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Quechee resident helps create digital files from baseball index card collection

  • F.X. Flinn, of Quechee, Vt., has completed a six-year research scanning project for Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • The six-year project for SABR should enhance the ability of fans and researchers alike to deeply delve into the history of the game. images Courtesy Society for American Baseball Research

  • Digitized versions of index cards from the collection of The Sporting News tracking the professional baseball histories of Lebanon native and former Boston Red Sox pitcher Rob Woodward, left, and Dartmouth College legend Red Rolfe, right. The cards and some 180,000 others like them — covering more than 100 years of TSN accumulation — were recently converted to digital files as part of a project overseen by Quechee’s F. X. Flinn. Courtesy Society for American Baseball Research

  • Red Rolfe card

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 12/28/2019 10:47:44 PM
Modified: 12/28/2019 11:09:02 PM

QUECHEE — The slightly yellowed, type-written index card reveals a person who saw a lot of the Northeast during his professional baseball career.

The route begins with a free-agent draft in Bristol, Conn., in 1981 a few days short of a sojourn north to Elmira, N.Y. Stops in Florida and North Carolina follow the next two years, leading to a rotation of New Britain, Conn., Pawtucket, R.I., and Boston through most of the ’80s. The last entry references free agency after a final posting in Rochester, N.Y., in 1990.

Lebanon native Rob Woodward went places in baseball. His history represents that of just one of more than 172,000 people whom Quechee resident F. X. Flinn has helped enter the digital world.

Flinn supervised an effort that took a century-old index card collection from The Sporting News, a weekly sports newspaper dating back to 1886, and converted it to digital files with the help of LA84, a Los Angeles-based foundation that, among other things, has an interest in preserving sports history.

The cards track the careers of every baseball player who signed a contract with a major-league or affiliated minor-league club dating back to TSN’s founding, when it began recording the information for its journalists. (The collection also includes information on about 10,000 umpires and baseball executives.) It’s not a database of home runs, stolen bases or earned-run averages but rather a demographic record: where athletes were born and died; where they went to college, if at all; their nationalities, in some cases; and all of the stops they made along their professional journeys.

“One of SABR’s research committees is the minor-league committee, and the minor-league committee has been desperate to get their hands on these cards for 20 years,” Flinn said during a recent interview. “Now that they have it, I know they’ve already begun work. There’s one fellow who’s been trying to sort out players in Knoxville (Tenn.), and he’s already made progress on that front. I just got an email from him yesterday saying that being able to see the cards had solved one of his longstanding mysteries.

“There will be a lot of that.”

TSN began its card catalog as a research base for its journalists, Flinn explained. Having the resource meant writers wouldn’t have to ask the same questions — Where are you from? Are you right-handed or left-handed? Do you have any nicknames? — each time they interviewed an athlete.

The cards would be brought out and updated by clerks each time a player changed locales and, later, when they left baseball or took on other jobs inside or beyond sports. The entries — always typed and occasionally lined up in a cockeyed fashion from multiple trips to multiple typewriters — usually ended with a player’s retirement, release or death.

TSN changed its baseball demographic data collection to a computerized form around 1991, Flinn said, but it retained the cards, numbering around 180,000, in storage. Some folks’ histories stretched onto additional cards. That made it essential to not only digitize the entire lot but to do so accurately.

“The importance of this is about providing a resource that represents the breadth and depth of SABR,” the organization’s CEO, Scott Bush, said in a phone interview from the association’s offices in Phoenix. “This fills the bill in a lot of ways.

“What you get in a card are the details around transactions, details around personal life and circumstances that might be difficult to find, particularly in instances of a death while still an active player. That’s because the further you go back, the less likely you’d find an obituary.”

The six-year project to digitize the cards started with a six-year project to convince TSN to relinquish them in the first place. The challenge was convincing the publication of the importance of donating them to SABR and let researchers figure out the next step, Flinn recounted. He got a call one day in July 2013 that the organization could have the cards — so long as somebody could come down and pick them up within a week from a warehouse in North Carolina. 

“My friend, Tom Hufford, who lives in Atlanta and is one of the founding members of SABR when he was a high school kid back in 1971, he rented a big van and drove from Atlanta to the warehouse and got 60 boxes of index cards — about 180,000 cards in all — brought them back to Atlanta and put them in storage,” Flinn said.

“He then sent me an email, and he said, ‘OK, I have the cards. Now what?’ ”

Fortunately, Flinn had an answer for that question.

Flinn had done a similar project about 15 years earlier, connecting with the Baseball Hall of Fame to preserve deteriorating copies of The Sporting Life, a weekly publication from the turn of the 20th century that had a special emphasis on professional baseball. It was through that project that he learned of LA84, and he came to them for help again once SABR had secured the TSN collection.

The LA84 Foundation began with the help of profits from the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, hence the name. (It was the last Games to end up in the black.) Although initially started to help youth sports in and around the city, LA84 also took an interest in preserving Olympic history.

Over time, the foundation has also worked to preserve important sports history collections. SABR’s hopes for the TSN index cards were right in LA84’s wheelhouse.

“Personally, for me, I enjoy baseball,” said Shirley Ito, a 30-year librarian and website manager with LA84. “The idea … of seeing the original item in historic form, I think that is what a lot of people will find interesting. Seeing someone updating a card may seem archaic, but you’re seeing history in front of you. We’re so used to seeing digital-born items, but this is something original.”

LA84 provided the bulk of the money for the scanning project; foundation interns and Ito did the work. The cards were online about six weeks after they were received, Flinn said. SABR officially announced their availability to the public on Dec. 9.

They’re a fascinating read. Take Rolfe: Born in Penacook, N.H., in 1908, he spent parts of two years playing for minor-league teams in Albany, N.Y., and Newark, N.J., before embarking on a 10-year career with the Yankees.

What the typical baseball card probably won’t mention: TSN recorded Rolfe’s departure from the Yankees in 1942 to become baseball and basketball coach at Yale; he later coached in the NBA for a year and ultimately returned to his alma mater as athletic director in the mid-50s.

As valuable as the collection will be to baseball researchers, Flinn believes it will also appeal to American studies scholars. Index cards dating to the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s, such as Rolfe’s, routinely mention college affiliations, something considered important at the time. Later, in the wake of World War II and the scourge of McCarthyism, player nationalities began making TSN’s cards, perhaps a political reflection of the times.

Jack Morris, a SABR member from suburban Philadelphia, has already made good use of the collection in its first month of existence. An avid researcher of the minors, Morris noted baseball has many instances of players with identical names. He’d been trying to track down information on a George Smith after seeing an obituary mentioning he’d played professional baseball; with the TSN cards, he was able to quickly lock down the correct George Smith.

“I can sit in my home and look at them,” said Morris, a former newspaper sportswriter. “Before, to be a researcher of baseball history, I had to take vacations and do it or spend a lot of weekends running around. Now, I can come home from work, log onto the computer and start doing research. Poking around with the cards or which newspapers that have been digitized is a huge help as well.”

That’s where the value in preserving the TSN collection lives.

“Nobody would ever pay for this to be done,” Flinn said. “There is no economic value to having this readily available. There is great scholarly value, and real value for people who have been trying to put together the most accurate and complete history of these minor-league teams.

“It’s a resource that will always be there, for the rest of time, as it were.”

SABR represents a small part of what the Cornell-educated Flinn, a former Hartford Selectboard member, owner of an information technology consulting business and ongoing board member at ECFiber, humorously calls the “non-political, non-work, non-family sliver of my life.”

The interest in baseball goes back to a youth spent on Long Island’s North Shore. Growing up in the late 1950s and early ’60s near New York meant being a New York Yankees fan, as much for the team’s excellence as the fact that the Giants and Dodgers had long since moved west and the Mets hadn’t come into being yet. Having heroes such as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris around didn’t hurt for a young Flinn.

Neither did the Yankees’ 1962 World Series win over the now-San Francisco Giants, secured by second baseman Bobby Richardson’s snare of a potential game-winning Willie McCovey line drive for the final out of a 1-0 seventh-game victory.

“It was all or nothing; it was the season right to that moment,” Flinn said. “Richardson made the catch, and in that moment I was so excited, so thrilled and had been so rewarded by my baseball fandom that year. In that moment, I really think that cemented me to baseball.”

Yankee Stadium in the ’60s also was “an affordable way to take young women out on dates,” he said. Two people could take a subway to the stadium, get a couple of upper-deck seats behind home plate, beer and hot dogs and spend about $25.

One young lady, Linda Labriola, was so impressed by a baseball first date with Flinn that she called a friend to recount the night. “ ‘I’m going out with a guy who’s really into baseball,’ ” Flinn said. “Her friend said, ‘Oh yeah? So am I. He’s the baseball writer for Sports Illustrated. Maybe we can double date.’ ”

Flinn and Labriola remain married to this day.

SABR now keeps Flinn’s connection to baseball secure. It’s a natural progression from being a fan to taking interest in early forms of fantasy baseball to, now, enjoying the research end of the game’s history — or, in this case, facilitating the means of making it available for all.

“I felt it was my opportunity to make a contribution to the research side of SABR,” Flinn said. “Integrating this, cleaning it up and make it readily presentable involved quite a bit of work, and it created quite a bit of information for the baseball world that otherwise would have remained hidden.”

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