Touring the Bases with…Gary Gillette
The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) is giving away free copies of The Emerald Guide to Baseball 2009.Â Here esteemed baseball historian and editor Gary Gillette discusses the new Emerald Guide, his current and past projects, and his beloved Detroit Tigers.
Justin Murphy: Where did the idea to create a new Emerald Guide come from?
Gary Gillette: The Sporting News discontinued its baseball guide two years ago very suddenly. It had been taking orders for it, in fact, and canceled it in the spring, which surprised everyone. People were looking for a replacement for awhile. It was thought that Baseball America would do an expanded version of its almanac, but they didnâ€™t. I got to thinking it would be possible to do this and use print on demand technology, avoiding the obvious problem of selling enough books in stores to make a profit. If the Sporting News couldnâ€™t do that, it didnâ€™t seem like anyone else could. So in late 2007 we put together a group of people, including my friend and colleague Pete Palmer, and also did a guide for the season TSN had discontinued (2007), so that thereâ€™d be a continuous run of them. It seems like a crime that there wouldnâ€™t be that kind of reference guide. Even though people think that everything is available on the internet and that itâ€™s all accurate, itâ€™s just not true. Even if it is on the internet, it may not be accurate, or you may not be able to find it.
JM: How is this different from other reference books youâ€™ve worked on?
GG: Itâ€™s a single purpose reference book designed to be a historical record of 2008, as well as a preview of 2009 season. Thereâ€™s really a minimal amount of history. For example, there are lists of MVP winners, but mostly this is a book that says, â€˜hereâ€™s what happened last year in Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball,â€™ and itâ€™s put together in a way that essentially complements the hundred plus year tradition of annual guides. There are a few things that were in the TSN guides that arenâ€™t in ours, and many, many things that are in ours that werenâ€™t in theirs.
JM: What does the Emerald Guide have that the TSN guides didnâ€™t?
GG: We have greatly expanded standings pages for all the leagues, including things like head-to-head records between teams, runs for and against. There is a lot more detail in franchise leaders for each major league club and more information in the schedule pages for the 2009 season. Complete batting, pitching and fielding stats for all North American based organized minor leagues that are affiliated with MLB. One of my ambitions, actually, is to include non-affiliated minor leagues. That may come in the future. The year in review section has more detail, thereâ€™s more information on the draft than the TSN guides had. There are dozens of features where youâ€™re going to turn the page and find something you werenâ€™t expecting to find, something youâ€™re pleased to find. One of the most important things is the year in review essays. Inherently, it doesnâ€™t have the pressures and mistakes of daily journalism, but it also isnâ€™t written 10 or 20 years after the fact, so itâ€™s critically important that someone writes a definitive year in review that future historians can refer to.
One of the things weâ€™re proudest of is the necrology, which lists deaths of every major leaguer in the year the guide covers, whether that guy played one game in the majors 57 years ago or died while he was still active. Itâ€™s not easy to write because information about some of these guys who played 5 or 10 games 40 or 50 years ago isnâ€™t easy to come by. We believe itâ€™s the most comprehensive necrology out there for major leaguers and also a lot of minor leaguers. Finding this information is virtually impossible for the average person.
JM: What is 24-7 Baseball? How does that tie into your work?
GG: Itâ€™s just my research and consulting company. I do research, writing and editing, sometimes for New York publishers, sometimes for myself. I employ a group of writers, editors, and researchers as needed. We also do some consulting work for player agents, things like that.
JM: Is Baseball Early Bird a part of that?
GG: Baseball Early Bird is a newsletter we started last June in conjunction with baseball-reference.com. Weâ€™re going to relaunch that again around Opening Day. Weâ€™re going to launch an email edition. Itâ€™s not so much breaking news, but rather context to the news. It provides items in the news with a historical perspective. When youâ€™re trying to write about something every day, itâ€™s hard to provide any historical perspective.
JM: You wrote for ESPN from 2005-06. In the last few years, there have been more and more complaints that the network/website is getting away from sustentative coverage and focusing more on entertainment. Whatâ€™s your opinion of that? How did you like writing for ESPN?
GG: Thatâ€™s a whole interview in itself (laughs). ESPN is so big, and of course itâ€™s part of the Disney empire, which is so huge, that I feel now and felt then that writing for them was like working for the government, where the state department doesnâ€™t necessarily know what the Pentagon is doing, and where the president is signing secret executive orders, and if you talk out of school on this stuff youâ€™re going to get fired. What I did enjoy was the accessâ€”on the web, thereâ€™s nothing as good as being featured on ESPN.comâ€™s main page.
ESPN.com had a policy, for example, that you couldnâ€™t write bad things about any ESPN or Disney employee, or anyone who used to work there. Since half of people in the world work for Disney and the other half used to, thatâ€™s pretty hard. But itâ€™s designed to keep people from sharing things they learned inside the company. Like for instance when Harold Reynolds leftâ€”and I never met himâ€”it was supposedly because of a scandal, but ESPN refused to report on that. I find that odd.
Then you have the Angels, which were part of Disney. I know for a fact that when they were covering the Angels [from 1996-2003, when Disney owned the team] they had to cover them differently, even though it was supposedly just baseball. I know that people who worked for Disney when they owned the Angels were told that they couldnâ€™t write certain things about Angels management. Not that if they lose 12 out of 14 you canâ€™t say theyâ€™re losing and they stink. Thatâ€™s not whatâ€™s important; itâ€™s what management is doing. You canâ€™t expect people who work for Disney to be objective when talking about what people who work for Disney do.
For instance, take MLB.com. At the bottom of every article it says, â€œthis story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.â€ Anyone who thinks that the people who write for MLB.com arenâ€™t aware of who theyâ€™re working for, theyâ€™re crazy. They only touch scandals in two waysâ€”through interviews with people within MLB that want to get their story out there, and they wonâ€™t ask critical questions, or they report what other people report. Like, â€˜the New York Post has reported that so-and-so has tested positive for steroids.â€™ Theyâ€™ll never break their own story, because they canâ€™t. They have some really good writers, but they have to self-censor. You have to know who signs your paycheck.
JM: Youâ€™ve been writing about baseball for several decades. What of your work are you the most proud of?
GG: I have to say, Iâ€™m most proud of the encyclopedias I edit. The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia is the best value in baseball encyclopedias, at least since the original MacMillan encyclopedia in 1969. Our book is only $25, and itâ€™s generally discounted online. Itâ€™s got more stats than any other encyclopedia that didnâ€™t cost more than $100, and itâ€™s got better stats in terms of being up-to-date and well researched. Plus itâ€™s got 170,000 words of essays woven in between the stats. Iâ€™ve very proud we were able to do that five years running. This year weâ€™re not [producing one], but we expect to be back on the bookshelves next year.
I worked on five of the eight editions of Total Baseball, wrote for six of them, and I love it, but itâ€™s a dinosaur. It was $60 per edition, and if it were on the market now it would probably be $75-100 to publish a book of that length. I wrote what I thought was a terrific essay in Total Baseball in 1996 about the home run explosion that I thought was right about a lot of things, although I couldnâ€™t see the total impact that steroids would have.
I did a lot of work with Project Scoresheet which got me involved in baseball writing. Even though Project Scoresheet is no longer with us, the stuff it started to do is now being done by MLB.com with software I helped develop starting in 1988, and itâ€™s still in use underlying the MLB.com scoring system.
JM: Are you as dedicated to the football guides as to baseball?
GG: Actually, I donâ€™t like pro football. I havenâ€™t been involved in or followed pro football for 20 years, but so many of my baseball colleagues were involved in it that I kind of got into it. I knew from working at Total Sports there hadnâ€™t been a football encyclopedia since 1999, so I got the people there to do a new one.
We think that that book [The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia] represented a greater leap forward over any other football book than the baseball one did, because thereâ€™s a rich tradition of baseball encyclopedias. In baseball, if you want to look up who was the starting catcher for the 1906 Cubs you can do that. If you wanted to look up the starting quarterback for the 1940 Detroit Lions, you could probably do that. For the starting right tackle, though, you could not. One of the greatest things we did with that book was make lists of every playerâ€”we combed through newspaper accounts and old press guides and all sorts of other material to get that info which had never been published. Itâ€™s not easy, because some of those positions donâ€™t have statistics, but we were able to come up with a lot of new information.
JM: You also act as an adviser in baseball litigation and salary arbitration. How did you get into that?
GG: I donâ€™t do a lot of that. Basically once I started doing research and publishing findings, people started calling and saying, â€˜hey, do you want to do a customized study for us, or help us in an insurance case.â€™ Iâ€™ve done a reasonable amount of it over the last 13-14 years, but itâ€™s never been a key part of my work.
JM: What do you expect to be the key debates when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in Dec. 2011?
GG: A lot depends on what happens this year and next in terms of the economy. The last time we had a decline in attendance was the early 2000s when the economy was stagnating. Attendance went down for three consecutive years. Lots and lots of clubs became reluctant to sign big contracts and were looking to dump players with longer term guaranteed contracts, because people thought there were going to be tough times.
Then, though, the economy started turning around in about 2004 and baseball was making a ton of money off the web. For some reason, the public didnâ€™t seem to care too much about steroids. So all of a sudden people are flush with money and theyâ€™re saying, â€˜itâ€™s a golden era like weâ€™ve never seen before.â€™ I think that was wrong, but there was certainly a lot of money.
The next few years are going to be a little tight. Especially if the Athletics and Marlins canâ€™t get their new parks, and if the Yankees and Mets canâ€™t sell their high priced seats, there will be a lot of concern, teams will be trying to move players with high guaranteed contracts, and there will be that same malaise as in 2001-03. After that, though, if we come out of it, I donâ€™t think there will be too much trouble in negotiating a new CBA in 2011.
Thereâ€™s also the specter of there being a scandal over HGH, where owners want Olympic-style testing and the players are resistant. You never know when some story is going to come out and some previously revered figure like Roger Clemens or Alex Rodriguez will be disgraced. Those things can have a big affect on the CBA, both economically and otherwise.
JM: Do you believe that the current balance of power between clubs and players is equitable?
GG: Yeah, I think so. You had a long period after Marvin Miller took over at the union and baseball had a series of, letâ€™s say incompetent commissioners, led by Bowie Kuhn. Itâ€™s a disgrace heâ€™s in the Hall of Fame. Ueberroth engineered collusion then left everyone to deal with itâ€”not that there werenâ€™t plenty of willing parties. Giamatti was a scholar and a great fan of the game, but not a business person. Then Fay Vincent thought he was running a movie studio, with just a bunch of movie star egos. Selig is maybe the best because he understands that the commissioner is there to do what the owners want. Heâ€™s been lampooned, although not as much lately, and he certainly had a large conflict of interest when he owned the Brewers.
Now, with the money flowing into the game, thereâ€™s been a fairly equal share of power, and of course the drug scandals have weakened the union. There could be a split in the union over a work stoppage, where people might cross picket lines, or with people refusing to go out like what happened in pro football [in 1987]. Right now though, itâ€™s probably a more even distribution of power since, well, the late 19th century. Prior to the more militant attitudes in the 1960s and â€˜70s, the owners had all the power, and then with the dunce commissioners like Kuhn, the union got a lot of power, and were kind of running the game. In the last six years with the steroid scandal, the owners have gotten some power back, so itâ€™s fairly even, I think.
JM: Youâ€™re a life-long Tigers fan. Whatâ€™s your all-time Detroit lineup?
GG: Well, thatâ€™s not too hard, because the Tigersâ€™ best players seem to be spread out at different positions. Pitcher, Hal Newhouser. Detroit does not have a tradition of great pitching; Denny McLain was a three-year wonder. Cochrane, Greenberg, Gehringer, Trammell, probably Kell at 3rd, then the outfield Cobb, Kaline and I guess Harry Heilmann or maybe Sam Crawford, and Willie Horton being the DH. And Bill Freehan deserves mention on that team because he was a starter for a lot longer than Cochrane. Cochrane won that first world championship, though [in 1935], and of course his career was shortened, so itâ€™s hard to compare them.
JM: How do you feel about the Hall of Fame candidacies of Jack Morris, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker?
GG: I said to the editors of Total Baseball in maybe 1998, that Jack Morris, based on his World Series exploits with the Twins, would go into the Hall of Fame. That would put him over the threshold. The pitcher of the 1980s in the American League, the ace of that Detroit staff, then that heroic moment in 1991.
Trammell and Whitaker are both marginal candidates in the traditional sense, that they were great players for a long time. Trammell has the edge in that he was truly MVP in 1987â€”that was just one of those stupid decisions where the voters go for the big RBI guy [George Bell]. Whitakerâ€™s career overall was slightly better than Trammellâ€™s. If you put the career stats for Whitaker and Ryne Sandberg side by side and adjust for Sandberg playing in Wrigley Field, Iâ€™d say you have a pretty close choice. Sandberg won MVPs, but Whitaker was the starter on a World Series champion team. Sandberg never even got to the World Series. If you put the three of them up against one another, Iâ€™d say Sandberg is first because of the MVP awards, Trammell is next because he should have won the MVP, and all three should be in.
I agree with what Bill James said, that one mistake doesnâ€™t excuse another. Once you make 20 or 30 mistakes, itâ€™s no longer the same institution. Itâ€™s not the institution where 100 people donâ€™t vote for Willie Mays, which seems incomprehensible now, or where only immortals get in on the first ballot. Now itâ€™s guys like Kell and Tony Perez, who had to wait for the Veterans Committee, but wouldnâ€™t be in the old Hall of Fame.
Originally and for years after it opened, the Hall was reserved for baseball’s immortals–those players who no one would doubt belonged in the pantheon. After a while, other greatest players of their eras were admitted. Then the various incarnations of the veterans committees got to work inducting a lot of players whose stats only looked great when taken out of context–not to mention voting in their longtime buddies who clearly didn’t belong in Cooperstown but who benefited from the “old boy” network even if they were no longer alive.
So, even though one mistake doesn’t deserve another, we now have a Hall where dozens of “mistakes” by the most stringent standards have completely changed the character of the institution. Just because George Kell (8.5 player wins in our encyclopedia system) is mistakenly admitted doesn’t mean we should admit Tony Perez (10.0 wins). But they did. And when you consider that the Hall already includes Sunny Jim Bottomley, Lou Brock, Earle Combs, Kiki Cuyler, Hugh Duffy, Rick Ferrell, Chick Hafey, Harry Hooper, George Kelly, Fred Lindstrom, Rabbit Maranville, Sam Rice, Edd Roush, Lloyd Waner, Ross Youngs, etc., you don’t have a Shrine to the Immortals anymore–and there’s no use reciting the mantra, “One mistake doesn’t deserve another.”
Until he tested positive for steroids at the very end of his career, Rafael Palmeiro was a certain Hall of Famer and the only debate among the BBWAA writers that could vote for the Hall was whether he deserved first-ballot admission or not. Yet Palmeiro was only a four-time All-Star, never played on a pennant-winning team, led his league in important categories only three times (once each in runs, hits, and doubles), had an Adjusted OPS of only 132 at an offensive position, won no major (i.e., MVP, Cy, or ROTY) awards and only five awards of consequence (three Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers). But he had those magic counting stats that completely mesmerize the sportswriters: 500 and 3000.
Compare that to Lou Whitaker, who dropped off the ballot after his first year of eligibility because he received only 2.9% of the vote. Whitaker was a five-time All-Star, won a Rookie of the Year Award, won seven awards of consequence (three Gold Gloves at an important defensive position and four Silver Sluggers), and was the leadoff hitter and a key member of a world championship club. Who’s the better candidate here?
One failed piss test for Palmeiro changes everything?!? Really? I believe that Rafael Palmeiro used steroids throughout his whole career in the AL. And he was widely suspected of being a steroid user in the 1990s, yet no writer would admit that they were going to hold back their vote until he tested positive. What a joke!
By the way, I don’t have time to do a detailed comparison between Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Ryne Sandberg (10-time All-Star, one MVP, nine Gold Gloves, seven Silver Sluggers), but consider this quick comparison of career OPS in road games:
- Â .762 Whitaker
- Â .749 Trammell
- Â .738 Sandberg
I ain’t saying that Sandberg didn’t deserve his bronze pass to Cooperstown, but I am saying that Palmeiro–despite his 500/3000 crowns–doesn’t deserve it and that Trammell and Whitaker deserve serious consideration.
JM: Which season was more disappointing for you personallyâ€”2003, when Detroit lost 119 games, or 2008, when they were supposed to compete for the championship but instead came in last place?
GG: Last year was just terrible. At the start of last season you had more excitement in Detroit, where people thought the Tigers could win it, than in 1985, when theyâ€™d won a World Series the previous year. You had more excitement than in 2007, when they came off a World Series and were feeling really good about the future, and Dombrowski was locking up players to all sorts of long-term contracts. The 2003 club wasnâ€™t supposed to go anywhere. The magnitude of 119 losses was surprising, but they were bad in 2002 and no one expected anything in 2003.
JM: Could you talk a little about your efforts to save Tiger Stadium? What is the current state of affairs?
GG: We have a chance here in Detroit to do something which has never been done before, which is to save a major league park after the team has moved out of it, and thereâ€™s no football team. The stadium in New York is about to be torn down. That leaves just two other pre-WWII stadiums left, and we know that theyâ€™ve tried to get rid of those, too. The Red Sox tried to tear down Fenway about nine years ago and there was a huge outcry, and we just found out that the Cubs have tried to tear down Wrigley. In Detroit, we have a real time capsule. Itâ€™s actually Navin Field, not Tiger Stadium. We have the 1912 grandstand with the 1935 stands on top of it. We have a chance to do something never before and I think weâ€™re going to do it.
In the recent appropriations bill, Senator Levin put in $3.8 million earmarked to help renovate or restore Tiger Stadium. That would represent less than one-sixth of projected cost, which is about $27 million. Itâ€™s not the whole thing but a critical component. It will be very difficult but thereâ€™s a huge reservoir of goodwill, and weâ€™re well on the way to doing it.
[Note: more information can be found at www.preservetigerstadium.com].