An old friend's time has passed | Frank's Place

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The 1969 edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia, with its protective box.

I still see my old friend every day. He rarely gets out anymore. Like so many others, technology has rendered him obsolete and he’s coming apart at the seams.

Over the years, we’ve spent countless hours together. If I had a question, I knew he had an answer. If I was just looking to kill time, he was there. And, while he’s a bit of a know-it-all, there’s never been a better storyteller.

He’s younger than me, born right around the time Paul Simon wrote “Old Friends,” a song that not only imagined an impossibly distant future but forecast our future relationship:

Old friends

Winter companions the old men

Lost in their overcoats

Waiting for the sunset.

Winters or summers, we had some good times, the Baseball Encyclopedia and me.

But that was before Baseball-reference.com and Baseball-almanac.com put all the information it contained, and more, at my fingertips. I don’t need my old pal much these days.

Worn, tattered and seemingly forlorn, Big Mac sits unused and unneeded in a far corner of the bookshelves adjacent to my desk. Though we occupy the same spaces, we’ve lost our connection, like the old men on the park bench in Simon’s haunting song.

First published by MacMillan in 1969, the massive Baseball Encyclopedia transformed the world for baseball junkies like me. More than 100,000 copies would be sold, no insignificant accomplishment for a 6 ½-pound book that almost 50 years ago sold for $25.

In the early days of our relationship, we’d meet in libraries or bookstores. It wasn’t until the 1980s that I made it legal and purchased my first copy of the essential reference book.

In the decades that followed, we were rarely far apart. Big Mac was always either on my desk or on a nearby shelf. Hardly a week went by when I didn’t need him for something. Sometimes I’d fetch the book merely to verify a stat and we’d end up spending the afternoon together.

The encyclopedia was a revolution, a book on sports statistics that leant a rigorous scholarship and historical zeal to the field.

Creator David Neft had been frustrated by the carelessness of previous compilations, so he determined to make his incredibly thorough and as accurate as possible.

He and his team not only painstakingly compiled the statistics of every player dating back to 1871, they verified them. They found contemporary box scores and game accounts at a time when that wasn’t easy.

Big Mac was weighty in every sense of the word. To hold it in your hands was to understand and appreciate its heft. At 2,338 pages, it was as thick and authoritative as a family Bible.

And as believers with a Bible, serious baseball fans turned to it when they needed answers or confirmations. It created order out of chaos.

“And in the beginning there were numbers, unformed and shapeless, and Neft said, `Let them be right.’ ”

I’m much more familiar with stats than Scripture, but doesn’t the Bible say there’s a time for everything? Well, sadly, the Baseball Encyclopedia’s time has passed. All its data  – and a lot of data its creators never conceived of – can now be summoned with a single mouse click.

Roaming a bookstore this past week, I wondered if it  still carried the Baseball Encyclopedia. It didn’t. The book has  been out of print since 1995. Ironically, the same technology that had made the encyclopedia redundant was transforming the bookstores that used to sell it.

The area devoted to books continues to shrink, increasingly surrounded by electronic gadgets, greeting cards, games. In the store’s sports section, “Outdoors and Survival” books occupied twice as much space as those on baseball.

As kids, in whatever age it was that proceeded our Information Age,we were starved for baseball knowledge. We eagerly consumed the meager resources available — the backs of baseball cards, the daily league-leaders in the papers, that glorious full page of stats that the Sunday Bulletin ran.

If I needed more detail, if I wanted to settle an argument or answer a trivia question, I’d call a library’s reference desk or a newspaper’s sports department and hope I got a friendly voice. (You were, by the way, a lot more likely to find a friendly voice at the library.)

The Baseball Encyclopedia changed all that. All of baseball existence was accessible.

I remember the moment I discovered one almost as well as the first encounter with my wife. In both cases, it was love at first sight.

A college junior, I was looking for a specific Periodical Guide in Temple’s library when I noticed this new blue book. I picked it up and was instantly smitten.

No matter how obscure the player, he was in there. And it wasn’t just the stats. You found out that Henry Baldwin was born in Chadds Ford in 1894, that he died 70 years later in West Chester, that he debuted with the Phillies at age 33 and was through 12 days later..

When I started at the Inquirer as a sports copy editor in 1980, I knew it was a great paper because the slot man kept a copy of Big Mac alongside his keyboard. I’d sometimes grab it on my lunch break and, in some dim newsroom corner, lose myself in its unwritten stories.

When I started writing full-time, and home became my primary workplace, I found and purchased a used copy at a yard sale.

We had a good run, a lot longer than Henry Baldwin. Now that it’s over, I won’t walk away. I’ll always keep Big Mac in my heart. And in my bookshelf.

Someday I’ll join him in retirement and we’ll sit there in my office, just a few feet apart, sharing our park bench quietly.