By Marty Appel
From 1951 until its 10th and final edition in 1979, the Official Encyclopedia of Baseball by Hy Turkin and S.C. Thompson was the standard of baseball research in encyclopedic form, even if the stats were limited to games and either batting average or won-lost record.
(By the way, have you noticed that “games played” has lost some of its importance among baseball stat people? Sometimes it’s not even included in a line of numbers, let alone listed first.)
It didn’t seem to matter, for the real meat of the book (which was loaded with special features) was the simple fact that every major leaguer was in there, alphabetically – Hank Aaron to Dutch Zwilling.
Of course, the Turkin-Thompson encyclopedia, published by A.S. Barnes, began to lose its importance when the fabulous MacMillan encyclopedia came out in 1969, but it soldiered on with additional revisions provided by Pete Palmer. Turkin, a New York Daily News sportswriter, had died in 1955. Tommy Thompson was a cornetist in John Philip Sousa’s band and a baseball hobbyist who died in 1967.
We caught up with Palmer at his Boca Raton, Fla., home. The Yale graduate, now 75, also lives in Hollis, N.H., and is married to the great-niece of Pacific Coast League hero Jigger Statz. He and Beth Statz met at Raytheon, where he worked on the team monitoring Russian missile tests (without ever leaving Massachusetts).
Palmer was 35 when his letters to Julien Yoseloff at Barnes, talking about how the encyclopedia was getting stale, got him a job updating the companion book, All Time Rosters. Pete had been collecting baseball cards since 1948, could walk to either Braves Field or Fenway Park and pursued his passion by compiling lists of 100 RBI players, 100 walk players and so on. That led to his creating career record cards which included minor league records, helped by his growing collection of Spalding, Reach and Sports News annual guides dating back to 1901. He faithfully read The Sporting News and devoured the original Turkin/Thompson book.
Turkin/Thompson’s updates had been passed on to Roger Treat, known for his 1952 Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League. When Treat died in 1969, his daughter-in-law, Suzanne, assumed the updates of the baseball book, before it moved into Palmer’s hands in 1974.
A year later, he joined the stat team of the Boston Patriots and continues there 38 years later, now in the press box at Gillette Stadium with the New England Patriots. Worlds were colliding here – football and baseball – but he was managing them.
In 1982, it was Palmer’s discovery of a scoring error from 1910 that led to Major League Baseball to take away a Ty Cobb batting title in favor of Nap Lajoie. To move an MLB decision, let alone one of this magnitude, was a major accomplishment.
In 1984, he collaborated with John Thorn on The Hidden Game of Baseball, one of the first books dealing with the stats behind the stats that reached out beyond SABR membership, and that led to the Thorn-Palmer project Total Baseball, a beloved and massive work that eventually surpassed the MacMillan encyclopedia in information and popularity. Total Baseball had eight editions, and Palmer was involved in the first seven. While doing those, he became involved with the annual Who’s Who in Baseball, now in its 98th edition, the last 22 of them with his contributions.
He and Gary Gillette did five editions of the ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia and two of its Football Encyclopedia, and he says with pride, “Most of the websites use my database – SABR, Baseball-Reference, Retrosheet and MLB.com.
“I wasn’t a founder of SABR, but I joined in 1971 just weeks after it was founded,” he reports. “I didn’t realize how close to Cooperstown I was, living in Massachusetts, or I would have been at that gathering where it was formed.”
Palmer won the Bob Davids Award from SABR in 1989 and the Henry Chadwick Award in 2010, and has worked with some of the legendary names in baseball research over his career, either through direct contact or as one who built on their works. He continues his football connections (The Hidden Game of Football was published in 1988), and still regrets selling his complete collection of Bowman baseball cards from 1948-51 for $10, which “I thought was a fair price at the time.”
Oh, a final word on Jigger Statz (isn’t that the perfect name for a Pete Palmer great-uncle-in-law?) – Statz played 18 seasons with the Los Angeles Angels of the PCL, hitting .315 with 3,356 hits. He had another 737 hits in eight Major League seasons, mostly with the Cubs. Whether stats or Statz, Pete Palmer has been well connected.