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The SABR 51 Convention in Chicago
Notes, photos, links, and more from the Society for American Baseball Research's 51st annual convention, held last month in Chicago.
About a month ago, in early July, I attended the 51st Convention for SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. I’ve been a member of SABR for many years, off and on since the 1990s, and this was my third consecutive annual convention (2019, 2022, 2023, since we didn’t have one in 2020 or 2021).
As I did for last year’s 50th convention in Baltimore, I’ve wanted to do a write-up about my experience at the event, including notes from some sessions I attended, a few pics, links to articles like this from other participants, and so on. I got delayed by other projects, but here it is! Of course this is just one person’s experience, a small slice of the overall event—but for SABR members or other baseball fans who could not attend, I hope you enjoy this recap.
Over 500 SABR members and other baseball fans gathered at the historic Palmer House in Chicago. Now over 100 years old, it has been a Hilton property since December, 1945 (according to Wikipedia). Recent renovations have made it a modern property in terms of conveniences, but one that still has its 100-year-old historic charm—as the room we were in for the opening evening’s networking event demonstrates (see below).
The convention included a great schedule packed with:
Fresh new research on many aspects of the game, including history, analytics, and more
Over two dozen SABR committee meetings, on a wide range of topics
A loaded lineup of speakers, including some star appearances by baseball personalities like Ozzie Guillén, Mike Veeck, Maybelle Blair, and more
A poster-session area with over a dozen research "posters," each with loads of detail on interesting baseball research topics. This included one by me titled “Using ChatGPT for Baseball Research and Creative Fun”
An exhibitors room for book publishers, authors, and vendors and service providers to demo and sell their wares
Also included was an area baseball bus tour, a donors breakfast, and awards luncheon, and a Friday night St. Louis Cardinals-Chicago White Sox game at Guaranteed Rate Field, which the hometown White Sox won 8-7.
No single article can capture all of the presentations and other components of the convention. But below are my notes from some of the sessions I attended.
Opening Remarks: Chase Carpenter
Chase Carpenter is the Chicago Cubs’ Senior Director of Strategy and Analytics. He shared how baseball as a business has four inter-related “flywheel” aspects:
Improved/ sustained team performance
Better guest experience
This is similar to what best-selling author Jim Collins put forward in Good to Great, as a general model for business growth. Success is usually built over time—often you can’t point back to any particular “aha” moment that made all the difference. For the Cubs, even the 2016 success wasn’t it—as to get there they had to execute on many other steps first.
Carpenter noted that the goal is to minimize the lows, and maximize the highs. This means you have to invest in infrastructure and other fundamentals when a team is not doing well, to build for the future.
The Cubs vision is to “Be unrivaled on and off the field.” Their three missions are: Win the World Series; Create the World’s Best Guest Experience; and Be a Good Neighbor. Their values are: Stewards, Team First, Ambitious, Inclusive, Friendly.
Carpenter went back a bit to 2009 when the Ricketts family bought the team from the Chicago Tribune, which suffered from the 2008 recession and the decline of print media as a business model. The problems with the team at the time were many, but were also obvious: an aging roster and poor farm system, poor facilities and fan amenities, many business challenges, dated technology, limited customer information, e-commerce limitations, CBA restrictions, and other issues.
Over time the team had developed the nickname “the loveable losers,” and they were constructing their roster more from free agency than from player development. This is both very expensive, and amounts to investing in the wrong side of the age-performance correlation curve. At one point, the Cubs had the lowest WAR (Wins Above Replacement) value from their draft over a 6-year period.
In short, the 2016 World Series team was created from a renewed investment in player development and a half-dozen key free agent acquisitions. At the same time the organization also has undertaken many improvements to support the players (gym facilities, etc.) and have also overhauled Wrigley Field over a five-year period. This has included new facilities, new video boards, new premium seating, etc. The team has also invested in the surrounding Wrigleyville neighborhood, building a team office building, buying an old but beloved McDonalds, etc.
Moving forward, Carpenter shared that the focus is increasingly on digital/data infrastructure, both player analytics but also business analytics about all aspects of operations, such as product sales data, social media interactions, etc.
One interesting tidbit was that during the 2020 COVID-19 season team executives were tasked with thinking about how to improve the business. They were asked what the experience should be like in five years—and then how can they pull that forward sooner. One example of how they overhauled the gameday experience: in 2019 it averaged 24 minutes to get into Wrigley Field, but after some operational and technological changes, it now takes only a few minutes.
Panel on the AAGPBL: Athletes, Pioneers, Community Leaders
A highlight of the entire convention was the panel on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League which included:
Maybelle Blair (center above) who played for the Peoria Red Wings of the AAGPBL in 1948
Kristie Erickson (left), Deputy Executive Director at The History Museum in South Bend, Indiana
Dr. Kat Williams (right), Professor of Women’s Sport History at Marshall University
The AAGPBL ran from 1943-1954, and of course enjoyed broader appreciation from the movie “A League of Their Own” starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Lorie Petty, and others.
The players’ accomplishments on the field were impressive, but the legacy of women in the business of baseball continued beyond 1954, just as women were involved in baseball in many ways prior to 1943.
Many of the women who played used their earnings from playing—which were generally higher than they would have earned from other work at that time—to later start businesses, become teachers, become coaches, go to college, send family members to college, and more.
“Can’t we at least try?”
Blair grew up playing baseball because she grew up in a farming community in Texas. She said “she had no choice” but to learn to play the game—and she loved it. (One of her brothers was a good player and an All-American, but got injured in WWII and that ended his playing career.)
She grew up listening to the Cubs on the radio, and learned how to keep score from listening to those games. In fifth grade, she went up to her teacher and asked for some equipment so she could put together a girls team. She suggested they could play against girls from another school down the road—but was initially told that wasn’t possible. She pressed it by saying “Can’t we at least try?”—and they ended up putting together the team and playing some games. Williams noted that Blair has spent much of her life pushing things and asking “Can’t we at least try?”
Blair noted that the US women’s baseball team is not the best in the world—while improving, Canada, Taiwan, and especially Japan have very strong teams today. She also noted that about 40 out of the 650 women who played in the AAGPBL are still alive today (though only about 15-20 are still healthy enough to get out and about.)
One item of interest: there is an upcoming Amazon series on the AAGPBL—filming will resume once the Hollywood strikes are over.
The Negro Leagues are Major Leagues: Two Years Post-Launch
Previous to 2021, Baseball Reference included seven leagues that were considered “Major Leagues.” Now it has 14 leagues, because seven Negro Leagues have been included on par with the American League, National League, Federal League, etc. This aligned with the announcement by MLB in December 2020 that made official that the same seven Negro Leagues would be considered historically major leagues.
These Negro Leagues were of course different in some ways from the American League and National League, such as:
League schedules were shorter
Barnstorming games in between
Some top players played outside of the United States
Some top clubs played out of league format
Schedules were not balanced
Season lengths varied by team
A key point that Darowski made was that the various announcements in 2020/2021—from MLB, SABR, and Baseball Reference—were not bestowing a status of “major league” on these historical leagues. Rather, they were finally recognizing them—on the websites, in the records, etc.—as what they always were: Major Leagues.
When the statistics from these leagues were added to the official records for Major Leagues, there were some interesting changes that resulted for some players such as:
Minnie Minoso and Jim Gilliam surpassed 2,000 hits
Roy Campanella passed 250 HR
Satchel Paige passed 1,500 strikeouts
Don Newcombe passed 150 wins
Monte Irvin’s batting average passed .300
Ozzie Guillén Presentation and Q&A
Ozzie Guillén (above) is of course a former major league player and manager, and currently the colorful White Sox studio analyst for NBC Sports Chicago.
Guillén reminisced about when he first came up and the White Sox, at age 21, and had some all-time greats as aging veterans as teammates, like Tom Seaver and Carlton Fisk.
He described some changes in baseball that he doesn’t like, such as the over-emphasis on certain (but not all) metrics, limiting pitchers’ pitch counts, and more. He also described the importance of elements of the game that managers have insight into, but don’t show up in the stats, such as some players who complain more than others, exaggerate injuries, etc.
When asked about the White Sox underperforming 2023 season, Guillen said that the current team has talent but are not playing as a team. The issue with the White Sox is not lack of spending, but rather a poor team culture.
When asked which player he played with or managed who is not in the Hall of Fame but should be, Guillen said Sammy Sosa, giving his view that because so many players used PEDs during that era, the best of them should be in the Hall.
Dan Uggla: History’s Most Unlikely Hitting Streak
David Firstman is a data analyst for the city of New York, and his work on baseball has appeared at ESPN, Bronx Banter, Baseball Prospectus, The Hardball Times, and in The Village Voice.
Firstman noted that during Joe DiMaggio’s famous 56-game hitting streak, he only faced 54 different pitchers. Players today face far more different pitchers, given that we have 30 teams instead of 16, and because of the specialization of relief pitching.
Firstman noted Pete Rose’s four components to hit for a streak:
The ability to hit for contact (DiMaggio only struck out 5 times during his 56-game streak.)
Enough speed to leg out a weak hit or bunt (and being a left-handed batter also helps, because closer to 1B).
A knack for hitting to the opposite field.
A heavy dose of luck.
Firstman then went on to analyze in great detail Dan Uggla’s rather unlikely 33-game hitting streak during 2011, which started while he was batting a pitiful .173 (by the end of the year he was still only hitting .233.)
Fun is Good: A Veeck Family Legacy
Mike Veeck (above), the legendary team owner, promoter, and publicist, gave a very entertaining presentation and Q&A session.
Veeck described the backstory of his infamous “Disco Demolition” game night, on July 12, 1979, at Comiskey Park in Chicago, between the games of a double-header between the Tigers and the White Sox (see entry at Wikipedia.)
Veeck’s goal has always been growing more baseball fans. He tries different things—sometimes they work, sometimes not so much (he has been fired by four clubs).
The perspective of the Veecks (Mike and his father) is that they don’t know what people have experienced in the past few weeks in each attending fan’s life, so they want to do all they can to give them a great, fun experience when they come to the ballpark.
Veeck described several of his many successes with the until-recently independent minor league team, the St. Paul Saints. This included setting a new world record for biggest pillow fight ever, in which over 6,000 fans participated at their stadium. He also told the story of how his team scouted and signed Ila Borders, a woman who pitched in the minor leagues. He also described how he helped rejuvenate Darryl Strawberry’s career and life.
Other sessions that I attended
I attended many other presentations, panels, etc.—ones where I took minimal if any notes. Here is what made up the rest of my schedule:
SABR Games and Simulations Committee meeting
SABR Baseball Records Committee meeting
SABR Baseball Index Committee meeting
Shining Light on the Smiling Stan Hack Mirror, by Herm Krabbenhoft
All the Way: The Baseball Life of Maybelle Blair, by Kat Williams
The Inglorious Exit of Adrian Anson, by Michael Haupert
The coming of the Farm System and the Manipulation of Player Control Rights, by Daniel R. Levitt
Harnessing the Power of Building Information Modeling to Preserve Chicago’s “Baseball Palace of the World”, by Brian Powers
From Comiskey Park to Comiskey Park, by John Bauer
Miles Wolff and the Rebirth of Independent Baseball, by John Burbridge, Jr.
Abandoned Franchise Relocations in Big League History, by Chuck Hildebrandt
Do All Wood Bats Perform Identically?, by Alan Nathan
Snoopy: Baseball’s Top Dog, by Melissa Booker
Celebrification of the Game: Examining Player Media Personas from ‘What’s My Line’ to ‘Late Night with Jimmy Fallon’, by Allison Levin
Panel: Black Baseball in Chicago, with James E. Brunson III, Adrian Burgos Jr., Leslie Heaphy, and Louis Moore
Panel: Reimagining Wrigley, with Ed Hartig, Kelly Holton, Fred Mitchell
Exhibitor Hall with Sean Kane Baseball Art as a highlight
The exhibitor/vendor hall at a SABR convention is a modest (by comparison to many business conferences) room with about a dozen book publishers and other product/service providers. Three large baseball publishers were naturally there with big tables of books: University of Nebraska Press, McFarland, and Rowman and Littlefield.
But the highlight of this area for me was the modest little table for Sean Kane Baseball Art. Sean Kane (in photo above) is an artist who has hit on a brilliant idea: painting baseball imagery on old baseball gloves! See the photo above that I took, and then visit his website to really see the detail of his work. The painted gloves themselves are each one of a kind. For those who cannot afford / justify the cost of such wonderful works of art, Sean smartly sells both large prints and postcard sized prints of some of his pieces. I enjoyed talking with Sean about his art, and picked up a half-dozen of the postcards.
My Poster Presentation: “Using ChatGPT for Baseball Research and Creative Fun”
As described earlier, adjacent to the exhibitor hall was an area of about a dozen “poster presentations.” These were 48”x48” poster-boards detailing research in a variety of topic areas. My poster (see above) detailed my recent experimentation with using the AI tool ChatGPT to test out how well it does with baseball research topics, as well as having some fun with it for things like humor, poetry, and so on.
I’ll likely share more from this poster presentation in a subsequent article here, and I hope to give some online presentations on this topic in the near future to various SABR chapters around the country. But for now, you can read my article from earlier this year, “ChatGPT Picks and All-Time Yankees Dream Team.”
Cardinals-White Sox Game on Friday, July 7th
Lastly, above is the view from our group’s seats for the Cardinals-White Sox game at Guaranteed Rate Field on Friday, July 7th. The Cardinals jumped to a 5-0 lead after just three innings, as Dylan Cease was giving up hits, including a HR to Nolan Arenado. He settled in after that and ended up striking out eight over six innings.
Jordan Montgomery, the starter for the Cardinals, did well at first but was pulled after just 4 1/3 innings after a HR by Jake Burger. The St. Louis relievers didn’t do well and the Sox had a 6-5 lead after six innings. The Cardinals scored two in the top of the seventh from Arenado’s second HR of the game, but the White Sox answered with two runs of their own in the bottom of the seventh, including a HR by Luis Robert Jr. No other runs scored, so the White Sox held on to win.
Links for more SABR 51 information
Then here are a few other articles that have been written by other attendees about SABR 51:
Cecilia Tan: Things I Learned at SABR 51 (Why I Like Baseball)
Jason Schwartz: SABR 51 highlights and a Frank Thomas baseball card mystery solved (SABR Baseball Cards Blog)
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