This is the first of what will be 3 or 4 posts about the birth and development of BaseballLibrary.com, a sterling Internet 1.0 site still chugging along (barely) deep in the Internet 2.0 era. It shows that a good idea can sustain itself for a long time, even in the face of erratic and sometimes incompetent management (and both the idea and the mismanagement are mostly mine.) This first post tells the story of the creation of the book The Ballplayers, which was the key building block of Baseball Library. The next installment relates some interesting history about how the model for compensating for content changed in the late 1990s, but this foundation is needed first.
In late 1985, at what was one of the more difficult times of my consulting career, I was invited to a meeting to brainstorm the commercial possibilities for “The World Classics of Golf”, a book club. One person who was supposed to come to the meeting couldn’t make it. “Oh, Rodney’s working on his baseball encyclopedia.”
I pondered that as I walked home. What could that be? And then an idea hit me (although I still don’t know what Rodney’s idea was!). The Baseball Encyclopedia, then published by Macmillan and also known as Big Mac, was the complete statistical compendium, player by player, of baseball history. And what struck me was that, because of Big Mac and its power, nobody had created a normal, regular, plain vanilla baseball encyclopedia: one where you could look up a player (or a team or an umpire or a baseball announcer) and read about him.
The idea of creating such a thing fascinated me and felt like something I could do. I had spent more hours of my waking life on baseball than on any other single thing. I knew (and know) a lot. I was also a member of a young organization called SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, and I knew there were lots of people who knew even more than I did who could be rounded up to help. But I also knew this was a big project and I’d need help to figure it out.
So I went to Jim Charlton, an experienced book packager and a fellow baseball aficionado with the idea. My startlingly naive notion was that Jim would just execute my idea for half the take. Jim probably just didn’t believe that I meant he’d do all the work, so he agreed. And together, we planned out the book that was later called (somewhat misleadingly) The Ballplayers.
At that time, if memory serves, there were about 14,000 people who had been active major leaguers in the 20th century (which is when the “modern era” of baseball begins.) By eliminating hitters who had fewer than 500 at-bats and pitchers with fewer than 100 innings of work, we got the number down to a manageable one, about 5,000. With the addition of some other players (from the 19th century and some who were worthy of inclusion despite having missed the cut-off), teams, leagues, announcers, sportswriters, owners, and umpires, we developed a list of 6,000 individuals who would get bios. By ranking all of them for their historical value (arbitrarily), we divided them into groups so that the most important players would get proportionately longer listings. And that enabled us to estimate the total length of the book, which was around 700,000 words and (we thought this was smart) about 500 photographs.
Thanks largely to Jim’s contacts and sales skills, we sold the book in a mini-auction to Arbor House, an imprint of William Morrow, for $165,000, a pretty huge sum at that time. And then we got to work, paying a small per-entry fee to a long list of writers we recruited, mostly through SABR. We then recruited two recent college graduates, Shep Long and Steve Holtje, to help us coordinate and manage the project. Holtje stayed until the end and became Managing Editor.
But by this time, Jim had figured out that I really was serious about him doing all the work and, for half the money, that wasn’t a very good deal. So we had to renegotiate. I cut the pie and then offered him his choice of slices. We’d split the take 85-15. The one who got the 85 would do all the work and have to pay all the expenses. Jim decided to take the 15. So this project became my baby.
We completed the manuscript on time (with the help of an extended schedule) in the Fall of 1989. John Thorn, a veteran baseball book creator with an extraordinary list of credits, was commissioned to provide the photographs, which he did with his colleague Mark Rucker. And in Spring 1990, The Ballplayers, a 7-pound, 1330-page tome, hit the bookstores with a retail price of $35.
By this time, Morrow had shuttered the Arbor House imprint. The Ballplayers may have been the last book released with that colophon. That meant nobody in the shop had a stake in the book. So they printed 35,000 (probably the number required for the house to break even; that was an even more common practice in those days.) They advanced about 20,000 and ended up selling about 22,000. And by the end of 1993, the book was ready to be remaindered and for the rights to revert to me.
The work had achieved a little bit of fame: a kind review in Sports Illustrated and an appearance by me to promote it on Good Morning America were the highlights (thanks to an independent publicist I hired; we got almost no PR from our publisher.) It was still the only reference book of its kind. In the meantime, Jim Charlton had created The Baseball Chronology, which was a day-by-day account of baseball history. That was really the only competition to The Ballplayers. It was published by Macmillan which should have given it a better chance. But a couple of years later, it joined The Ballplayers on the remainder table and out of print.
I was aware that we had made a major publishing mistake with The Ballplayers by including the 500 photographs and setting it in a pretty loose design and a big trim size. These things made the book bigger and heavier than it needed to be. A straight-text rendition with smaller type might would have been more portable and could have been priced at $20. But that was water over the dam.
On the other hand, I now owned several hundred thousand words of baseball biography text and the internet era was just beginning. That would create a new opportunity, which will be where we will take up this subject again in a subsequent post.