Who’s Who in Baseball celebrates 100 years of beautiful simplicity

My latest for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana:


I walked into Walgreen’s the other day, and there it was on the magazine rack: The 2015 edition of “Who’s Who in Baseball.”

The annual book had its familiar red cover. Mike Trout is the featured player this year with smaller head shots of last year’s Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw and Corey Kluber and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez, last year’s National League RBI champion.

Naturally, I plunked down my $9.95 for the digest-sized book. It’s a late winter/early spring ritual for me dating back more than four decades. Did I actually write 40 years? I actually had some heart palpitations with that sentence as the years start to add up when you hit your mid-50s.

I came along just past the book’s midpoint in its history. The annual series hits an important milestone this year. To celebrate, Lyons Press has published “100 Years of Who’s Who in Baseball.”

Long before baseball got bombarded with statistics measuring every possible metric, “Who’s Who” put out its first book in 1912 with a drawing of Ty Cobb on the cover. It has been published continuously beginning with the 1916 edition featuring the then 29-year-old Cobb.

The beauty of the book always has been its simplicity. In alphabetical order, “Who’s Who” runs a headshot in black-and-white with the statistics of every player in Major League Baseball for that particular season.

You won’t find any elaborate biographical sketches of the star players or analytical breakdowns of the Yankees’ starting rotation. There are plenty of other outlets to get that information.

Readers also won’t see any of the modern numbers like OBP (on-base percentage) or WAR (wins-above-replacement). Perhaps those statistics are coming down in the line. After all, “Who’s Who” always has been slow to change. In the foreword to the 100th book, Marty Appel notes the book didn’t include homers until 1940.

Appel writes: “And so the 1928 edition gives the reader games, at-bats, runs, hits, stolen bases and average. The reader would know that (Babe Ruth) had seven stolen bases in 1927, but not 60 home runs. Crazy.”

Indeed, “Who’s Who” is the Sergeant Joe “Just the facts, ma’am” Friday version of baseball books. Appel nails it when he writes, “(The book) is comfort food for the baseball soul—always has been.”

“Who’s Who” allows the reader to follow the arc of a player’s career. It is awe inspiring to see how the mosaic of numbers illustrates greatness for the elite players. Albert Pujols always has been one of my favorites, and I love looking at the St. Louis portion of his career. Year-after-year of 120-plus runs scored, homer totals that peaked at 49 in 2006 and the league-leading .359 average in 2003. Unfortunately, he has declined with the Angels, putting a smudge on his overall record in “Who’s Who,” but I still go wow whenever I turn to his page.

Derek Jeter still is listed in this year’s book with a line noting he retired on Oct. 30, 2014. Again, the statistics are staggering, especially when you look at his post-season record that nearly takes up a full-page in the book. While Alex Rodriguez has tainted his career, his early numbers with Seattle (.358, 36, 123 in his first full season) are something to behold.

Mostly, though, I pick up “Who’s Who” and turn to a random page and examine that player’s statistics. For instance, there’s Aramis Ramirez on page 143. Did you know he former Cubs and current Brewers third-baseman has 369 career homers? Or that Curtis Granderson, on page 69, led the American League with 119 RBIs in 2011?

On page 345, I can chart the decline of Justin Verlander, who went from 2.40 ERA during his MVP season in 2011 to 4.54 last year. His strikeouts also dropped to 159, the first time he was below 200 Ks since 2008. Like the Tigers, I also felt his pain since Verlander was a big disappointment on my 2014 fantasy team.

The 100-year edition of “Who’s Who,” edited by Douglas Lyons and the book’s staff, is a trip down memory lane. It features the covers of every book. Babe Ruth appeared twice as a young player in 1920-21. Joe DiMaggio was featured for the first time in 1942; Mickey Mantle made his debut in 1957.

Remarkably, Appel writes that Hank Aaron, Jeter, Yogi Berra and Jackie Robinson never were featured on the cover. Meanwhile, Eddie Fisher, a knuckleballer for the White Sox, was on the cover for the 1966 edition for what turned out to be his only All-Star appearance in 1965. Some things aren’t fair.

I figure I probably purchased my first “Who’s Who” in 1971 when I was 11; Johnny Bench, listed as “John,” was the main player on the cover. I was a baseball-obsessed kid who couldn’t wait for the new season to start. Beginning in late February, I’d make the daily trek to Stineway’s, the area’s drugstore, eager to get my hands on the baseball preview magazines and the new “Who’s Who.”

My obsession has dulled through the years. I couldn’t name more than five players on the current Mets, but I could recite the lineup and rotation for the ’69 World Series winners.

Time moves on. Perhaps I continue to buy “Who’s Who” because it represents an important link to my past? If so, that’s a good thing. It’s always good to feel like a kid again.

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