My last Thoughts at Large post included the casually-made claim that I could name 700 major-league baseball players. In my original draft of the post, that number was 800-900; after further consideration, I lowered it to 750, then finally 700. I figured: I had followed baseball for 60 years as an on-and-off fan of the up-and-down Pittsburgh Pirates — surely I could name 700 of the 15,000 or so players who have taken the field in the last century.
That said, I must admit that I am more of a Pirates fan than a baseball enthusiast per se. When the Pirates aren’t competitive (which for 25 years now has generally been the rule), I don’t pay much attention to them, the other teams, or the league’s star players. So, any list of players that I could come up with would necessarily be heavily weighted toward the Pirates teams that made the post-season, along with the notable same-league opponents from those competitive years.
Armed with this understanding, I decided I owed it to my readers to put my claim to the test and see if I could actually name 700 major-league ball players. I would be relying on memories from several sources:
- Radio and TV broadcasts of Pirates games in the 60s and 70s, with play-by-play provided by Bob Prince, Jim Woods and Nellie King. These include the games our family listened to on our Sunday drives as well as the late-night West Coast games that I managed to pull in on my bedside transistor radio.
- Topps baseball cards. I didn’t have an allowance when I was a kid, so a five-pack of baseball cards (plus gum!) seemed like a luxury. But when I did plunk down my dime, I only wanted Pirates cards. The real obscure cards (like Gene Leek) got attached to my bicycle frame with clothespins, to clack against the spokes. Even so, I made sure to study the stats on all the cards.
- The World Series Encyclopedia (1903-1960). I’m not sure how I came into possession of this book; I suppose that my dad picked it up at a used-book emporium in Youngstown or Pittsburgh. In any event, when I was 10 or so I consumed this paperback cover-to-cover, learning about Deacon Phillippe (who pitched in five games for the Pirates in the 1903 World Series) and the unassisted triple-play by Cleveland infielder Bill Wambsganss [sic] in the 1920 World Series.
- Pirates YearBooks. Back when rosters were more stable than they are today, teams dared to publish glossy-page booklets at the beginning of the season, with photos and stats of the players a fan could expect to see that year. I pored over all of these too. Years later, at a card and memorabilia show, I would get Bill Mazeroski to autograph my 1961 YearBook, which recounted the Pirates 1960 World Series victory.
- Pirates box scores and the National League batting leader lists in the newspaper. I read these daily when I was a kid. I always wanted a Pirate to lead the league in average or RBIs or home runs, even if the team itself wasn’t winning, to justify my irrationally unwavering support. (Still do, sorta.)
- Sunday, August 6, 1989, when three generations of the Collins clan went to the Camera Day game at Three Rivers Stadium. We got to go onto the field before the game and take pictures of various Pirates players circulating among the fans. The game itself lasted 18 innings, had a 45-minute rain delay, and was ultimately won when Pirates 3B Jeff King hit a leadoff homer.
So that’s primarily where my player memories came from as I got to work on my listing. To keep my self-challenge on the up and up, I sequestered myself from baseball news while I searched my memory for names.
I made a few ground rules for my search. (Incidentally, the term ground rule originated with baseball and only later came to be used more generally.) First, I decided that both first and last names were required. Otherwise, I could just say “Williams” or “Jones” and easily pick up 30 or 40 players. No, a memory needed to be a memory. So I did not add Dave Abernathy to my list, being that his first name is actually Ted.
That said, I gave myself leeway on spelling. For example, I took credit for remembering Doug Granville (his name is Glanville) and I added Yadier Molina to my list even though I botched the spelling of Yadier. On the other hand, I denied myself Paul Molitor because I remembered his name as Monitor. That seemed to cross a line.
I also decided that I would not add managers or coaches to the list unless I was positive that they also had major-league playing careers. That means I did not add Walter Alston, Sparky Anderson or Fred Hutchinson to the list, even though I was reasonably sure they were also players. (After-the-Factoids: It turns out that Alston had exactly one at-bat in a major-league game. Anderson played just one season in the majors. Hutchinson pitched in 242 major-league games over 10 seasons. The three men managed at the MLB level for a combined 60 seasons.)
Ball Players Named Bob for $600, LeVar
I started out by listing all the 1960s Pirates I knew from the YearBook that I memorized (and Mazeroski autographed). I proceeded to the Pirates who played in the team’s other post-season years, and then the stray Pirates from the team’s many and long interregna.
As my recall of Pirate player names began to run dry, I turned my focus to the rest of the player-universe. I started out rummaging my memory team-by-team, but I found that the more productive way to recall players was by first names. Though that approach wouldn’t work so well to unearth a Yadier Molina, say, it did deliver quite a few Bobs and Bobbys (5.8% of my list) as well as Jims (4.5%) and Daves (2.8%).
Some player names came to mind by indirect association: P Zane Smith (Pirates) led me to 3B Dick Gray (Cardinals) via the novelist Zane Grey; P Woodie Fryman (Pirates) brought to mind SS Bud Harrelson (Mets) via the actor Woody Harrelson.
But my free-associations weren’t always spot-on. For instance, I was convinced the Pirates had a pitcher named John, or Bob, Kibler — I wasn’t sure which. When I checked, I found that John Kibler was an umpire in the 1971 World Series (won by the Pirates) and that the Pirates never had a pitcher named Kibler. It came to me that it must have been Kipper… and yes, there he was on the roster (1985 to 1991), so I added Bob Kipper to my list.
I was astounded by some of the names I did recall. For instance, in what recess of my brain did I stash the name of Rawly Eastwick, the Reds relief pitcher from the mid 1970s? Or Frank Bork, who pitched 42 innings for the 1964 Pirates in his only MLB season?
I was 11 when Bork was on the roster — his name was buried in my neurons for 57 years. Frank Bork is now 81. He does not get a full MLB pension due to his short service time. (Sorry about that, Frank… but take heart, at least you have been remembered.)
Then there were the players whose last names I knew but whose first names escaped me. The pitcher (First Name) Burnette made me think of country-western star Smiley. And the outfielder (First Name) Garr steered my thoughts to comedic actress Teri. (The first names were A.J. and Ralph, respectively.) Which brings me to Ichiro, whose other name I not only failed to recall, I wasn’t sure which of his names it was. (He is Ichiro Suzuki.)
So, how did I fare overall? The figure (right) tells the story. I was able to list about 220 names the first day, but I soon fell victim to the law of diminishing returns. I could only recall half that number the second day, with each successive name taking me longer and longer to retrieve. I realized that I was not going to reach 700 players in one week, and maybe not even in one month, so I agreed with myself to stop the effort at 400 names. While I’m sure my brain contains the names of many more players, there has to be some time and energy limit on recalling them.
Curious readers may click here to see the 400 ballplayers I could name. The list indicates which players ever played for Pittsburgh (41% of them) and the players who are deceased (44% of them). If you want to try this challenge yourself — and I can’t fathom why any of you would — then I’d suggest you hold off checking my list until you’ve finished your own. Otherwise you would be getting a substantial head start.
Some of my fellow baseball fans will scan my list and say, “How could you not remember (Player X)?” Yes, I am sure that if I picked up a sports page from the 60s or 70s right now, I would see dozens of familiar baseball names that I was somehow unable to extract from my memory banks on demand. This serves to illustrate the difference between storing and retrieving memories, and how some things can feel familiar when re-encountered without being memorable. The cover of the World Series Encyclopedia (pictured above) is a good example of that. The only thing I had remembered about it was the green background, but once I saw the cover illustrations (which I retrieved via Google, the world’s memory bank), it all came back to me.
There you have it. Although I failed my 700 baseball player challenge (and mea culpa for my inflated claim), the attempt was at least engaging, and it gave me an excuse to raid my old-photos drawer. Now, if only my blog posts were as memorable as Frank Bork.