Clarence (Lefty) Blasco has a picture of every Chicago Cub but one. Please note, that's every Chicago Cub ever. After searching for more than 30 years, he is still missing Pete Lamer, who caught two games in 1902. If you've got a snapshot or daguerreotype of Pete in your wallet, and it doesn't mean that much to you, buzz Blasco in Van Nuys, Calif. It'll make his day.
In Pico Rivera, Calif., Art Cantu has been alphabetizing the names of everyone known to have played in baseball's minor leagues. "I have 450,000 names," reports Cantu, who likes short declarative sentences. When not alphabetizing, he compounds paint and ink fluorescents. His life is rich and full.
Tom Hufford of Smyrna, Ga. is said to be familiar with the names of the 13,000-odd players in Macmillan's Baseball Encyclopedia. Toss him a name and he'll tell you whether or not the guy ever played in the majors. Just make sure you have a good reason for asking. Tom doesn't like to abuse the gift.
George Land, a high school teacher in Pleasanton. Calif. knows the problem with kids these days. "Many of my students still cling to the old myth that Abner Doubleday invented baseball." says Land, full of alarm. "That is pathetic. I believe there is a place for baseball history in our high school curriculum."
In Mill Valley, Calif., Glenn Becker's answering machine politely asks callers to "Please state the infield-fly rule. If you recite it correctly, we will return your call."
A good amount of our national identity is wound around baseball, like yarn around a Rawling's core. The core's hard core, then—if we may further scourge an already dying metaphor—would be the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR (pronounced like the weapon). Now in its 16th year, SABR boasts more than 6,000 members, one of whom is actually named Ernie Infield. Last summer, 300 members and guests attended the society's annual convention in Oakland. They are our national pastime's most diligent, loving curators. Also—and this observation should pale before the nobility and magnitude of their calling—a handful of them are nuts.
Last year's convention kicked off a day early, on July 11. Five minutes before the A's took the field against Milwaukee, attention was directed to a figure at the Oakland Coliseum's centerfield gate. There, resplendent in an Oakland Oaks uniform that was much too big for him, stood convention organizer Gene Sunnen, a local computer consultant and David Letterman look-alike—"Except Gene doesn't have that gap between his teeth." notes Richard Zitrin, Sunnen's lawyer friend.
That morning, Sunnen was one of a team that had jogged to nine baseball sites (past, present and projected) in the Bay Area, including Candlestick and Oaks Parks and Seals Stadium. As he ran he held aloft a 34-ounce Reggie Jackson Adirondack, intended to evoke the Olympic torch. It did this, albeit feebly, save for one particular: "We thought it would be stupid to light a good bat on fire," said Sunnen.
Sunnen was escorted down the Coliseum's leftfield warning track and to the plate by an A's golf cart, the kind usually reserved for ferrying relievers to the mound. Zitrin rode shotgun, grinning like an idiot. As he passed A's designated hitter Dave Kingman, Sunnen, who is something of a ham, yelled, "I'll have your job!" Kingman did not smile.
An enthusiastic A's announcer informed the assembled 8,019 that the Oaks' jersey draping Sunnen belonged to Lefty O'Doul. Apparently nostalgia prone, the crowd cheered madly. This was a good omen.