Daniel R. Levitt recently won the Bob Davids Award from the Society for American Baseball Research, the Society’s highest honor. In recognition of that award, Dan discusses some of his writing career below.
Recently winning the Bob Davids Award from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) has made me think back on how my passion for baseball research in general and SABR in particular evolved. I have always been interested in baseball and history and the interactions among all the various actors and forces in shaping outcomes. My reading and research has often veered toward trying to gain a better of understanding of why things turn out the way they do—an impossible undertaking in the broadest sense, yet gratifying when one comes across some small but meaningful nuggets. For example, for nonfiction, non-baseball reading I gravitate toward books that synthesize portions of history, either long story arcs or shorter episodes. Two books I particularly like that fit the former are William McNeil’s The Pursuit of Power and David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.
I first became acquainted with SABR and its journals when I purchased a copy of the Baseball Research Journal (the society’s flagship publication) while a teenager on a family visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I joined SABR several years later in 1983 as a college student—I’m fairly certain mine was the only fraternity house in Madison that had the SABR newsletter and BRJ coming in the mail. For a number of years I was simply a happy consumer of the baseball research SABR published. Several years after moving back home to Minneapolis I joined SABR’s local chapter.
My own start in writing for SABR came in 1995 when I came across an entry in an old sports encyclopedia that credited Ferdie Schupp with the single season ERA record of 0.90 in 1916, more recently usually credited to Dutch Leonard for his 0.96 ERA in 1914. After further research it was clear that Schupp was the acknowledged leader at the time and for many years thereafter. Based on the tenet that we don’t retroactively re-award titles because of changes in the qualifications for league leadership, only actual errors in the playing record, I concluded that Schupp should still be recognized as the ERA leader for 1916 and consequently, the single season record holder (Schupp pitched only 140 innings that season). I decided to write up my findings and submit the article to SABR. It was a thrill when my article was published in the 1996 BRJ.
My first book came several years later, a byproduct of my first collaboration with Mark Armour. As an aside, one of the great things about SABR is all the friendships one forms, and I have gained many great friends through both local chapter and my involvement at the national level. I first met Mark at an annual convention and over the next several years we corresponded by email on various aspects of team building—why some teams were successful and some weren’t. After a year or two, we thought that we might have the makings of a book. We put together a couple of chapters on specific teams we thought were interesting and contacted Christina Kahrl, the sports editor at what was then Brassey’s. We knew Christina a little through SABR, and Mark also knew her through Baseball Prospectus. Essentially we asked Christina to review our work and let us know if she thought we had the makings of a publishable book. And if so, did she have any advice on how to proceed. Fortunately, not only did Christina think we had a book, she said Brassey’s would publish it. That submission eventually became Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way, which came out in 2003 (and is currently available through the University of Nebraska Press).
Once we were well into Paths to Glory, I realized I really enjoyed synthesizing disparate facts and events into a coherent story, especially one that hadn’t been fully explored previously. And the research on how teams were built led me to Ed Barrow, the Yankees first general manager, mainly because readers often asked why we didn’t include various Yankee teams. This is not atypical; usually when I find a topic fascinating enough (to me anyway) to spend several years immersing myself in, it has come out of previous research. Accordingly, I spent the next five years researching and writing a biography of Barrow, titled Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2008.
Likewise, research on Barrow’s baseball career led me to a deeper interest in the Federal League: he had been the president of the International League during that minor league’s struggle against the Federal League. For the Barrow biography I needed to examine the Federal’s and their impact, so I had a pretty solid base of information to start investigating a full length, comprehensive book on the battle. The end product of those efforts, The Battle that Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy, came out in 2012.
Ever since Mark and I wrote Paths to Glory, we talked about how our thinking had further evolved and if there were other teams that we ought to examine. One of the sillier serious reviews we received of Paths to Glory complained that, in effect, we failed to provide a recipe for success, as if such a thing were even possible. In a direct competition, where every action draws a reaction, there can be no simple listing of steps that lead to success. Moreover, in an industry where people shift between organizations on a regular basis, it is not possible to maintain trade secrets for more than a short period of time.
Nevertheless, one can, as we did in Paths to Glory, identify differences between teams that succeeded and teams that struggled and distill why some teams performed demonstrably better than others. As we considered a new book to explore additional teams, we also sought out larger themes that might be highlighted, and eventually concluded we had something new to add the existing scholarship. We titled the book In Pursuit of Pennants: Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball, and it essentially has two orientations. First, the concept of Moneyball (the idea that using analytics can help a team find market inefficiencies in the value of baseball players), for example, is simply one of many larger ideas that teams have implemented throughout history to gain an advantage. The best franchises have always realized that to create a long-term successful organization, management must discover and institutionalize a competitive advantage, either by creating or responding to a change in the way the business operates. Second, there has been a continuous evolution in the nature and size of baseball front offices; we further explore how this has affected team building.
Pursuit of Pennants represents the culmination of more than twenty years investigating the nature of team building, why some teams achieve long term success and others struggle for many years. That I was also the recipient of SABR’s Bob Davids Award clearly makes this spring the highpoint of my baseball research endeavors. My writing career would not have been possible without the support and friendship of many members. To be recognized by the society to which I owe so much is truly an honor.