Requiem for Who’s Who in Baseball

For 101 years, a little red book called Who’s Who in Baseball, stuffed with players and stats between soft, glossy covers, arrived every spring. In 2017, it died. Disrupted, like so much else these days, by an efficient and soulless technology.

Who’s Who in Baseball was just a magazine. There will be no grieving relatives, crying hot tears as it’s lowered into the ground.

But for 101 years, before 101 opening days, Who’s Who in Baseball was there, on your coffee table, when you needed it. But not this year and never again.

I got my first copy in 1963, at a newsstand in Wheaton, Maryland, the suburb of DC where I grew up, and bought and saved every issue since. When newsstands went away, I’d buy it at bookstores. When bookstores went away, I’d get it from Amazon, delivered right to my door.

Well, Amazon giveth and Amazon taketh away. The internet killed my favorite baseball annual.

For the past few decades I’d buy three copies of Who’s Who. One for myself, another for my kid brother, and one for my best friend Dennis. When Dennis passed, too young, I passed his copy to my gym buddy Bruce. It was more than a kick giving them that small gift; it was a tradition. I don’t know if they’ll miss having a copy, but I know I’ll miss giving them one.

My dad used to sell Who’s Who in Baseball in the 30s. He’d hawk them right outside the turnstiles of the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium. He tells me it cost a quarter a copy back then. He’d get to keep ten cents, the other fifteen went to Fats, the big guy in the parking lot who had the distribution rights.

Sometimes pop would use the profits to go see that day’s game. Other times he’d save up until Sunday, when the Yankees were out of town and the Negro Leagues played doubleheaders in the House that Ruth built.

Those Who’s Whos helped him see the New York Black Yankees or the New York Cubans, and witness the hidden heroics of segregated stars like Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson.

My old man is still around, down in Florida with the other East Coast survivors of the greatest generation. His memory isn’t bad at all for a 91 year old, and I dread giving him the news.

Now a little part of his long-ago childhood and my long pubescence-to-seniority is gone, a victim of “progress.”

Now if I want to know what that other team’s shortstop hit last year, I’ll have to ask Google.

One of the best things about watching a Giants game was putting my phone on the charger and forgetting about it for three hours. Now it’ll need to on hand, begging for attention, ready to spit out whatever advanced metrics I ask of it.

But it won’t be a baseball book. It can never be a baseball book, or any kind of book. It’s a smartphone, and it just made my world a little less smart, and a lot less lovely.

Who’s Who was more than stats. It gave the birthplace of each player, a thumbnail picture alongside the player’s listing, so you’d know what the guy looked like. Height and weight were there too, along with “bats right, throws left” and date of birth.

As for this year’s players, well, you can look them up online, if you don’t mind banner ads for vinyl flooring. Plus, with social media, all your friends can know what you’re looking up, too! You can share that information and never have to buy a gift for anyone you love.

Every year, on the back cover, Who’s Who would put the team picture of last year’s World Series winners. If I’m upset about its demise, imagine how Cubs fans feel. Surely there are some fans in Chicago who bought Who’s Who every year, always hoping that next year’s edition would feature their world champion Chicago Cubs.

In 101 years, that never happened. It would have, this year, if there was a this year for Who’s Who in Baseball. But there’s not, and a small bit of glory will evade the Cubs forever.

Who’s Who in Baseball was a simple, printed book. Soft covers, handy, homely, useful, decorative. It appeared with the first buds of spring. It started every blessed baseball season.

This season is a little less blessed. A space on my desk is empty. A space in my heart, too.

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