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Notes from the SABR conference in Chicago

A heaping helping of history for first-time attendee, long-time researcher

Carlos May, Ron Kittle and Mike Huff represented the White Sox on the players' panel.
Carlos May, Ron Kittle and Mike Huff represented the White Sox on the players' panel.

It's a shame that the White Sox weren't playing in Chicago this past weekend, because the Society for American Baseball Research's 45th annual conference, which occupied the Palmer House like SoxFests of yore, had to hit a Cubs game instead. Boooooooo.

I've been a SABR member for a few years for the historical research benefits, but I hadn't yet hit a conference. And everybody knew it:

But it didn't take me long to figure out how it worked -- hit the panels and presentations for the knowledge, and then go to the bar(s) for the people.

Anyway, some things that stood out:


We're familiar with the way Ron Kittle owns a room, and he stole the show at the White Sox players' panel, drawing the biggest reactions for his stories (Greg Luzinski throwing pizzas out a hotel window in Toronto) and blunt opinions about players (calling Frank Thomas "The Big Skirt" for not wanting to fight*) and fans (reinforcing the Wrigley Field stereotypes).

(*Which was wrong. More on this later when I can completely trace the audio vs. video accouns.)

But Mike Huff wasn't far behind as a story-teller, rehashing his first MLB at-bat against Tom Glavine, and how he was enlisted to help Michael Jordan become an outfielder. (When Kittle told Huff he did a terrible job, Huff replied, "I got him playing basketball again, didn't I?") He held the audience's attention and drew plenty of laughs, which is maybe why he's the go-to bench guy for the broadcast booth, even if it's never quite translated there.

Carlos May was a man of fewer words, which made his to-the-point references to a bad first marriage, drinking with the Yankees and "gas-passing" teammates all the more surprising.


I'd known the White Sox flirted with moving to Milwaukee during the late 1960s under Arthur Allyn's ownership, playing nine "home games" at County Stadium in 1968, and 11 of them in 1969. I also knew it didn't take, obviously.

Still, I enjoyed Dennis Degenhardt's concise 20-minute summary of the tryst, which began with an overflow crowd of 51,000 -- some of whom had to stand on the warning track -- watching the Sox and Twins play a random exhibiton game in July, which seems like the most unlikely idea of all.


And just like that, you're carrying Roland Hemond's baby.


The Cubs -- William Wrigley and William Veeck Sr. in particular --  are often associated with pushing baseball onto radio against other owners' wishes starting in the 1920s, but James Walker says the White Sox followed their lead to put pressure on the American League side.

WGN started dabbling in baseball broacasting by covering the postseason City Series between the two clubs in 1924. WMAQ then started broadcasting all Cubs home games in 1925, with WGN eventually filling out its schedule in 1927.

That same year, the American League lifted its blanket ban on radio broadcasting. Charles Comiskey was the most aggressive of AL owners in getting his club on air. WGN picked up the Sox, and WMAQ soon followed. Both teams had to battle it out with radio-resistant owners, who believed it would hurt attendance. That wasn't the case, and once radio rights started bringing in real money, teams stopped fighting about it.


Speaking of Veecks, a presentation from Andy McCue argued that Bill Veeck wasn't as fan-friendly an owner as his Hall of Fame plaque might lead you to believe.

McCue steered clear of the foundation of Veeck's reputation -- his progressive attitude, his approachability, his promotional flair, his courage -- and focused mainly on his deficits with attention span, and, more importantly, money.

Older White Sox fans are familiar with those characteristics, having watched him trade younger for older after the 1959 season and scramble to manage a payroll in the 1970s. McCue argued that Veeck could have avoided the latter situation if he were willing to cede some power to more moneyed ownership partners. Instead, he preferred complete control, which he often used to tweak fellow owners who were more powerful than him. That didn't help, either.


More than the presentations, the conference allowed me to finally meet people whose work I have followed and shared here for years.

People like CSN Chicago's Chris Kamka. FanGraphs' David Laurila. Latin baseball historian and Minnie Minoso advocate Adrian Burgos Jr. Preeminent Negro Leagues researcher Larry Lester. ESPN Stats & Info's Mark Simon. Major League Baseball official historian John Thorn (who I saw again on my flight home). creator Sean Forman (who I had to resist hugging). Not to mention others I have Internet-known for years, through SB Nation, the SweetSpot Network, or Baseball Think Factory.

In this sense, it reminded me of a South Side Sox meetup, except on a national scale. And with fewer injuries. And more PowerPoint. Perhaps we need PowerPoint.