John McGrath: Can’t erase memories of classic ‘Who’s Who in Baseball’

Staff WriterMarch 10, 2014 

The 99th edition of “Who’s Who in Baseball” showed up last week at the drugstore, adjacent to magazines with photos of Russell Wilson hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy and LeBron James smiling in a three-piece suit and late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman depicted in a pose so pensive it’s chilling.

The cover of “Who’s Who in Baseball” shows Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw following through on his windup. Kershaw’s facial expression — a diabolic grin reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny” scene in “The Shining” — is appropriate: He knows where the ball is going, and what the ball will do when it gets there.

On page 272 of “Who’s Who in Baseball,” there’s a snapshot of Kershaw, about half an inch from top to bottom, accompanying these biographical essentials: Born Dallas, Texas, March 19, 1988. Bats Left. Throws Left. Height, 6 feet, 3 inches. Weight, 220 pounds.

No mention of a school, nor of his salary, hobbies and favorite TV show. Just the facts, thank you very much.

Underneath that thumbnail bio are Kershaw’s career stats beginning in 2006, when he broke in with the Dodgers’ Gulf Coast League affiliate. Games, innings pitched, wins and losses, winning percentage, strikeouts, walks, hits, earned-run average and saves are the only numbers listed — no advanced metrics in “Who’s Who in Baseball,” although there are two helpful footnotes to the Kershaw entry, each designated by a small letter.

“a — Selected Cy Young Award

Winner in National League for 2011.”

“b — Selected Cy Young Award Winner in National League for 2013.”

There’s a kind of beauty in the minimalist format of “Who’s Who in Baseball,” which tells the pro-career stories of more than 775 players — every trade, every trip to the disabled list, every free-agency filing, every waiver claim — without telling you anything else.

It requires part of page 30 and all of page 31, for instance, to detail the career of journeyman outfielder Endy Chavez. He has appeared in more than 100 games in a season only four times, but the six games he played with the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers last season are as worthy of documentation as Miguel Cabrera’s MVP season with the Detroit Tigers.

The first issue of “Who’s Who in Baseball” was published in 1912. It went away for a few years, then returned annually in 1916, when Ty Cobb made the cover. Much has changed about baseball since 1916, but the 2014 “Who’s Who” is little different from, say, the 1971 edition on my bookshelf.

It’s the same size, slightly larger than a paperback book, with the same red cover featuring a prominent player and smaller mug shots of three other prominent players. The back cover also is the same, with the pointless team photo of the defending World Series champions. A magnifying glass is needed to tell who is happy to be sitting in on the photo shoot and who isn’t.

Aside from the price increase (75 cents in 1971, $9.95 in 2014), the only other concession to modernity are the player photos: The team logos on all caps are visible. The logos used to be removed, presumably with an eraser and a paint brush, eliminating at least one unique baseball job from the market.

“Honey, how did work go today?”

“I spent all morning erasing the ‘A’ from Hank Aaron’s Atlanta Braves cap.”

“What did you do after lunch?”

“I erased the ‘A’ from the Atlanta Braves cap of his brother, Tommy Aaron.”

Another change I’ve noticed is that the players, in general, seem to be more cheerful than they were in 1971. A few look like they ate something for breakfast that disagreed with them — Justin Morneau, seen on page 112, evidently was photographed moments after discovering his car had been towed — but in ’71, wow, those dudes were serious.

Then again, contracts were under permanent team control in 1971. Selected players (10-year veterans who had spent at least five seasons on a team) had gained the right to veto trades, but a free agent would not collect his first jackpot until after the 1976 season.

Free agency explains why my 2014 “Who’s Who” has 359 pages, and my 1971 edition has 128. Expanding from 24 to 30 teams means more players are in the big leagues, of course, but players also are less tethered to a single organization.

Check out these names from the 1971 “Who’s Who.” Willie Howard Mays Jr. is at the top of page 48. He had just finished his 19th season, all with the Giants. Beneath Mays is Bill Mazeroski, who was preparing for his 16th consecutive season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Then come Dick McAuliffe (awaiting his 12th season with the Tigers), Tim McCarver (an 11-year vet who had spent his first 10 years with the St. Louis Cardinals) and Willie McCovey, beginning his 13th season in San Francisco.

Mays, Mazeroski and McCovey made it to the Hall of Fame, McAuliffe and McCarver were All-Stars, and there’s still enough room between pages 48 and 49 to include Tommy McCraw, Rich McKinney and Ken McMullen.

Did I mention Endy Chavez just got a whole page to himself?

Sometimes I buy a magazine or two for a long plane flight and end up leaving them on the seat after reading them. I would never do that with my 2014 “Who’s Who in Baseball,” because, for one, there’s nothing to read, exactly.

And yet there’s enough to read for, oh, the next 43 years. I can pick it up whenever — during a seventh-inning pitching call to the bullpen on a warm night in July, or another rainy morning in March — just as I do with my 1971 edition of “Who’s Who.”

The other day, on page 90, I noticed a startling photo of Bob Gibson, the Cardinals great recognized as the 1970 National League Cy Young Award winner.

Gibson’s mood is all-business — except it wasn’t Gibson, because the person in the photo, wearing an all-black cap, resembles Kevin Costner.

Somebody once employed in the lost-art occupation of painting over baseball cap logos must have taken a long lunch break.

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