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Conversations with Clayton: An Interview with Gregory H. Wolf

An interview with the co-director of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Biography Project.

Padres V Pirates

For this week’s “Conversations with Clayton,” I have interviewed Gregory H. Wolf, the co-director of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)’s Biography Project.

Established in 2002, SABR’s Biography Committee manages the Baseball Biography Project, which aims to write full-length biographies of every player in the history of Major League Baseball. Thus far, the project is about one-quarter of the way to its goal, having completed 4,033 biographies, which are available in the Biography Project’s online database, as well as in more than three-dozen biographical compilation books. Most of the compilations focus on a particular historically significant team, such as the 1957 Milwaukee Braves or the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. Wolf is the co-editor of six books for the SABR Biography Project and the author of more than 150 Biography Project entries.

Clayton Trutor (CT): How did you get involved with the SABR biography project?

Gregory Wolf (GW): As a professor at a liberal arts college, I’ve been researching and writing most of my adult life, granted it’s been about history and literature, and not baseball. I’ve known about sabermetrics for a long time, but did not become acquainted with the Society for American Baseball Research until about 2012 when I discovered that SABR is more than just analytics. I was fascinated by the opportunity to explore baseball history and baseball players beyond the superficial level and the chance to delve into careers of players who were not Hall of Famers or even All-Stars. Once I wrote my first bio I was hooked, and soon realized that I wanted to be more involved than just as an author. In 2014 I edited a SABR book on the 1957 Milwaukee Braves, and have edited five more since. Dome Sweet Dome. History and Highlights from 35 Years of the Houston Astrodome is the latest, from March 2017. As of January 1, 2017, I serve with Rory Costello as co-director of the BioProject. One of my efforts since assuming that role has been to increase the BioProject’s presence on social media. We now have a very vibrant Facebook community. It is an insightful forum where we discuss players and research approaches. I also launched an active Twitter feed @SABRbioproject. We encourage everyone to follow up us Facebook and Twitter and share our posts.

CT: Which of your biographies is your favorite?

GW: It is difficult to say what my favorite biography is. My first one (on the former Dodger Claude Osteen) is memorable, in part because he was one of my favorite players from my childhood and because I was able to interview him for my research. I don’t concentrate my research efforts on any specific team or era; rather, I’ve written bios on 19th-century players to the present. For a good number of the players, I knew nothing, or very little about them before beginning my research. However, I was intrigued by something about the player, such as his background, a specific stat or season, or even name.

CT: Can you tell me about the SABR games project?

GW: SABR’s Games Project is a different research initiative than the Biography Project and has its own committee. The goal of the Games Project is to contextualize historical baseball games. Far from a play-by-play, the accounts concentrate on games to reveal their importance for a team, player, season or something else. The Games Project is a great way for someone to become involved with SABR research. Unlike the player biographies which are typically 4,000 words long and involve considerable research, game accounts have a 1,500-word limit and can be less daunting to research. Access to newspapers or good newspaper data banks is helpful, though. I encourage everyone to learn more about the Games Project at http://sabr.org/content/sabr-games-project

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

CT: Which has been your favorite book to shepherd into existence?

GW: All SABR books are collaborative efforts, involving committed authors, an editorial team, the designer and, of course, the generous support of SABR. For the six books I have edited, Bill Nowlin has served an associate editor and Len Levin has been the copy editor. James Forr, Russ Lake and Carl Riecher have been the fact checkers. And Gilly Rosenthol of Rosenthol Design has designed the books.

Each book has been exciting it its own right and I’ve learned so much about the teams showcased in each book. Each of the four great team books (1929 Cubs, 1957 Braves, 1965 Twins, and the 1979 Pirates) has focused on a different era in the sport. The result has been that we’ve introduced a wide range of contexts and players. The players in each book are connected by their shared experience of playing for a specific team, but their bios focus on their entire careers. Nonetheless, readers will have a profound impression of each team from its respective book. My recent great game book on County Stadium in Milwaukee and the Astrodome function differently. They reveal the breadth of a stadium. In some ways, those books, and my forthcoming ones on Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, Crosley Field in Cincinnati and Wrigley Field in the Windy City are like pack of baseball cards. You open them up to find all kinds of surprises. Games focus on amazing performances and historical events. Each game seems to me like a mini-baseball lesson.

CT: What did you find most interesting or surprising about the Astrodome?

GW: In my experience, SABR books projects take about two years from the initial call for authors to the publication of the book. During that time, I am completely immersed in the team. For the Astrodome specifically, I learned so much about the dome’s history, the movers and shakers behind the construction and, of course, the players. I think readers of this book will discover how and why the Astrodome was such a technological and engineering marvel, and how the players adapted to playing in the world’s first domed stadium. The 75 or so games included in the volume capture the zeitgeist of the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. If one were to read the game stories chronologically, one would also see how the game of baseball developed during the 35-year history of the dome.

CT: Make a starting nine out of the players you've profiled for the SABR Bio Project.

GW: I’ve written perhaps 150 biographies for the BioProject, but I don’t choose my subjects because of his impressive starts or awards. But here goes!

C: Del Crandall (an incredibly exciting player to interview. An encyclopedia of baseball history)

1B: Joe Adcock

2B: Ross Barnes, star with Boston Red Stockings of the National Association

SS: Larry Brown (another engaging player to interview)

OF: Kiki Cuyler

OF: Bob Allison

OF: Bill Virdon (Like Crandall, a baseball lifer. My interview with him could have lasted days)

P: Bert Blyleven, Pop Haines, Waite Hoyt, each a Hall of Famer, and Charlie Root

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

CT: As a Pirates fan, what is your starting nine of your favorite Pirates players of all time?

GW: That is a hard one! What about this team?

C: Tony Pena

1B: Willie Stargell

2B: Bill Mazeroski

SS: Honus Wagner

3B: Pie Traynor

[utility infielder: Arky Vaughn]

RF: Roberto Clemente

CF: Andrew McCutchen

LF: Barry Bonds

[reserve OF: Paul Waner]

PH: Ralph Kiner

P: Bob Friend, Ray Kremer, Mort Copper, Babe Adams -- I’m old school with a four-man rotation

CT: Describe your research process.

GW: The absolute first thing I do is develop a research plan. Where will I find sources to help me construct a narrative about the player’s life and career in baseball? Depending on when the player was born, Ancestry.com is helpful. I use newspapers.com to locate info about the player’s career; I also have access to other papers via different data banks. The Sporting News, which all SABR members can access for free via the Paper of Record at sabr.org is also very helpful. I’ll also pursue literature published on the player, team and era. It is important to be thorough.

The bio is not just a compendium of statistics; rather, we are trying to give the reader a feeling for who the player was and what he accomplished. To achieve that goal, I also try to interview the player if he is still alive. If he isn’t, then I attempt to contact a relative, as well as other players or coaches who might be able to give me insights to the player.

The BioProject page also contains a link for research resources that is helpful for those just getting started. As a professor, I teach my students about the art of research and writing, but don’t want to get into that here. However, I would caution everyone that is helpful to be diligent and committed. In my opinion, the more time that elapses between researching and writing, the more difficult it is to get your ideas on paper. On the other hand, all of us who contribute to SABR are volunteers. We have our own lives with family, jobs and friends, and time is always a challenge.

CT: What are your upcoming research plans?

GW: Currently I am finishing two edited volumes for SABR. The first is a great games book about Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis which will contain games from both the Cardinals and Browns. We hope to have that book published in 2017. The other focuses on Crosley Field in Cincinnati. It, too, follows the model of SABR’s games-oriented books and showcases approximately 80 game and 10 essays to capture the history of that venerable park in the Queen City. We launched a book on Wrigley Field just recently.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Texas Rangers Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

CT: Three predictions for the current baseball season.

GW: I am generally reluctant to make predictions, but here goes. I think the Cubs Javy Baez will play an even bigger role on the Cubs, remain flashy on defense but become more consistent, and also show more power at the plate. Two, I think Jameson Taillon of the Pirates will emerge as a legitimate one or two starter. Of course, the Pirates will probably limit his use in the last third of the season especially if they are not in contention. And finally, I predict that the Rangers Yu Darvish will continue to progress after rotator cuff surgery two years ago. He fanned 132 in 100.1 innings last year, and I see him returning to elite status and approaching his 2012-2013 level. I guess these picks are not too risky.

Please follow the SABR Biography Project on Twitter: @SABRbioproject

For more of the same, follow me on Twitter: @ClaytonTrutor