Recently, I traveled to New York City and attended the SABR (Society for America Baseball) National Convention. It was my first time in attendance at this event, despite being a SABR member for the past 5 years. I have attended both the SABR Analytics Conference, and Arizona Fall League Experience. They both take place around Phoenix each March and November respectfully.
The 2017 Convention marked the 47th time since SABR was founded in 1971. The original 16 members met in Cooperstown, NY. The host site has moved all over North America and you can find a compete list and summary of each year here. This year’s edition saw a record number of attendees. Over 800 baseball enthusiasts gathered to share their passion for the game. Topics included baseball cards, art work, Latin baseball, and historical research.
The festivities kicked off at the welcome reception where old friends reconnected. Many have become regulars over the years with some members making the trip for more than 20 summers. The average age of current SABR members is 57. With some in attendance vividly recalling watching the likes of Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays. They grew up playing baseball board games such as Strat-O-Matic and APBA. A gentleman from Harrisburg, PA asked me which of the two was my preference as he explained that he played APBA as another man wearing a Strat-O-Matic T-shirt walked past. Baseball attire was plentiful throughout the room with both current and past teams represented. The teams included the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Montreal Expos, and Team Israel, among others. It felt like I had walked through a time machine as many conversations involved details about games that occurred over 50 years ago. Despite the price of beer being $19 everyone appeared to be enjoying themselves.
Current Yankees Assistant General Manager Jean Afterman sat down with award winning journalist Claire Smith. They discussed her baseball journey. That started as a kid growing up in San Francisco, where she would watch Giant’s games at Candlestick Park. Afterman went on to work at Paramount Pictures as an assistant to the head of feature film production, before becoming a lawyer. Afterman ended up meeting future agent Don Nomura and played a key role in players from Japan coming to play in the Major Leagues. Her clients included Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, and Alfonso Soriano. A full story of Afterman’s life can be found here.
A series of panels looked back on the lives and legacies of New York and American icons Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra, and Jackie Robinson. Stengel managed the Brooklyn Dodgers, Yankees, and Mets and you can find his story in author Marty Appel’s newest book “Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Characters“. Berra won 10 World Series Titles as a member of the Yankees, but may have been know best for his unique and colorful personality. The book “Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball’s Greatest Gift” by author Harvey Araton describes some of the qualities that made Berra so special. One of the neat moments at this years convention was when the granddaughters of both Berra and Whitey Ford came on stage. They received a standing ovation from the crowd. The legacy of Jackie Robinson is well documented and one that can not be understated as he broke the color barrier in 1947 as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
SABR member Anthony Salazar discussed the integration of baseball cards and Chicano Pop Art. The artist took inspiration from baseball cards and created Muerto Pop. The example below is of Barry Bones, based on 1987 Barry Bonds Topps Rookie Card. You can find a few of the other artworks here. They include works inspired by Fernando Valenzuela, Eric Chavez, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Miguel Tejada.
Cuban filmmakers Yasel Porto and Reynaldo Cruz previewed their newest film “Unidos por una Pasion”. It compares New York City and Havana as the baseball capitals of each nation, showing the impact that both cities have had on the game in their respective countries. You can find the 30 minute documentary below.
Television commentator Keith Olbermann talked about his personal affinity for baseball cards, which he has collected since he was a 10 year old and how his love of cards and collecting led to his career path in sports. Olbermann described the baseball card culture and industry. The highlights of Olbermann’s talk are here.
Former Major Leaguer and author Jim Bouton and his wife were on a panel which discussed Jim’s life and the impact his book “Ball Four” has had on the baseball as he told things as they were at the time, much to the dismay of then Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Kuhn called the book detrimental to the sport. The highlights of this panel can be found here.
In total the convention featured a total of 25 research committee meetings, 32 research presentations, 10 panels, and a baseball game. It was a jam packed 4 days of activities. More highlights of the convention are here.
The main thing that I took away from the convention was not a particular presentation but rather the people. There is no question about the passion that most in attendance have for baseball, it seemed like many have been life long fans and intimately follow the game in one form or another. As I have discussed before, although baseball is a game, it connects people and has a larger reflection on society and culture.
The role of SABR has clearly changed over the years, as it was founded primarily to collect the statistical records and stories around the game. Now, it can be argued the role is to insure that the history of the game remains intact. One of the main challenges currently facing SABR is in finding equilibrium between the past and the future. This reflects the larger societal questions around big data and living in the information age. It will be interesting to see what SABR looks like 15-20 years from now, as it continues to grow and evolve. Yet, for these 4 days each summer the remnants of a past era come to life, and that’s something to behold. It might be a bit quirky and odd, but that’s what also makes it unique and intriguing.
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