If you have a serious interest in Negro League or Cuban baseball history, but haven’t yet discovered the work of Gary Ashwill, you might be in jeopardy of having your Baseball Dork Membership revoked. Ashwill was a member of the Negro League Research and Authors Group (NLRAG), a team charged with the responsibility of collecting and compiling statistical information from the pre-integration black leagues. Sponsored by MLB and the Baseball Hall of Fame, this historic study was used during the selection process in 2006, when 17 players and executives from the apartheid circuits were inducted at Cooperstown. After completing his work with NLRAG, Ashwill has continued to be an active researcher, contributing to conversations at the Baseball Think Factory (Hall of Merit), as well as posting copious amounts of ground-breaking material to his popular blog, www.agatetype.typepad.com. Ashwill has always let the integrity of his work speak for itself and has seemingly shied away from crass self promotion. Today, this elusive researcher- the Beethoven of Blackball Stats- lets down his guard a little bit, sharing information about the past, present and future of all things Gary A.
Gary, first of all, thanks for being a willing victim here at the blog. There’s a number of us who’ve loitered around your site over the past couple years, a gaggle of baseball history drifters and ne’er do-wells… but we know more about your work than we do about you the person. I’m sure you prefer it that way, but I was hoping you could share some non-incriminating details from your past. Where are you from? What college(s) did you attend? What was your major?
I’m from Kansas City. I went to the University of Kansas for undergrad, Duke University for grad school. Oddly, I am not really that much of a college basketball fan, though I root for the Jayhawks in a kind of disconnected, not-that-intense way. I was an English major.
What baseball team did you follow as a child? Who was your favorite player?
The Royals. My favorite player was (who else?) Amos Otis. I also liked Dan Quisenberry and Frank White (still the best defensive second baseman I’ve ever seen) and, when I was really young, Cookie Rojas, mostly, I think, because his name was “Cookie.” And of course there was the Mad Hungarian, Al Hrabosky! And Dirty Kurt Bevacqua. Whitey Herzog remains my favorite manager. One of the greatest moments in my life was when George Brett crushed that 3-run home run off Goose Gossage in game 3 of the 1980 ALCS.
Oh, I was a Cookie Rojas guy myself. When he finally hung up the cleats, after 16 years as a replacement level player, he became a replacement level coach with the Cubs here in Chicago. He had the horn-rimmed glasses, looked like an electrical engineer, and never said a word. We loved the guy!
Now, in between fawning over Amos Otis and the Quiz, you must have played some ball as a kid. What kind of ballplayer were you growing up? What position(s) did you play?
HA HA HA. I didn’t do sports that much as a kid due to health reasons, but I did play some in Little League. I was a second baseman, could run & field pretty well, but had a crappy arm and couldn’t hit. Which would make me the little-kid equivalent of…Sparky Anderson? (As a player.) If I could be any kind of player, I would be a soft-tossing lefty junkballer with an unorthodox delivery and an arsenal of weird breaking pitches. (In reality, I’m right-handed.)
I want to jump back really quick to the whole Kansas/Missouri thing for a second. I was just wondering, what is it about that area and baseball people? Bill James, Rob Neyer, Larry Lester, Phil Dixon, and Kevin (KJOK) Johnson have all lived (or passed through) there at some point in time. Please tell me I’m simply not adjusting for context here. That if I looked at NYC, for instance, I’d discover a significantly larger group of influential baseball writers and researchers. Can you put your finger on anything, or is it really a matter of coincidence (or context)?
Patrick Rock also lives in KC (on the Kansas side), I believe. I’ve thought about this, too, but really, I have no idea. Kansas City is historically a great baseball town (though David Glass has done his level best to put an end to that), so that’s probably got something to do with it. Thinking about the Negro Leagues, the Monarchs were a more prominent institution in the black community than teams in other cities, and lasted longer. Your NY Black Yankees fans, for instance, were probably never very passionate in the first place, given that the team sucked & that there were so many other options, plus that fanbase would have dissipated pretty quickly, whereas the Monarchs were still around through the 50s. So there’s a lot more civic consciousness of the Monarchs there than teams elsewhere. None of that really explains anything, though. Just think of KC and its eastern Kansas hinterland as the San Pedro de Macoris for baseball nerds.
KC is the San Pedro de Macoris for baseball nerds? I think we’ve got a bumper sticker idea in the works.
What is your day job today?
I work as a freelance editor, mostly consulting with academic writers.
Married or single?
I’m married. My wife doesn’t much like baseball, aside from the World Series, but she loves basketball, football & tennis. We also have a lot of fun following the English premiership.
How old are you Gary?
How did you first get involved in Negro League research? When did you get involved with the Negro League Researchers and Author’s Group (NLRAG)?
I started doing Negro League research on my own in 1999 or 2000, when, while working as an RA for a Duke professor, I noticed the Chicago Defender in the microfilm stacks. One of the first years I read through was 1921, and it was a big surprise to find just how much coverage there was– two or three full pages, dozens of box scores, all these teams I’d never heard of. Within a year or two I posted some fielding stats to SABR-L & the Negro League Yahoo group. John Holway & some others were kind enough to discuss them with me, and soon Dick Clark wrote to ask if I wanted to help with the NLRAG project.
What did you learn while working on the HOF/Negro League project with NLRAG?
Well, a great deal, obviously. Those were the first two seasons I finished (1928 & 1934). One thing that stood out was how much sketchier 1934 was than 1928, for a lot of reasons. In the 1920s you will find box scores for the vast majority of Negro League games in mainstream daily papers as well as the black weeklies, and most of those box scores will be pretty good. In the 1930s a lot of daily papers cut down on their box scores of non-major league games (a lot of the space was taken up by large photos), and even the black weeklies weren’t as complete in their coverage.
During my work with Strat-O-Matic, I’ve had to struggle with the stark contrasts between the pre-Depression and post-Crash coverage myself. Now, what other things did you discover during your research?
If you mean specific findings, to me one of the biggest discoveries was that the 44-year-old John Henry Lloyd did *not* hit .564 in 1928. You see that stat quoted a lot, so it’s kind of important. He hit well, but not THAT well.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the Hall of Fame data. Have I (and the other 17 people around the country who are interested in it) blown things out of proportion with our angst over not having access, or should we still be fighting for it? Over the past couple years (having busied myself with a ton of my own research), I now view that data as having become a garage full of stale, domestic beer. I mean, there’s a lot of it there, but…it’s freakin’ Budweiser. If I’m going to indulge in the spirits of baseball past, I’m resigned to focusing on the occassional vintage bottles of wine; like Phil Dixon’s work on the ’05 Philadelphia Giants, Patrick Rock’s monumental Replay achievement, or even David Lawrence’s statistical modeling efforts for APBA. Is that fair?
Well, no, it’s not fair. When the NLRAG statistics are published, they will be the Negro League equivalent of the original Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, one of the most important books in the history of baseball research. It’s a fundamental necessity. It won’t be even close to the final word on anything, of course. It won’t have pre-1920 stats, it won’t have Latin American data (I’m assuming). But it will give everyone a baseline to start with. You could look up Rap Dixon’s or Oliver Marcell’s or William Bell’s career stats, which you can’t do now (except in the outdated Negro League sections of the Macmillan)–and see them in the context of their teams and leagues. You could look up the starting line-up of the 1928 Cleveland Tigers. Or whatever. All (or most of) the things you can do at baseball-reference.com or in the ESPN baseball encyclopedia for major league players. And, like the Big Mac, it will have an influence. People will say, “Who’s this George Scales guy? How come I never heard of him?” Or Charles Blackwell, or Bus Clarkson, or Leroy Matlock.
On the earlier part of the question: I don’t know why it hasn’t been published yet, though I’ve heard various explanations. I would say that everyone who’s interested should keep on expressing that interest, so that the decision-makers get some inkling that there is an audience for it.
Obviously, I was being a bit facetious with my question. I think we both agree there’s a market for a Negro League Encyclopedia, and can appreciate the historical significance of it. When you consider this country is going through one of the most dramatic changes in it’s history right now: I think the thirst for knowledge in this particular area is only going to increase with time. Now, my personal frustration rests with the fact that whenever anybody contacts the Hall of Fame, MLB or Larry Lester, they seem to get a) the brush off, or b) a finger pointed at one of the other two groups. It all seems eerily similar to the leadership of the actual Negro National League in the late 30s and 40s, when despite entering a strong financial period in the history of the league, the leadership struggled to put aside their personal interests for the sake of the greater good.
Ah, whatever, I’ll get off my soapbox…
Let’s make a bee-line for some fun stuff: You’re a very active blogger, sharing a lot of original research material through your public web space, can you tell me how (in terms of time, emphasis, or however you wish to define it) your research efforts have changed since the HOF project wrapped up in 2006?
I started my blog well after my involvement in the NLRAG was over. The two biggest shifts in my research since I started the blog have been 1) delving into Cuban baseball and 2) more of an emphasis on biographical work: identifying players, finding birth & death dates, separating out players who have been mistakenly combined, etc. The Cuban stuff started because there was an opportunity–one of the libraries I use happens to have important Cuban newspapers on microfilm. The biographical work was originally a consequence of the statistical compilations. I couldn’t help but notice, for example, when players’ names appeared differently in box scores than in The Negro Leagues Book or Riley’s encyclopedia or other reference books. Or when somebody supposedly played for two different teams on the same day several hundred miles apart, meaning of course that they were really two different people. It was also a matter of opportunity, with the relatively recent appearance of digitized databases of historical records (census records, passenger records, draft cards, etc.), especially at Ancestry.com, to which I was introduced by Patrick Rock.
If somebody is interested in baseball history, but has never seen your blog (www.agatetype.typepad.com), what would you want them to know about your work?
I apply rigorously empirical methods to a subject that tends to be dominated by tall tales and legends. This involves anything from compiling playing statistics to investigating old mysteries to identifying players who only appear as last names in reference books. Some of it resembles Rob Neyer’s recent book on baseball legends, I guess, like investigating what really happened when Ty Cobb when to Cuba in 1910, where he was supposedly thrown out stealing two or three or seven or eleven straight times by Bruce Petway. Some of it is probably mostly intestering to obsessives like me, such as figuring our the identity of a guy named “Poree” who pitched in one game for the 1921 St. Louis Giants, or uncovering evidence that Rube Foster was really born in La Grange, Texas, rather than Calvert (orginally uncovered by Kevin Johnson & reported on my blog), and the earth-shattering revelation that his middle name might have been “Bishop.”
I think guys like you and Patrick Rock represent “Generation Next” (for lack of a spiffier catch-phrase) of Negro League researchers. Having done a couple tours of research duty myself, I sometimes think about how challenging this stuff must have been for the pioneers; people like John Holway, Dick Clark and the late Robert Peterson. I believe our work is easier these days, thanks to excel, the internet, web-based listings of library microfilm resources and digitized newspapers. We’ll, let’s be honest, it’s also easier because of the foundation of information laid down by people like Larry Lester, Donn Rogosin, James Riley and Phil Dixon. Considering how much our understanding of the segregated leagues has evolved over the past 38 years, when Peterson published the watershed Only The Ball was White, where do you think we’ll be in the next 38 years? Hell, where will our understanding and resources be in the next five years?
In the near future I hope that more and more research files and newspapers are digitized and made accessible. Also, I’m hoping that more genuine archival finds are made. After all, Neil Lanctot, as I understand it, uncovered the 1926 Hilldale scorebooks only in the 1990s. There must be more treasures like that out there, moldering in someone’s attic or forgotten at the back of some filing cabinet. Or maybe newspaper runs we don’t have now, like the Pittsburgh Courier 1920-22. And Latin American baseball. I think a LOT of great data (in addition to what we’ve already got) will become available about Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican & Venezuelan leagues in the next few years.
In 38 years we will be travelling back in time machines to record the games ourselves. Except the butterfly effect will cause all the results to be different, therby invalidating all our previous research. D’oh! Or maybe somebody will travel back to beat up Cap Anson, and segregation will never have happened in the first place.
Oh man, time travel sounds cool! Actually, I think the simulation world in 38 years will allow us to do something as close to time travel as humanly possible. I think we’ll be able to pitch to Josh Gibson or Babe Ruth in a three-dimensional world. We’ll be able to sit in the bleachers of old Yankee Stadium and watch the ’27 Yankees. We’ll bat against Nolan Ryan or Satchel Paige. It’s going to be the combination of physical athletics, video game technology and I-Max theatre stuff. Everything will be customized; whether you want to be a player, a GM, a fan—you’ll select your own reality. If you’d like, you’ll even be able to sleep with Claire Ruth. It’ll be creepy…
Ok, back to the research; the data collection or “coding” we’re doing today that’s going to make all of the future stuff possible and realistic. What’s the next challenge in blackball research?
Trying to compile and make sense of games against white semi-pro opponents. Park factors. Interpreting fielding stats–will my obsession with them result in any useful insights about, for example, how good a third baseman Ray Dandridge really was, or whether Oscar Charleston was really a great center fielder? In general, interpretation of the data, especially in the form of major league equivalencies. There’s already good work on this, as you know, at the Hall of Merit by people like Chris Cobb, Brent Moulton, and Eric Chalek. But that’s only the start. Like Mao supposedly said when asked about the consequences of the French Revolution: “It’s too early to tell.” And since there’s never been a *complete”, systemic examination of the whole record for all the players, there are bound to be surprises. I have a feeling there might be a couple of pitchers who turn our to have surprisingly good batting records, for example. If we had enough data, players like Candy Jim Taylor, Bill Pettus, or Water “Steel Arm” Davis might turn out to be better than we think. Of course, those are just hunches, informed guesses; the point is, we don’t know yet.
There are also interesting questions to ask about the larger theoretical issues, such as: what effect did not having access to good statistics have on managerial decisions? My own feeling is that in a Negro League (& semi-pro) context, pitching and flashy fielding were considered much more important than hitting. Sure, they wanted good hitters, but that’s actually soemthing that’s a little hard to judge without good statistics. It’s like Bill James said: nobody *looked* like a better hitter than Moose Skowron. When sportswriters and managers discussed the best Negro League first baseman, they were primarily talking about *fielding.* For every Mule Suttles, you had a dozen guys like George McAllister or Lemuel Hawkins or Chance Cummings. Was it just the talent available, or were they making conscious choices in favor of flashy fielding over better hitting? Also, given the small rosters, they tended to emphasize flexibility. So instead of stocking, say, left field with the best slugger they could find, they were more likely to keep a LF who could also fill in at shortstop or maybe pitch or whatever. Anyway, I think it’s another challenge to try to account for the Negro Leaguers’ unique requirements for roster construction and player evaluation.
Another challenge will be presenting the data, organizing it, and making it readily accessible to a larger audience. This might be through some Negro League version of Retrosheet, or new reference books, or (preferably) both.
We could probably talk about players all night, but allow me to throw out a couple names that have been hotly debated in recent years, Cool Papa Bell and John Beckwith.
Does Cool Papa Bell get an unfair shake by viewing him with today’s sabermetric tool box?
He was a good player, no doubt about that. What little fielding data I have on him suggests that he may have been a great center fielder, at least in terms of range (as you would expect). But was he really so fast that the records system breaks down in his case, and his case only? Is there anybody like that in major league history? Does Rickey Henderson or George Case or Lou Brock or Ty Cobb or Maury Wills or Luis Aparicio or Willie Wilson get an unfair shake? Nobody seems to think so. I know people will say, well, they were really sloppy about stolen bases, and didn’t count all of them. One time Cool Papa Bell stole 5 bases in a game but they didn’t bring the scorebook. That’s definetly true in the 1930s. But we actually have a pretty good record of the 1920s. And St. Louis box scores were very good about recording stolen bases. Bell may have stolen more bases than anyone else in the NNL of the mid-to-late 1920s. But not a LOT more.
There were other fast guys at the time. I can show you a newspaper column from 1929 in which Dizzy Dismukes says (I’m paparphrasing), “There are these two speed merchants, James Bell of St. Louis and Eddie Dwight of Kansas City. St. Louis fans will say Bell is faster, KC partisans will say Dwight. I’m going to remain neutral.”
Having done some work on Bell myself, I know he didn’t steal as many bases as the casual fan thinks. There’s really no question he had explosive speed, but he was stealing bases at the rate of about 40-50 per 154 games, sometimes less. I believe the teams he played for had a huge impact in how he was utilized at the top of the order. He spent the vast majority of his prime hitting in front of guys like Willie Wells, Mule Suttles, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard (usually two of these men at any given time). I mean, he was leading off in front of a veritable “who’s who” of the greatest hitters in the history of Negro League ball. I don’t think it was worth the risk running with that type of lumber behind him.
Now, a quickie here: Why isn’t John Beckwith in the Hall of Fame?
Questions about his “character” and defense, and also, if you are undertaking a serious analysis, a relatively short career (13-14 year) at the top level of black baseball. As a hitter, he was regarded as one of the four or five biggest stars in the Negro Leagues in that decade, just as famous as Charleston or Rogan or Joe Williams. The character stuff is complicated; he was involved in a lot of turmoil, and switched teams frequently. But the same owners he fought with (Cumberland Posey, for example) often hired him again, or tried to. He also managed a lot; after he wasn’t a big star anymore, he continued managing second-tier clubs into the 1940s. There doesn’t seem to be much support for the more fanciful stuff about his supposed frequent troubles with the law and so on. As I understand it, Beckwith’s friend Al Fennar admired him and objected strenuously to these accounts.
As for his defense: well, Negro League fielding sometimes resembles what Bill James calls a “bullshit dump.” It’s where people go to assuage their anxiety that they’re overrating Negro League players. As in the case of minor league superstars like Buzz Arlett, anybody who wasn’t constantly praised for their great fielding gets turned into a legendarily horrible fielder. It’s also a bit like something else James talked about, how when Dick Stuart hit 66 homers in the minor leagues people couldn’t process it, and dismissed it as meaningless, essentially pretending it never happened. Beckwith was a slugging shortstop/third baseman; if you actually give credit for the positions he played, he begins to look like a pretty great player. Since he was probably not a fantastic shortstop (he didn’t play the position his whole career), that turns into, “Well, he must have sucked.” Which, for some, then turns into, “He was just a hitter, and had no defensive value at all.” But compare him to a contemporary who’s in the Hall of Fame, Judy Johnson. Everybody thinks Judy Johnson was, at the least, a very good third baseman. Looking at his whole career, he played mostly third base, but with a fair number of games at shortstop (which was where he started out). To cite Bill James again, this is a good shorthand for evaluating a player’s defensive abilities–how many games he played at tougher positions than his regular one. Then turn around and look at John Beckwith–as a third baseman. His proportion of games at tougher positions (shortstop, as well as catcher) is MUCH higher than Judy Johnson’s. (You can do the same thing with Bus Clarkson and Ray Dandridge.) This doesn’t prove that Beckwith was a better third baseman than Judy Johnson. For one thing, Beckwith also spent some time at easier positions (first base and corner outfield). It does strongly suggest, however, that there couldn’t have been a HUGE difference between them in their defensive value. And there is no doubt that Beckwith was a much better hitter than Johnson.
(Just because he was almost certainly a better player than at least one Hall of Famer doesn’t necessarily make Beckwith himself a Hall of Famer, of course.)
Well, I could go on, but should probably spare you.
Well, if you could vote for five more Negro Leaguers to be included in the HOF, would Beckwith be on YOUR list? Who would the others be?
I don’t care who’s in the Hall of Fame. They’ve made such a muddle of the standards over the years that it really doesn’t mean much of anything. Plus the players I know most about aren’t around anymore to enjoy the honor. I don’t even care who’s in alternative Halls of Fame like the Hall of Merit, because the line dividing who’s in and who’s out is arbitrary and ends up splitting players who are really not that different. I *am* interested in some of the questions and issues that arise when people argue about it, though.
But I’ll play along, just for you. So, how about: Grant “Home Run” Johnson, John Beckwith, Bill Monroe, Dick Lundy, and Ed Bolden.
If we’re looking for managers, Candy Jim Taylor won more games than anyone else in the organized Negro Leagues (through 1948), and three World Series. His brother C.I. Taylor was a legendary manager, though it’s harder to quantify his achievements since they were mostly not in organized leagues. It’s not altogether clear that the Hall got the right Taylor brother.
Finally, taking in ALL of baseball history (black, white or other), give me your all-time greatest starting line-up. Eight position players, one DH, two starting pitchers, and a closer.
C Josh Gibson
1B Lou Gehrig
2B Joe Morgan (I could go with Eddie Collins, too)
SS Hans Wagner
3B Mike Schmidt
LF Barry Bonds
CF Willie Mays
RF Babe Ruth
DH Ted Williams
SP Walter Johnson
SP Lefty Grove
RP Hoyt Wilhelm
If I could add two more starters, they would be Satchel Paige and Pedro Martinez.
Oh, one more thing, I know you have a couple manuscripts in the works, are you able to share any details about what you’re working on? Do you have a publisher?
I’m currently working on *The Negro National League, 1920-22: A Statistical and Biographical Guide* for McFarland. It will include full statistics, including the kinds of breakdowns you’re doing for Strat (H/R, vs. L/R pitchers, etc.), park factor information, etc., plus a HUGE amount of new biographical data on players. What I’ve put on the blog barely scrapes the surface of what I’ve got, frankly.
I’m looking forward to it. Thanks for your time, will you come back when the McFarland book is released?
Sure. You know where to find me.