Matt Alexander was the Hank Aaron of pinch runners. Walter Johnson was not only a great pitcher but a very good hitter. And the average major league team once used far fewer relief pitchers than it does now.
Hundreds of baseball fans from across the country gathered in the District on Thursday to dwell on these historical tidbits, among others, at the first full day of events at the 39th annual Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) convention.
There were historians. There were statheads. There were guys wearing T-shirts and caps of teams ranging from the Oakland Athletics to the Kansas City Monarchs.
“I have a professional interest, but I’m also a fan,” said Gary Land, a history professor from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich., who has attended every SABR convention since 1994. “I like the biographical stuff, and especially stuff dealing with the cultural dimension of baseball.”
Mr. Land credited his SABR membership for helping him gather information for a book of essays: “Growing Up With Baseball: How We Loved and Played the Game.” He will do his best to glean even more anecdotes from the more than three-dozen presentations on everything from pinch running to the Pittsburgh Crawfords.
There will be 42 presentations in all - SABR had to reject another 47 because of a lack of space - with an equal mixture of historical research and statistical findings. Each of the four days will end with a trivia contest or a bus trip to an area ballgame. In between will be long conversations and healthy debates over everything from the Hall of Fame credentials of Bert Blyleven to the importance of clutch hitting.
The new report of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003 was perhaps the hottest topic Thursday.
SABR was formed in 1971, and over the years acquired a reputation as the go-to organization for the latest in historical and statistical information about the game. Its membership grew as researchers gained mainstream notoriety, and the term “sabermetrics” is now commonly used to describe an array of baseball statistics.
Fewer than a third of SABR members perform any research. Many who join the group are fans who want to meet other like-minded souls, and who have an interest in baseball history or exploring the intricacies of the modern game.
“You think you know a lot, but there’s so much about baseball, the history of it,” said Louis Kaufman of Mount Pleasant, S.C. “All the minor leagues that have come and gone. All of the teams, the story behind Washington and why the Senators left the first time and why they left the second time. A bit of trivia on things you don’t know about. … It’s fascinating.”
Bringing SABR to Washington was the work of Bruce Brown, president of the organization’s local chapter, and baseball historian David Vincent, who has worked on coordinating the conventions since 1991 and is also the official scorekeeper of the Washington Nationals. Washington has the largest and oldest SABR chapter, comprising more than 500 of the organization’s 6,700 members.
Mr. Vincent, who is well-known in SABR circles for his research into home runs and umpires, said the convention has taken on new importance in recent years. Much of the research can now be done online, which leads to mostly virtual interaction with colleagues.
“For me, the best part of any of these meetings is hanging out in the lobby or sitting at the bar at night and talking with friends,” Mr. Vincent said. “I’ve walked up to some people in the last couple days who I’ve never met face to face.”
SABR members have a perhaps unfair reputation of possessing a nerdy quality, and Thursday’s largely white, male and casually dressed crowd did little to dispel that stereotype. Christina Kahrl, editor of the research site Baseball Prospectus and a keynote speaker at the convention, compared it to Comic-Con, the recent convention for comic book enthusiasts.
“It’s just about as equally big in terms of cool points,” she said. “But I have no problem getting in touch with my inner geek.”
Geeky or not, SABR members have been responsible for something of a revolution in baseball, as teams have grown more accepting of the use of statistical analysis to evaluate players. After putting up early resistance, 28 of 30 major league teams have full-time sabermetricians on staff. Author Bill James, a legend among SABR members, is now a consultant with the Boston Red Sox, while several Baseball Prospectus writers have been hired by major league clubs.
The next frontier, attendees said, is in the area of evaluating player defense. Ms. Kahrl and others are atingle over the introduction of “Pitch Fx” data, including information on the angle and velocity of pitches and batted balls.
Meanwhile, SABR members continue to dig into baseball history, frequently uncovering new information about games and players. The organization’s latest project is an effort to collect 1,500-word biographies on every player who ever played the game. Mr. Brown, the local chapter president, is neck-deep in research on John Walter “Duster” Mails, who pitched for three teams between 1915 and 1926 and helped lead the Cleveland Indians to the 1920 American League pennant.
“I know a lot about him, and I think a lot of people should,” Mr. Brown said. “He was a very interesting character.”