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Nicholas Dawidoff
May 23, 1988
Baseball journals prove the pen is as mighty as the bat
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May 23, 1988

Hits Hot Off The Presses

Baseball journals prove the pen is as mighty as the bat

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"Leisure is time for doing something useful," wrote Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard's Almanac, the journal he created as an outlet for his musings on life in the colonies. Today steelworkers, actors and professors throughout the country are emulating Franklin by dipping into their hearts, pockets and inkwells to express their thoughts on baseball. Baseball Briefs, The Baseball Analyst, Eliot Cohen 's Major League Monthly, The Minneapolis Review of Baseball, Base Woman and the publications of the St. Louis Browns Fan Club are only a few of the many fine grass-roots literary efforts being put out today, a phenomenon that underscores Americans' passion for the national pastime.

The origins of the baseball journal can be traced to 1914, the year George Moreland created Food for Fans, a sheet of statistics. In it, Moreland, who was also the author of Balldom, a seminal baseball record book, offered readers insights into and analyses of the contemporary baseball scene.

The next significant date in baseball periodical history is 1971, the year Bob Davids, a government official with a Ph.D. in international relations, came up with Baseball Briefs. For 10 years off and on, Davids, now retired, has put together the annual newsletter in his Washington, D.C., study. Like Food for Fans, Briefs is a compendium of statistics, notes and insights on subjects ranging from Presidential baseball records ( Harry Truman attended 15 major league games during his tenure in office, a White House record), to Mike Easler's 1986 hit that made him the 36th player ever to get 1,000 hits in both the majors and the minors.

Davids, in turn, has inspired a fresh generation of grass-roots baseball writers. Among them, Bill James of Winchester, Kans., is probably the most successful. Since 1977, James, who is renowned for his work with baseball statistics, a field that he named sabermetrics (after SABR, the Society of American Baseball Research, which Davids helped to found), has put out the Baseball Abstract, an annual publication that has become such an institution it might even be called baseball's Poor Richard's Almanac. Yet in 1982, James found his sabermetric interests extending beyond the editorial confines of the Abstract, so he founded The Baseball Analyst, a monthly that might be described as baseball journals' answer to Ulysses. Says James, "It would be shameful for the editor to say that he receives things he doesn't understand, but there is some stuff I have to read extremely carefully."

The Analyst's stable of contributors includes mathematicians, economists and one Dallas Adams, who fives in Australia. The average fan would find such Adams articles as "On the Inaccuracy of the Pythagorean Equation at Extreme Scoring Ratios" impenetrable. The Analyst is probably the only place where you can find a story on Richie Ashburn that includes footnotes and pages of complex formulas.

While James has the baseball newsletter down to a science, Eliot Cohen and his Major League Monthly offer something for fans who don't speak James's arcane language. Cohen's journal is a fan's-eye view of major league baseball. Last year, in the wake of the attention attracted by the Cincinnati Reds' Eric Davis, Cohen felt compelled to climb on his high horse and yelp, "If you want the complete player, look at Babe Ruth. The only time he ever struck out 100 times, he did it as a pitcher on the mound." Cohen, who writes on a word processor in his Queens, N.Y., home, comments on anything that strikes his fancy—from the Manny Sanguillen Society (players who walk infrequently) to the media and Davis. Monthly also includes such features as the "Game of the Weak" and a terrific baseball quiz. Question: Which four ex-Cardinals are honored with monuments in Yankee Stadium? Answer: Roger Maris, Miller Huggins, popes John Paul II and Paul VI.

In the fall of 1980, actor Ken LaZebnik was living in a ramshackle, walk-down apartment in a bohemian section of Minneapolis not far from the University of Minnesota. As is often the case among thespians, LaZebnik had some time on his hands between roles. So one day, instead of staring at the telephone, he pulled out a notebook and began working on a lifelong dream. After writing for a spell, he called up a college friend, Steve Lehman, and told him about the notebook, by now transformed into the mockup for a journal on baseball from the point of view of the fan.

Thus was born the quarterly Minneapolis Review of Baseball, a vibrant assemblage of stories, poems, essays and drawings—all for $10 a year. "We touted ourselves as the cheapest publication in America, except for the Watchtower," says Lehman, a deaths investigator for the St. Paul medical examiner.

"It would be stretching things to say that either of us was ever solvent," says LaZebnik, who has fond memories of banging out early issues of the MRB on the typewriter at Minneapolis's Mixed Blood Theater before dashing to his printer, Mr. Print.

The editors acknowledge a certain literary excess, but amid the bountiful supply of indignant outbursts and rhapsodic musings, the seven volumes of the MRB have included many morsels of fine prose. The opinions of the crusty octogenarian identified only as "Staff Writer" are often amusing, and such features as the annual series of articles on opening days around the world, as well as pieces by correspondents in such minor league backwaters as Kenosha, Wis., and Waterloo, Iowa, offer a pleasing mixture of baseball mythology and culture. The MRB has also published historical essays on the famed Brooklyn Dodger Sym-Phony and a hilarious treatise on the relationship between a player's greatness and the poetic meter of his first and last names (monosyllabic first names with trochaic last names, or the reverse, have had 33 MVPs and 25 Cy Youngs). In the seven years since the first issue, the MRB's circulation has improved from 200 to 1,200.

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