When the subjects are baseball and music, Bill Nowlin is about as knowledgeable as they come. The Vice President of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Nowlin is also a co-owner of both Rounder Books and Rounder Records, the latter of which produced the 2009 Grammy Award-winning collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. The author of over 20 books on baseball, Nowlin also serves as the publications editor for the Ted Williams Museum.
David Laurila: In a nutshell, how would you describe the Society for American Baseball Research?
Bill Nowlin: SABR has close to seven thousand members, with a wide variety of interests. By no means is everybody in the society actively doing research. Some members simply enjoy seeing the publications that come out, and feel like they’re supporting the people who are doing baseball research. As you know, we have people writing biographies; we have people who are interested in collecting photographs and cataloguing the pictorial history of baseball. We have people whose specialty is Asian baseball, the Negro Leagues, the Deadball Era; we have a lot of people who are interested in looking at baseball in the early years of the 20th century. The 19th-century committee is a big one, too.
DL: A lot of people equate SABR with sabermetrics. How much of a role does statistical analysis play within the organization?
BN: I actually just saw numbers on that, because I’m on the board. The statistical analysis committee [in SABR] is one of the biggest committees, but it still only attracts about 25 percent of the membership, so there are large portions of the SABR membership who don’t really know very much about, or follow, statistics other than in a general way. I’m not at all up on stats, but am very involved with Oral History, Bio Project, and several other committees.
DL: Do you feel that Bill James, in coining the term “sabermetrics,” inadvertently did a disservice to SABR?
BN: So many things are like that, though-one way or another. Take our record company [Rounder] for example. To many people it’s a bluegrass label; to others it’s the little folk label from Cambridge. Other people don’t know of us from either-they’ve maybe just seen some alternative rock music that we’ve put out. They haven’t got the slightest idea that we’re doing 80-year-old banjo players at the same time. So labels get put on things. But maybe it was a little unfortunate in that it leads many people to think of SABR as an exclusively stats-obsessed organization.
DL: Would it be fair to say that a primary attribute of SABR is its contribution to the historical record of baseball?
BN: Yes, I think there is a big historical component to it, and some people go to great lengths to “get it right” through genealogical research, combing through daily game accounts from decades back, and the like. If you look at the website, it’s maybe even unfortunate that almost all of the photographs are ancient photographs. That gives the idea that the focus is really old. But the 19th-Century and Deadball groups are very, very big groups. And of course there was almost no statistical analysis back then; they didn’t even keep track of things like RBI.
DL: How does history affect today’s game?
BN: That’s a good question. Does history affect today’s game? Certainly, so many players are focused so much on the present-and you have to be to excel, you have to have a lot of focus on yourself. Even if you talk about a player here, in the Boston area, like Ted Williams-a lot of today’s ballplayers, guys in their early to mid 20s, would have heard of him. They might be able to tell you that he was left-handed, or that he played for the Red Sox, or that he was a 500-home-run hitter. But they might not know all of those things. They’ll know he’s a big name from the past, and can maybe pin down the era in which he played, 1939 to 1960, but they also might think that he played in the 1950s only, if not before.
Fans of the game range from idle fans to obsessed fans, but I think there has always been kind of a respect for history. And I think that has a lot to do with some of the concern about steroids, and so forth. We want to keep these records, and we want to know who did the most of this, and the most of that, and we get upset when we think that there are things that make accurate comparisons more difficult. Of course that’s always been true, with ballpark effects, for instance. There were no night games before, more or less, the 1940s. There is the different kind of travel that has taken place, variations in the composition of the baseball, and the bats. There is ethnicity, with a far more diverse player base these days. And expansion.
DL: How do you think the “Steroids Era” will be viewed 50 years from now?
BN: It’s hard to know. A lot of these records will probably hold up; I don’t see a lot of people hitting 60 or 70 home runs in the future. But I may be wrong. Clearly, there is a more scientific way of body building and working certain muscle groups; there is better nutrition. The effect is likely to be very incremental though, and I’m not sure how quickly we would develop without a little extra assistance of one kind or another. But looking back at some of the things I mentioned, like night games, people will say, ‘Well, they didn’t play any night games in those days.’ That may become, ‘Oh, yeah, they had some steroids there for awhile.’ Fifty years from now it may kind of recede into something that isn’t more than an odd footnote.
DL: Do you see it being looked at in much the same way the Black Sox scandal is now?
BN: That’s hard to know, too. The Black Sox scandal was probably representative of a lot of other activity in the game that was simply never in the World Series and never came out. The performance-enhancing drugs thing is more widespread, as far as we know. We have these 104 people who allegedly turned up positive in 2003, in what was supposedly anonymous testing, but that turned out to be maybe not quite so anonymous.
DL: You’ve done extensive research on the life of Ted Williams. Do you think Williams would have used performance-enhancing drugs?
BN: Again, hard to know, but he was very interested in developing himself. He was a really skinny kid, and he had what we would see as a very naïve approach. He would drink five or six milkshakes a day because he knew they were supposed to help you put on weight-that’s hardly what a team nutritionist would recommend today. He was always doing exercises of one kind or another, like trying to pick up chairs with one hand. He was mainly trying to build up his wrists and forearms; those were the things he was focused on. But nothing would surprise me. Certainly, many athletes-not Ted, per se-of earlier generations wouldn’t have hesitated in the least.
DL: This past year you wrote an article in SABR’s Baseball Research Journal called “The OBP Triple Crown.” Can you talk about that a little?
BN: I think a lot about the Triple Crown, because of my interest in Ted Williams and the fact that he came so close to winning three of them. He was one-thousandth of a point off, behind George Kell. Someday we’ll go back and systematically study both of their records, Kell and Williams, to see if anybody made a mistake, the way we’ve found that other people have made mistakes. My first look at it seems to indicate that there was a mistake, and Kell was shorted a little bit, which means there would be a bigger gap-that he had an even higher average than he was credited with. I think I found one or two hits that weren’t credited to him. This is from going through day-by-day records that the Hall of Fame has and comparing them to box scores. I haven’t had time to focus on it as much as I want to, though. But as far as the article itself, the last 10 years or so people have pooh-poohed batting average and stressed OBP, so I thought: well, what if we substitute one for the other? I’m not a statistician, but this is one of those elementary types of things that is easy to do as long as you’re smart enough to know what percentage means. So I just replaced the highest batting average with the highest on-base percentage to go along with the largest number of home runs and the greater number of RBI, to see how it turns out. Babe Ruth had never won a Triple Crown under the standard definition of it, but he would have under this definition. As a matter of fact, he would have won five of them.
DL: I assume that more players than just Ruth would have won a Triple Crown by these standards?
BN: Yes, there are a quite a few more. For instance, Gavvy Cravath would have won one. Ted Williams would have won three instead of just the two. As it is, Williams and Rogers Hornsby are the only players to win as many as two-this is the standard Triple Crown, with batting average. Hornsby would still have two using OBP, and as I just said, Williams would have three because he had a higher OBP than Kell in 1959. In more recent years, you would have had Willie McCovey and Harmon Killebrew in 1969; they both would have won one. Dick Allen in 1972, Mike Schmidt, and Barry Bonds also would have won Triple Crowns. No one has won one since Yaz in 1967, but using OBP, there would have been five subsequent to that time.
DL: Changing direction a bit, your company, Rounder, came up big at the Grammy Awards, having produced the record “Raising Sand,” by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, that captured both Album of the Year and Song of the Year.
BN: Yes, and the first thing I thought, even before we won, was that winning Album of the Year is like winning the World Series; it’s like winning the Oscar for the best picture. Each industry has one award that is the pinnacle of success. In the case of the Grammy, the decision isn’t made by us putting on spikes and going out on the field and doing better than the other team. But it does have to do with several thousand voting members of the Recording Academy. To be able to vote, you have to have made some creative contributions to five or more record albums. So it’s your peers, and it is a competition, certainly.
DL: How did the collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss come about?
BN: They first met each other at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about five or six years ago. Each year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland puts on a symposium that has featured people like Lead Belly, and along with seminars and presentations there are performances from a very diverse array of musicians to show how in this case Lead Belly’s music influenced a lot of different people. Two of the musicians they brought in that year were Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. I was there myself and saw them meet each other; they hit it off pretty quick and kind of thought: wouldn’t it be cool to try to do a record together? It could have been one of those idle thoughts that just disappeared, but they did follow up. We thought that it could be pretty interesting because there is such a contrast between the two vocal styles-and personalities, for that matter. We thought it was pretty intriguing, but who knew if it was going to succeed? They could have gotten into the studio and had it turn out to be a disaster. The plan was to just spend three days-no further commitment beyond that-and try it out. As it turned out, they had a good time. The whole process was about working creatively, and the producer, T-Bone Burnett, was a key element in holding them together. So it really worked out, and they’re actually working on a second record right now.
DL: Can you address the parallels that seemingly exist between music and baseball?
BN: Well, SABR does have a Baseball and the Arts committee, which is fairly large and embraces not only music, but also painting, poetry, and so forth. I’m obviously interested, and active, in both areas, and I find that there are a lot of people who are interested in both baseball and music. I meet an awful lot of people like that, and maybe it’s just because they’re both popular forms of entertainment-people enjoy those kinds of diversions. I never try to get too philosophical about it, but baseball has elements to it that make it more of an individual sport than a team sport. You’re not one of eleven guys lined up and running routes simultaneously, like in a football game. And basketball is so fast that I’m not even sure what they’re doing half the time, though they certainly seem to have plans worked out in advance. Baseball is so much more a one-on-one competition, and appreciating music, in many regards, is an individual experience; no two people can appreciate it the same way. A lot of ballplayers have a particular interest in popular music, and the same is true with musicians and baseball. Emmylou Harris is a huge baseball fan; she could tell you any day during the winter how many days it is until opening day. George Thorogood, who was one of [Rounder]’s first acts, is a big fan. Michael Bolton is a big baseball fan. Musicians are just like regular people: some of them are simply a little more nuts about baseball than others.