Interview with Jacob Pomrenke of SABR

The Society for America Baseball Research, or SABR, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering research and disseminating the history and record of baseball.  Founded in 1971, SABR continues to grow and currently has over 6,000 members worldwide.  Anyone with an interest in America’s pastime is welcome to join.  SABR members include some of the most knowledgeable people involved in the game of baseball, and through its various research committees, magazine publications, and conferences, they are continually providing the public with new and exciting information.

I recently interviewed Jacob Pomrenke, who is the Web Content Editor at SABR and has been building content for the Society’s website (http://sabr.org/).  We discussed all the great research presently being performed by SABR members, along with the history of how the organization established itself as a premier distributor of groundbreaking baseball information. 

Q:  Can you provide a little background information about SABR, such as how it got started, the mission and goals of the Society?

A:  SABR was formed in 1971, and we just celebrated our 40th anniversary back in August.  It was founded by 16 baseball researchers at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  It was basically a way to disseminate baseball research and get it out there because at that time “The Sporting News” had stopped running historical baseball articles (in the mid to late 1960s), so there was really nowhere anyone could do high quality baseball research and have a place to publish it.  So SABR was formed by Bob Davids, a government employee in Washington, D.C., and a baseball researcher on the side.  Mr. Davids got a group together to form this organization and ever since then we’ve really grown in leaps and bounds.  But our mission has remained the same:  to promote and disseminate the best baseball research that’s out there. 

We are basically a membership organization of about 6,000 people extending around the country and around the world actually.  Meetings are open to everybody, so if you wanted to you could go to one of these meetings and talk baseball, as a lot of members find a kinship with each other based on their love of the game.  Once a year we hold our annual national convention where we get together in a baseball city for five days, do research presentations, and hold panel discussions with former players, executives, umpires and other baseball figures.  This past year it was in Long Beach, California, and next summer (June 27-July 1, 2012) it’s going to be in Minneapolis, Minnesota.   We have a keynote speaker at the convention, and typically we try and bring in someone who we think our members would find interesting, someone who is working in baseball or around baseball.  This year we had Scott Boras, who gave a fascinating speech.  He has a bit of a mixed reputation in the baseball world but he was a real charismatic speaker and told us his story of how he ended up becoming an agent and all the groundbreaking things he’s done just in that side of the business.  It was really enjoyable to listen to and get his perspective on things. 

Q:  Where are your headquarters located?  Is it a large operation?

A:  We have a very small office located in Phoenix, Arizona.  We were in Cleveland, Ohio, for the last 20 years, but moved to Phoenix this past spring because it’s the baseball capital of the world.  There’s baseball year-round with the Cactus League, half the major league teams are out here for spring training, and of course you’ve got the Arizona Diamondbacks during the season, and then the Arizona Fall League brings a lot of people out during October and November.  The office is small; we have four full time employees.  Here at the office we have a Membership Director, a Director of Operations, myself for the website, and our Executive Director, Marc Appleman.  SABR is a membership organization, so our members are the ones doing the research, they are the experts on just about any subject you can think of related to baseball.   

Q:  Can you tell us about the various SABR chapters, what their goals are, and how they interact with one another?

A:  We have about 60 regional chapters, most of them in the U.S. spread throughout the country, a couple in Canada, one in Japan, one in Puerto Rico, and one in London.  The chapters function independently; they run their own meetings and meet up whenever it is convenient for them.  The size of the chapters varies, but some of them are quite large, and each chapter is a bit of a different experience.  The Bob Davids chapter in the Washington, D.C. area has more than 200 members and they hold some pretty big meetings.  The Cooperstown chapter usually meets at the Hall of Fame a couple times a year and that’s usually about 25 people or so.  The chapters all coordinate with the national office, and we help facilitate and promote what they’re doing.  We have a calendar listing on our website so you can find out what’s going on in your area or pretty close by. 

SABR issues three magazines a year, two of which are called “The Baseball Research Journal”.  We just completed a special 40th anniversary edition this fall which contained a lot of articles talking about the evolution of baseball over the last 40 years since SABR was formed.  The other magazine is called “The National Pastime” and is published in conjunction with our annual convention, as all the articles deal with players or teams from the region where our convention is being held.  For example, last year’s convention was held in Southern California so the magazine dealt with Dodgers and Angels players and stories.  Next year it will be Minnesota based. 

Q:  SABR has various research committees (i.e. Black Sox Scandal Research Committee).  Can you give a high level overview of these committees and how particular issues are selected?   Do members find it difficult to research topics that in some cases pertain to subjects that go back over 100 years? 

A:  It can be, but the internet has really changed the game when it comes to baseball research over the last 10-15 years.  There is a lot more information that is available than their used to be.  When SABR was formed back in 1971, members had to go back through a lot of handwritten sources, old newspapers, and it was very tough to find information.  Fortunately these guys were dedicated and over time they were able to build the databases and build the research.  So now today you can go and look up every stat from 1871 when the first professional league started up until present day and call it up instantly on Baseball-reference.com or Retrosheet.org, both of which are run by SABR members.  The reason you can find this information on the internet so quickly is because of SABR members' research.  We have something called the Home Run Encyclopedia, and all that information is now on Baseball-reference.com, so you can look up every home run that has ever been hit in the Major Leagues since 1876.  The research committees have been able to do the research and get the research out there so that everyone can access it. As I said, that’s our mission: to circulate the best research and get it out there for public consumption.  The more information people can access and the more people know, the more we can appreciate baseball and the more we can learn about it. 

As for research topics and the various committees, most of the time individual members are doing their own research, but we do have some group projects.  For example, I’m also the Chairman of the Black Sox Scandal Committee; I’ve been an active SABR member since 1998, long before I was hired by SABR.  In our Black Sox Scandal Committee we have a discussion group and anything interesting that comes up regarding the Black Sox a member will post something on our discussion group and we’ll talk about it and just kind of hash over some ideas.  We are in the process of writing a book on the 1919 White Sox, which will contain biographies of all the players, coaches, and all the people associated with the 1919 White Sox.  This is being produced in conjunction with one of our other committees which is called the BioProject Committee — the Baseball Biography Project.   You can go on their website (bioproj.sabr.org) to look up all the biographies that SABR members have written.  We are hoping, ambitiously, to publish a biography on every player who has ever played in the Major Leagues, which is a lot easier said than done.  We have roughly 1,700 biographies published already and all these have been peer reviewed. 

Q:  Any particular issue(s) tackled by the research committees that you find most interesting?  Or is there a topic you would like to see studied in more depth in the future?

A:  Anything that anyone is interested in we are more than happy to help people with their research and facilitate their research.  Some of the best research that is going on right now is digging into the origins of baseball back in the 1700’s, 1800’s, and even earlier than that looking at bat-and-ball games around the world.  So there’s some really fascinating research that’s going on into the very early history of the game.  I don’t know if you're familiar with John Thorn — he was named MLB’s Official Historian last year, you've probably seen him on the MLB Network quite a bit lately — and he is heading up MLB’s Origins Committee.  We also have a SABR Origins Committee and John is an active member of that.  All this great research is being done by the best baseball minds around, and it is really exciting to see all this great work come out.  A good deal of it gets published in our “Baseball Research Journal” and on the SABR website throughout the year.  One of our newer committees is the “Baseball Card History and Influence” Research Committee, exploring the history of baseball cards and how the industry has evolved through Topps and Bowmans in the early days all the way up to all the insert cards and everything now.  It’s a very niche subject but a lot of people are interested in it so some members formed a committee and people are hard at work doing research on that subject.  Hopefully in a few years you will see some really cool research on the evolution of baseball cards.  Basically any topic that anyone is interested in they can do the research and SABR’s really the best organization to be a part of. We’ve got a committee dedicated to women in baseball, a committee dedicated to the business of baseball, the minor leagues, and the science of baseball.  Our members are researching every aspect of baseball you can think of.  It’s mind-blowing to think of all the different topics people are interested in and how they can apply their love of baseball to educate the rest of us.  It’s a lot of fun to be a part of.  

Q:  How does SABR relate to sabermetrics? 

A:  SABR and sabermetrics have a long history together.  Sabermetrics, the reason that word exists is because Bill James (a long-time SABR member) was trying to come up with a word to define what he was doing with statistical analysis back in the 1970s and 1980s in one of his “Baseball Abstracts”, and in 1980 he created the word sabermetrics.  This term honors our organization and it also defines what he does, which is analyzing baseball in an objective manner.  Our organization is much more varied; sabermetrics and the people who are doing statistical analysis are just one part of SABR.  We have a lot of members who do statistical analysis and are practicing sabermetrics, using objective analysis, but we also have a lot of people who are doing the historical research, too.  It’s kind of a big spectrum, some people doing one or the other, and others combining the two, applying statistical analysis to historical research. 

In March 2012 we are holding our inaugural SABR analytics conference.  It’s essentially going to be a huge sabermetrics conference, and is going to bring together many of the top minds in the baseball industry.  The conference will span three or four days and will be held in Phoenix, Arizona, during the Cactus League (spring training). We are going to be having research panels and presentations on technology in baseball.  We will talk to managers and general managers about how analytics has changed their job, looking at the new tools like Pitch f/x and Hit f/x, tools that use video analysis to determine exactly where balls are hit and exactly where fielders are positioned, really ground-breaking stuff.  We’ve already lined up some pretty big speakers; Tom Ricketts (Owner of the Cubs), Derrick Hall (President of the Diamondbacks), and Mark Shapiro (President of the Indians), and we'll be adding more as we go along.  We’ve never held a conference dedicated to statistical analysis and sabermetrics, so it’s really filling a void in the baseball industry and baseball community in general and is generating a lot of buzz and interest. (To learn more about this conference, go to sabr.org/analytics). 

Q:  Have you seen the interest in the Society increase over the past 5-10 years as interest in sabermetrics has taken off? 

A:  Interest in SABR has increased as interest in baseball has increased.  When Bill James' books became pretty popular in the early 1980s we had a pretty big membership jump, and then in the 1990s, after the strike when people started coming back to baseball, we had a pretty big jump as well.  Our membership is about 6,000-6,500; we’ve got members who are doing pretty much everything.  We’ve got writers, we’ve got people who are working for teams and in the front office, and we’ve got former players.  It’s a really a wide variety of different baseball fans who are members of our organization. 

Q:  How do you feel SABR is received or thought of by the baseball community as a whole?  Does the Society have much (or any) interaction with the MLB Commissioners Office, Teams, Scouts, Executives, Players, etc.? 

A:  One of the reasons we moved to Phoenix was to be a larger part of the baseball community, and really become ingrained in the baseball community because at times we’ve kind of been on the outside.  Obviously when sabermetrics was first getting started, a lot of old-school baseball people were skeptical of it.  It’s always been an ebb and flow situation of how we were perceived, but since we’ve moved out to Phoenix we’ve already been able to start getting integrated into the baseball community.  I think more people appreciate what we do now, and all the groundbreaking knowledge that SABR members have brought to baseball.  The reason you can look up any stat you want on Baseball-reference.com is because SABR member Sean Forman runs that site, and most of the research data he uses comes from SABR members.  I think people really appreciate what we do now and it's showing.  Whenever we go to an event such as the Winter Meetings, we get a lot of people in baseball, who’ve worked in baseball, and who know the game really well that are choosing to be involved with SABR.  I think that speaks well for what we’ve done, and what we’re doing, and our reputation among baseball people, which we are really proud of. 

Q:  For fans of baseball, baseball history, what are the benefits of joining SABR?  How does one become a member?

A:  All you have to do is go to our website (sabr.org) and we’ve got a link at the top of the page that says “join”.  We offer one-year memberships and three-year memberships, and have discounts for students and seniors.  Prices are $45 a year for the discounted rate and $65 for adults.  For your dues you get 3 magazines a year, and every week you get a “This Week in SABR” via email.  In this email, which I send out each Friday, I compile updates on the great research our members have done, and it serves more or less as a membership newsletter.  Membership allows you to be a part of the regional chapters and go to their meetings throughout the year; you get a big discount on registration if you come to the SABR convention, our analytics conference, or our Negro league conference.  You also get access to our various research resources, such as a complete run of “The Sporting News” from 1886 on.  For people who are actively conducting research we have the member directory so you can look up any of our 6,000 members and contact them for guidance or to share ideas.  For instance, if you are doing research on a particular topic and you need to find people who are experts in that subject, you can easily look members up and get in touch with them.  This has always been one of the great benefits of being a member.

Many thanks to Jacob for taking the time to discuss all the innovative work being performed by SABR members to enhance the baseball knowledge of fans everywhere. 

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