Mons10
Bench's bio was done for one of the team books SABR puts out, and is in fact on the site: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/aab28214​
7:59 PM Apr 16th
 
OldBackstop
I think this shatters Bill's cap of four ass kisses per article.
7:46 PM Apr 16th
 
Steven Goldleaf
MF61--As my article will argue, by any objective standard, Wakefield had a lock on a MLB roster spot going into spring training. He led the '64 team in fewest hits per inning, and (depending on your cutoff for IP) ERA. (If he hadn't gotten bombed out in his final start of the year, he would have led in ERA by a wide margin.) He pitched only 8 innings in spring training, didn't do great but didn't do terrible, and (he says) he didn't have a sore arm or any other kind of injury. He just didn't make the final cut. Nowadays, someone with those numbers would have a certain spot on any MLB team, much less one in last place with a terrible pitching staff.
6:02 PM Apr 16th
 
MelHubbell
Bill Wakefield was one of two future major leaguers to get their start as office boys for the KC Athletics.​
5:03 PM Apr 16th
 
MarisFan61
BTW, Bill actually took his thing up to "George Baker."

I hadn't thought of Wakefield since, well since '64. And I couldn't have told you what year that was. It could have been any year from '63 to '68 as far as I knew.

It's very odd for a player who did so 'OK' in his 1 year to never play again in the majors, especially when he was so young (23), which I had no idea he was.​
11:39 AM Apr 16th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I think they're trying to get a bio of Bench written but they're not very directive, just patiently waiting for someone to get around to it. I'm amazed personally by the opportunity this presents. When I went looking for some of my other favorites, I often found flat nothing, which just seemed like an opportunity for me. If this were a paying gig, I'd feel like I had a whole new career, but it's just for the love of doing research (in fact, I had to pony up my $65 SABR dues before I got the gig) so I'll be working a little longer.
11:37 AM Apr 16th
 
doncoffin
I suspect the impetus for the SABR bio project was that, while biographical information/sketches about the famous players were likely to be available, the fringe players, the short-career players (without a hook--Fidrych, for example, had a short career, but a helluva hook), had unexplored lives. So finding bios for obscure players but not for Bench might be a feature of the site.
11:29 AM Apr 16th
 
 
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