A baseball tradition falls victim to spate of online information

My earliest baseball memories involve rushing home from elementary school in first grade in 1966 to see the Orioles shock the Dodgers in the World Series. I remember seeing an airborne Brooks Robinson leap toward catcher Andy Etchebarren and pitcher Dave McNally celebrating a most improbable sweep on a tiny black-and-white television full of snow and static. A print of the iconic moment hangs on the stairway wall in my home. Yes, old memories are great memories.

Some baseball memories are fleeting, others enduring. But one of the most enduring has been the annual trek - to a news stand, bookstore, grocery store, wherever - to buy the new baseball season’s copy of “Who’s Who in Baseball,” a small, red, soft-cover that contained the lifetime major and minor league statistics of every ballplayer, along with a photo, biographical information, and a listing of the trades, transactions and disabled list stints in each one’s professional career.

In the days before the Internet, this was a treasure trove of information for a young baseball fan. It didn’t matter that when I first started buying “Who’s Who” in 1971, the publication was required to black out the logos on all players’ caps (I assume this was because they were not permitted by Major League Baseball to use the trademarks). Back then, every player was created equally - with a smile on his face and a logo-less ballcap.

My 1971 version was so worn after years of use that the cover was hanging by a proverbial thread and now lives in a Ziploc bag. The next year, en route to a spring break camping trip to St. Augustine, Fla., with my Boy Scout troop, I came across “Who’s Who” in a drugstore in Manning, S.C., where our troop bus broke down and sat for five hours while being repaired. My fellow scouts were bored after about 30 minutes in the little speck on the map; I spent a couple of bucks and immersed myself in the coming baseball season by learning all I could about the players I might see in person or on TV, or read about in The Sporting News.

Each year since, I’ve searched - some years harder than others - for “Who’s Who.” A baseball season wasn’t complete without holding that book. By the time I started covering baseball for The Associated Press in 1993, I had quite a collection of “Who’s Who” annuals - enough to take up most of a shelf on the bookcase in my home office. Each spring, I’d buy it; each winter, I’d slide it into the growing lineup of the publication.

Sadly, that tradition will end this year. Seems “Who’s Who in Baseball” has finally succumbed, a victim of the ready availability of the same information via computer keyboard.

Who's-Who-2016-cover.jpgLast spring, New York-based Harris Publications, the latest in a line of “Who’s Who” publishers, closed its doors shortly after the 2016 edition - with Nationals slugger and reigning National League MVP Bryce Harper on the cover - hit the stands. A year after marking its 100th anniversary, “Who’s Who” went the way of scheduled doubleheaders, woolen uniforms and sliding into second base with sharpened spikes raised toward the fielder on the bag.

In short, in an era where thorough sites like Baseball-Reference.com provided the same (and more detailed) information, “Who’s Who” became an anachronism.

“The magazine publishing industry has been through turmoil in the face of the rapid ascendance of digital media, changing consumer content preferences, magazine wholesaler struggles and consolidation in the supply chain,” read an official company statement. “We have tried mightily to persevere against these forces, but have been unable to overcome these challenges.”

There was talk that some of the titles under Harris Publications might be bought and continued by another publisher. But it appears “Who’s Who” - at least in its familiar format - will not be among them. Even if a new publisher gets “Who’s Who” on the shelf, the timing’s off. And with its demise goes another tradition.

For the past handful of years, one of my favorite preseason traditions has been buying a copy of “Who’s Who” and delivering it to former MLB.com Nationals beat writer Bill Ladson at spring training. Sometimes the magazine flew with me from Maryland, other times I bought it at Books-A-Million in The Avenue at Viera, a mammoth home run from Space Coast Stadium, where the Nationals used to train, and hand-delivered it over dinner at Sonny’s BBQ.

A few years ago, when I learned that Bill also had an affinity for “Who’s Who,” it was like discovering another member of a secret club. I think I enjoyed handing off the annual to Bill as much as Bill liked receiving it. And throughout the season, I’d see how worn its pages became under my friend’s thumb and forefinger, how its spine struggled to contain its pages, and smile a satisfied smile.

A few weeks ago, I asked Bill if he’d seen any copies of “Who’s Who” and he said he hadn’t. I continued to search - Barnes & Noble, Giant, Safeway, any bookstore I stumbled across - to no avail. I put out a call on Twitter, then Facebook, and old ballpark pal Dave Howell delivered the bad news.

The message on Facebook was the social media equal of learning of a dear friend’s passing. And it hurt. Looking at the line of red covers on my bookshelf, the thought of not adding to the collection year after year brought profound disappointment. I broke the news to Ladson, who was equally dismayed.

Baseball somehow managed to keep its luster after breaking two leagues into four - then six - divisions. The game prospered when the American League adopted the designated hitter even though the NL didn’t. Replay hasn’t dulled the national pastime. We’ll even get used to managers holding four fingers aloft to signal an intentional walk instead of having a pitcher throw four balls high and wide of the plate. Well, eventually.

Change may be a constant, but I’m not required to like all the changes. And a spring without a search for “Who’s Who in Baseball” - much less a baseball season without the ability to peruse its pages - has left me longing for a traditional teasure that’s unfortunately no more.

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