August 30, 2015-As some of you know, for the last year I have been on sabbatical from my job as the Production Manager of the Queens College Department of Drama, Theatre & Dance. Sabbatical is a wondrous and easily misunderstood thing. It could, somewhat easily, turn into a twelve-month vacation, and I think many perceive it that way. However, in my experience, most of my colleagues truly do use that time to expand themselves and make the art that they simply can’t when faced with the responsibilities of a regular job. Instilled with a faintly Puritan work ethic at a young age, it would have been impossible for me to do anything but use this great gift wisely.
In that time I have directed seven productions over two summers for Buck’s Rock Performing & Visual Arts Camp in New Milford, CT. I production managed the Drama League’s annual Directorfest, and stage managed their gala and awards shows, which this year honored James Earl Jones and Chita Rivera. I even picked up a screw gun and did a little carpentry for Second Stage, on 43rd Street in Manhattan. I stayed active in my industry, expanded my contacts and got to make art with a large variety of people.
But, more importantly, I have also been on a yearlong adventure. My love for baseball dates back to my childhood and, except for a brief period in the mid-90s when we broke up, has been a constant. That is, a constant until I started The Hall Ball Project. I did not realize it at the time, but my clever little idea was going to change my life.
A funny thing happens when you start to learn about history. You want to learn more. Think of all recorded history as a puzzle. Each time you learn something new about our past, another piece of the puzzle falls into place. As the grander picture starts to take shape, our enthusiasm for filling in the remaining pieces grows. Thus it has been with my exploration into the members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Let’s be honest, the greater majority of even the most die-hard fans would have a difficult time naming just a third of the 310 individuals who have been elected to the Hall. It’s a lot of history, after all. Organized baseball is 150 years old and the story of the game and its genesis dates back much, much further. I, for one, likely could not have named a hundred members when Anna fished the ball out of that creek five years ago. This was true despite the fact that I considered myself a fairly knowledgeable fan of the game. After all, I had seen Ken Burns’ documentary over a dozen times.
It was only when I began to look at all of the inductees that I realized how much I did not know. That was how it started. I would visit a grave and with a curiosity that has grown into a mission, I would learn the story of that person. And because the pieces of the baseball portion of the Great Puzzle are clustered, I began to see a lot of overlap with the 18,301 (as of 8/30/15) players who appeared in a major league game and were NOT in the Hall of Fame.
Roughly two years ago I joined the Society for American Baseball Research. SABR has, of course, become famous because of the work of Bill James, who has revolutionized how we look at baseball statistics. Sabrmetrics is a part of the baseball lexicon now and has even led to an entire conference dedicated to the numbers of baseball. But that is only a small piece of what SABR is.
Perhaps more importantly, SABR is the keeper of the tales. It is a gigantic network of baseball enthusiasts and historians who are each playing their part to keep the story of baseball alive. If I were to begin to list all that SABR does for the game this blog would lose its focus. If you want to know more, visit their website at sabr.org. Be sure to check out the biography project while you are there.
Today, I emphasize the importance of SABR primarily to point out what it has meant to me this last year. In that time I have attended three SABR conferences, in Cooperstown, Detroit and in my own back yard at John Jay College in Manhattan. Because of our shared passion, I have befriended some of the Lions of baseball history, including Peter Mancuso, John Zinn, Peter Bjarkman, Larry McCray and the great John Thorn. Their combined knowledge is simply staggering and to get to learn at their sides has been, and continues to be, an honor.
Most rewarding, however, has been my own work that I have been able to pursue in that time. Since August of last year I have entered every game that was missing from the Protoball database that was played by the New York Knickerbockers between their inception in 1845 and 1850, via transcribing the original game books held at the New York Public Library. In addition, I have entered hundreds of other clubs and games based in the New York City area, including some found in my own home borough, from research done at the Staten Island Historical Society. I even presented on the work that Protoball is doing at the conference at John Jay.
I have also had the honor to team up with some even more esoterically like-minded people, and have become a founding member of the SABR 19th Century Baseball Grave Marker Project. In the vein of the work being done for the Negro Leagues by the amazing Jeremy Krock, we are attempting to place markers at the sites of those players whose circumstances did not afford them the opportunity to have one at the time of their deaths. Our first target, Knickerbocker James Whyte Davis, has begun fund-raising. If you haven’t had a chance to pitch in, you should take a look at this extremely worthy, tax-deductible cause.
It was the unmarked grave of Sol White that served as the first photo in The Hall Ball, and it is with some pride that I mention that, with myself serving as the Watson to Jim Overmyer’s Holmes, the closest living relation to Sol has been discovered. Mr. Bill Edmondson of Pittsburgh was Sol’s daughter’s nephew. No direct blood relation remains but Mr. Edmondson clearly remembers his Aunt Marion speaking of her ballplaying father. Jim’s work in putting the pieces together has been inspiring.
I have also learned that, despite what the public record states, Cristóbal Torriente is not buried in Cuba. Colon Cemetery in Havana has no record of his body and Calvary Cemetery in Queens has no record of his exhumation from the shared, cemetery-donated gravesite, a thing that would certainly have generated paperwork. Knowing of the corruption of the Batista regime at the time that Torriente’s body was supposedly brought home for reburial and celebration, it is unlikely the greedy tyrant would have gone through the expense to make it happen.
And then, of course, there’s Cuba. All of my travel left an important mark over this past year, really, but even the wonder that was the two weeks driving up the West Coast of the United States could not compare to the exotic, heartbreaking beauty of Cuba. To immerse myself in the baseball culture of this magical place, along with a busload of 24 other enthusiasts, each of them knowledgeable in their own fields, was an experience that will stay with me for all time.
Prior to attending Induction Weekend in 2014, I had photographed 190 of the members for the Project. By the end of this year’s ceremony, the grand total stood at 264. Nine more states to visit. Fifteen more living members to meet. This Project, that has changed my life so drastically, is nearing its conclusion and I’m certain the end will be met with tears of joy and sorrow. The Ball has become very special to me and while I still intend on surrendering it upon its conclusion, it will not be easy an easy thing to do.
The unfinished ball has already provided me with something I have never been able to hold on to in the past, namely sustained inspiration while sitting at a keyboard. I have tried many times in my life to write a book and it has always inevitably ended in failure. I knew from nearly the start that The Hall Ball merited a book, and I made a number of sloppy stabs at it prior to last September. I was having trouble finding the right tone and each chapter read as if they were written for different books.
I had hoped that being able to focus on the task of writing, without the distractions of having to attend a daily job, would finally be the key to my success. I am ecstatic to learn that I was right. Given time, the story of The Hall Ball, and the history of the game in the hundreds of places I’ve visited on this quest, just flowed from my fingertips. The book is written, at least to the point of the completed travel, but is not complete. There is still more to write, but I know that when I do get to make the remaining trips, the stories will come. This book will be finished.
There’s more to say about my experiences this past year, so much more. But the point has been made. What still must be said is that as I return to my regular job, I do it not with sadness for having to let go of all that I was able to do in the last twelve months. Instead, I do it with joy, because I know that my work in baseball, and my love of that work, are now a part of who I am. It will, of course, be difficult to find the time now that I have other responsibilities, but not impossible.
I found the time to write this, after all.