There are days in all of our lives that we’d like to forget, days we wished had not happened. Days that place matters in perspective. Today is the anniversary of one of those days. And while we might have been talking the sale of the Braves, or owners approving the deal for MLB Extra Innings and the MLB Network, today is reserved for something more important.
Three years ago today, the baseball research community was hit by shocking news: Doug Pappas, the founder of SABR’s Business of Baseball committee and an author for Baseball Prospectus, had died. The circumstances of his death seemed unbelievable-he died of heat prostration while vacationing at Big Bend National Park in Texas. It didn’t sound right. “What? Doug is dead? He died how?!?” Emails, phone calls, message boards, and blogs spread the news. Doug’s own blog became a point where many met to leave final words of thanks and well-wishes. At 41, one of the most respected and prodigious baseball researchers was gone.
I’ve been wanting to write about Doug for a while-it seemed a matter of when best to write, not if. The distance between three years ago and now might be that time, to introduce him to those who may not have heard of him and his work, while leaving enough of a buffer from the painful event to reflect more on what he was about to those that did know him.
Maybe the best thing I can say about him is that he influenced a great many people and left an indelible mark. After his passing, Gary Gillette and I took over running the Business of Baseball committee in SABR, and worked to extend and protect Doug’s legacy. Through that, I saw much of Doug’s raw data that he worked from, which can only be described as amazing. His historical payroll information is tens of thousands of rows long, some of it dating back to the 1890s, reflecting countless hours culling through The Sporting News and other sources. To this date, SABR has yet to publish the information, mostly due to being unable to allocate the resources necessary to try and validate the data. To this date, it is one of the biggest baseball treasures that needs to be addressed, given the effort Doug placed into it, and the incredible value it would have to researchers if made available.
Doug wrote about topics beyond baseball’s business history with the talent of a gifted wordsmith. Whether it was writing of Jake Powell: The John Rocker of the 1930s, or Marge Schott’s removal from Major League Baseball, the collection of material he did just for Boston Baseball was something special.
His work for Baseball Prospectus is some of-if not the-best work he did. His most well known work became visible through Michael Lewis’ Moneyball . Doug’s Marginal Payroll/Marginal Wins work from Baseball Prospectus 2004 was something that Lewis described as Billy Beane often obsessing over, and became part of what was deemed to be “Moneyball.”
As he wrote in March of 2004, breaking down the club’s finances with MW/MP from 1977-1979:
The easiest way to measure front office efficiency is simply to divide a club’s payroll by its wins to come up with “dollars per win.” However, neither side of this equation reflects reality. The worst team a club can field won’t go 0-162, and despite some owners’ best efforts, it’s impossible to spend $0 on a major league roster. It’s then necessary to look at marginal wins and marginal payroll. The Marginal Payroll/Marginal Wins (MP/MW) system evaluates the efficiency of a club’s front office by comparing its payroll and record to the performance it could expect to attain by fielding a roster of replacement-level players, all of whom are paid the major league minimum salary.
He then went of to show the formula for the metric as:
(club payroll – (28 x major league minimum) / ((winning percentage – .300) x 162)
As I mentioned earlier, Doug was incredibly prodigious, churning out even more data using the metric when he released the figures for 1980-1984. However, many feel his series called The Numbers to be his best work. Based off of what is, to this day, the most recent and complete accounting of MLB’s finances, Doug ripped through the figures released by MLB in eight parts, taking on Selig’s message on the overall financial state of MLB at the time.
There were two things that worked in Doug’s favor on the series. First, having the data that was released by MLB when Commissioner Selig testified before Congress in December of 2001 was a goldmine (view the financial details that Pappas worked from here on USAToday.com). Selig published the figures as he and the other 30 owners looked to make their case for contraction of two teams. In the opaque world of Major League Baseball’s finances, Doug now had more information than had been made available to the public to work with.
He also honestly despised Selig for what he saw as MLB fleecing the public out of hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies. As he wrote in The Numbers: Part Eight :
After terming Forbes‘s numbers “pure fiction,” the Commissioner lamented, “I think it’s a very sad day for journalism in America when somebody knowingly writes something that is not only not true but has been told it is not true.”
Apparently in the hermetically sealed world inhabited by the Commissioner and his minions, “good journalism” means printing what you’re told. “Good journalism” means uncritically accepting MLB’s insistence that it has publicly disclosed all relevant information concerning its finances, even though MLB doesn’t act like an industry on the brink of financial ruin and even though it wouldn’t let the MLBPA tell Congress what it found among MLB’s non-public financial documents.
In the real world, where Selig wields his precious Blue Ribbon Panel report as a club to demand givebacks from the players and new stadia from the taxpayers of Minnesota, Kansas City, Miami, and Oakland (to list just the clubs threatened during Bud’s 2002 Extortion Across America tour), any writer meeting the Commissioner’s standards of “good journalism” should be fired. Unless and until MLB allows an independent outside auditor to review all its financial records, and to disclose the results publicly in a report whose contents are not subject to MLB’s prior review and control, its self-serving statements should be afforded no more deference than those of any other special-interest pleader.
How much did Pappas dislike Selig? So much so that he had a clock on his blog counting the days, minutes, and seconds until Selig was to retire. Myself and others wondered if Doug cursed from the grave upon hearing that Selig had accepted a contract extension to 2009. The clock was reset, and it still ticks today, waiting for Selig to step down.
In the time since Doug left us, the landscape of Major League Baseball has changed. The industry is awash in cash from multiple revenue streams, and Selig’s approval rating is much higher than before, no doubt in part due to labor peace. Still, Doug most assuredly would have had plenty to say about the business of baseball today, playing Selig’s foil, and taking him to task wherever necessary. Along the way, he would have added so much more valuable research for us to absorb.
Others have come along and continue to research the business side of baseball. If it isn’t Neil deMause or Nate Silver, it’s Gary Gillette or Vince Genarro. If it isn’t Vince, then it’s J.C. Bradbury. There’s a growing number of us who are looking at baseball outside the lines. Those of us who do, though, are not Doug Pappas. Doug was Doug, and the rest of us bring other talents to the table. Simply put, anyone that stretches into researching the business side of baseball will be compared to Pappas. SABR should be commended for keeping Doug’s website alive, and with that, extending his legacy and a way for us to always remember him.
Sad to say, like many of us, I did not know Doug personally. For many of us correspondence came from a distance, and emails are all that I can point to as my reference. My last email sent was about doing a phone interview for a Q&A to be published. “Sure, Maury, as soon as I get back from vacation,” was the message back. Somehow, I’d like to think that Doug is still traveling.
Doug was about more in life than just baseball. He loved seeing other places, as witnessed by his website being called Roadside Photos, with his baseball work nestled within. Seeing the world was as definitely Doug as MLB’s finances were. As my colleague Joe Sheehan noted, “One thing that was notable to me is that Doug was able to speak to me and make my wife welcome at the table. I know people in baseball, friends, who can’t really come off the topic and discuss other things. Doug would have been great company if neither one of us had ever heard of the game.”
So, Doug, wherever you are, I hope you are well. I can imagine when Selig feels any sharp pains in his side, it is because you are standing next to him. When many of us submit our research, I wonder if you aren’t looking over our shoulder. Wherever you are, I hope the tank is full, and the wide road stands before us, inviting us all to take a trip outside the lines.