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Whither Who’s Who? The End of a Classic Baseball Book

With most baseball guides now online, the hard copy annual "Who's Who" in Baseball is something of a relic--its future uncertain. In print for more than 100 years and formerly indispensible to pros and fans alike, the 2016 edition of "Who's Whomay have been its last.

By Marty Appel, March 14, 2017
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Most likely the last copy of the famous Baseball Book Who’s Who?
Photo credit: Marty Appel

It has been quite a run for the Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant—College Player of the Year, Minor League Player of the Year, National League Rookie of the Year, a home run in the All-Star Game, a World Series ring, and an MVP Award.

Almost everything.         

He didn’t have his picture on the 2017 Who’s Who in Baseball, which might have been expected.

Alas, there is no 2017 Who’s Who in Baseball. And the 101st edition, published in 2016, may be the last. Since 1916, they had never missed a year.         

For many, particularly younger fans, Who’s Who has been a relic for some time. Almost everything has gone online by now (including this column). The last Sporting News Register was published in 2007. The last Sporting News Baseball Guide was published in 2006. (There is still a hard copy of Baseball America Almanac.) The American League Red Book and the National League Green Book migrated to online only in 2009.          

But Who’s Who went on. More portable than the Register, and unlike Baseball-Reference.com, combining minor and Major League lines and noting disabled list visits, it sat quietly on living room coffee tables of baseball fans. It was always handy and easy to look up a player while a game was in progress.        

In April 2016, Harris Publications, which had published the annual since 1952 (65 of the 101 editions), closed shop. They published many titles and one-off specialty magazines (SLAM, Guitar World, Guns & Weapons, Celebrity Hairstyles, Juicy) and sold a number of them to Athlon Magazines. Who’s Who was not included in the sale.           

Pete Palmer, a leading sports statistician, had been working on the book since 1990 and took charge of the content in 2008, with Rory Slifkin as managing editor. Pete heard from the Harris family in October 2016 (after the Athlon sale) and was asked what his usual timeline was. That seemed to indicate there might be life yet.           

But he never heard back.       

If there is an edition in the future, skipping a year would not be unprecedented. The publication first appeared in 1912 as an adjunct of the popular Baseball Magazine. It was 56 pages, with a generic player on the cover (or maybe it was Nap Lajoie), and it said it would be “indispensable to the fan, sporting editor, umpire, official scorer, baseball club, manager and scout.” All of that remained true, although one could add fantasy league players (separate from fans) to today’s audience, especially since the book was usually out before drafts were held.

Its stats included only batting average and fielding average, even for pitchers, even for the oldest name in the book, Cy Young. Yes, if you wanted to know Cy Young’s fielding average, but didn’t care about his 511 wins, this was the place to go.

Ty Cobb gracing the cover of Who’s Who in 1916. Cobb’s best season was in 1911 when in he had 248 hits, 147 runs, 127 RBI’s, and .420 batting average.
Courtesy of: Marty Appel

The book did not reappear in 1913, 1914, or 1915, but it returned in 1916 (for 15 cents) with Ty Cobb on the cover. The stat columns included only games, at bats, runs, hits, stolen bases, and batting average. For pitchers there were games, innings, won, lost, percentage, strikeouts, walks, hits, and average, which was what ERA was called. “Ruth, George” could be found in the pitcher’s section. “Stengel, Charles D.” was in the hitters section, as was “Wagner, John Henry”—the oldest player in the book. We know him better as Honus.           

The greatest oddity over the years was the failure of Who’s Who to include home runs as a column until 1940—five years after Ruth retired. There is no one who can answer the “why” behind this strange fact, other than reformatting the columns was obviously a big deal. Is it possible that there were still “purists” on staff at Baseball Magazine who scorned the home run?

The statisticians who supervised content over the years were a regular who’s who of statisticians. It began with John J. Lawres, who had compiled his own ledgers since 1896. He didn’t kid around. His 1913 ledger carried 52 leagues and 22,000 players. This was the right guy to launch Who’s Who.           

“The labor that was begun as a diversion has become little short of slavery,” wrote Lawres, “but . . . it is a pleasure to accomplish unknown a work that, in its creation, may please thousands who know neither my face, name or even existence.”

Lawres was followed by Ernest Lanigan, Clifford Bloodgood, Allan Roth, Seymour Siwoff and his team at Elias Sports Bureau, Bill Shannon, Norm MacLean, and Pete Palmer. Roth was also the Brooklyn Dodgers’ in-house statistician.         

The booklet grew into a book, always with red as its defining cover color. Marketers know red attracts attention, and since newsstand sales were the major outlet, the decision worked all the way through the 2016 edition, which featured Bryce Harper as the principal cover subject. (Front covers tended to include MVP and Cy Young winners, with the back cover a place for a team photo of the world champions.)         

When the 100th edition was published in 2015 (with Mike Trout on the cover), an accompanying book was published featuring all 100 covers along with editorial comments on each season by Doug Lyons. The book went right to the top of the Amazon baseball bestseller list. People remembered those old covers with Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, and Tom Seaver, while older covers with the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio had grown into collector’s items. A 1916 edition with the Cobb cover was recently listed on eBay for $995.         

Players who never made the cover included Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra, and Derek Jeter. The 1955 cover featuring Alvin Dark is perhaps the most puzzling today, seeing as how his teammate Willie Mays hit .341 and won the MVP Award. Mays was a secondary photo in 1966. Not until 1975 (with Lou Brock) did an African-American player serve as the principal cover photo. What was the justification for Dark over Mays? A sales decision that people weren’t ready to buy publications with black players on the cover?        

The book has of course grown. In 1962 it topped 500 players for the first time, and in 1969 it topped 600. It changed from a saddle-stitched booklet (with staples) into a perfect bound book (with a spine) in 1955.           

A personal favorite listing was the entry for Rudy Seanez, who last appeared in the 2008 edition. Seanez’s 17-year career (nine Major League teams, 22 minor league teams) wound up covering 45 lines, plus six lines for his postseason work and two lines of career totals, added to 12 trips to the disabled list, 12 times filing for free agency, five trades, and five times released. Once he was dropped from the book in 2009, as many as five players could replace him.          

Maybe Who’s Who will one day reappear. But the reality of the marketplace today would tend to say that it had its run, and it’s over. If so, it is another sad development for people raised with certain hard copy annuals that helped define what being a baseball fan meant.

Courtesy of: Marty Appel

 

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