Venerated record books sacked by Internet

spalding guide 1876.jpgQuietly, like the passing of Oldsmobiles, Hydrox cookies and sports cartoonists, The Sporting News Official Baseball Guides passed from the scene this year.

   If you didn’t notice, it was because you were part of a large segment of baseball fans who found most of the information online. In the reality of the age in which we live, the Official Baseball Guide had become a dinosaur, probably years past its need.

   I had heard that fewer than 6,000 copies were being sold annually, and while I don’t know what the high-water mark was, I do recall that you used to be able to get one for free with a subscription renewal to The Sporting News, and what a treat it was for this fan to get each year’s edition, and see what The Sporting News editors deemed as the “news of the year” for the year past, and how each local contributor summed up his team’s performance.

   There were all sorts of treats in those books that you couldn’t find elsewhere, including the front-office rosters and scouting staffs for the major league clubs, the individual stats for every minor leaguer, “Necrology,” – a fancy term for the year’s obituaries, and once upon a time, all the team photos.

   If you knew how many people I’d met over the years who told me they “briefly played minor league ball,” not knowing it could be proven with these books, you’d be amazed. Of course, with no index, it wasn’t easy to find these guys, but with a little effort, the truth would emerge.

   The Sporting News inherited the tradition of the annual summary when it took over for Spalding publishing in 1942 with a hybrid edition that could even let you see the phone number for the Red Sox: Kenmore 0331. 

   The Spalding Guide went back to the very beginning of the National League – 1876, when it published the N.L. Constitution and the playing rules. Over time, it shared importance with the Reach Guide, which tended to favor the American League in coverage. But both gave you full stats for both leagues, with the Reach Guide passing from the scene in 1939, with a combined Spalding-Reach Guide published in 1940-41.  In September of ’41,  the owner of the Heilnbroner Baseball Research Bureau, which provided the material for Spalding’s publication, wrote to baseball officials to say that selling 35,000 copies was no longer cost effective for them, and that they would cease publication.

   The Sporting News, then the “Bible of Baseball,” and publisher of The Sporting News Record Book since 1909, rode in and rescued the continuing series by coming out with a 1942 edition, which included World Series summaries and the official rule book. There was also a three-page story on Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak of 56 straight in 1941.

   Because there was no love lost between publisher J.G. Taylor Spink of The Sporting News and Judge Landis, the Commissioner, a tug of war of sorts over rights to the book ensued during the war, with the 1943 and ’44 editions compiled by Spink, but the ’45 and ’46 editions published by A.S. Barnes and Co. and edited by Leslie M. O’Connor of the Commissioner’s Office.  (The Sporting News published its own version in those years, but without the Commissioner’s Office blessing).  The important thing was, despite the paper shortages during the war, the Guides went uninterrupted.

   In 1947, the official connotation returned to The Sporting News, which put out a massive 552-page edition including the records from all 42 minor leagues. The “look” of the book continued until 1981, after which it changed from the 5-by-7-inch format to 6-by-9 inches. And on through 2006 it continued, a remarkable run for one of the few things that endured from the first year of the N.L.

   But now, it has passed on. So too has the Complete Baseball Record Book, an important reference work which, as noted, dates back to 1909, (under various titles) and has now been transformed to a free online reference. Steve Gietscher, the archivist at Sporting News, (who has written the annual Year in Review for the Guides since 1992), writes a fascinating forward to the online edition which traces the history of these varied publications. See http://www.sportingnews.com/books/baseball/2007baseballrecordbook/ for Steve’s overview.

   The hard-to-find but easy-to-read Elias Book of Baseball Records remains in print each year, offering a real “record book” for those who continue to crave one.

   The Baseball Register was published this year, and we suspect it will be the last one, coming to life just before the new owners of Sporting News (the word “The” was dropped several years ago), decided plug pulling was in order. 

   Having mourned all of this in the preceding paragraphs, I should say that the available reference material online is wonderful, and I probably go to Baseball-Reference.com three times a day, as well as baseball-almanac.com and more obscure websites, but I know in my heart that I’ll miss those annual Guides, the sense of order and finality they brought to each season, and no doubt some of the small features I came to depend on. The absence of minor league stats from Baseball-reference.com will still make us long for the Register in coming years, although there is always the venerable Who’s Who in Baseball to fill the slack.

   Baseball America seems best positioned to stake a claim for the “official guide” designation if Major League Baseball were to grant it to someone, but for now, we are observing a passing of an era as history takes another step into the digital age.  

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