Historian Thorn delivers keynote speech at SABR 42

Historian Thorn keynote speaker at SABR 42

Historian Thorn delivers keynote speech at SABR 42
MINNEAPOLIS -- Credit John Thorn for knowing his audience. Thorn, baseball's official historian, delivered the keynote speech at the awards luncheon for the Society for American Baseball Research on Friday, and he used the occasion to craft a love letter to intellectuals of all stripes.

Thorn, in scholarly fashion, relayed the origin of the term "nerd" to the assembled audience, and he told them to wear it as a badge of pride instead of as an insult. Times have changed, he said, and what was once considered gauche has been exonerated by time and perspective.

"We are nerds, you and I," he said. "We endured the predictable slings and arrows on the whole cheerfully, not only because we know who we are, but also because we live in the age of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and other nerds for whom data -- when shared -- becomes life's most rewarding currency."

Thorn, a member of SABR for 32 years, had his pauses punctuated by laughter, and he never had to stray too far from the heart of his message. Here, at SABR's 42nd annual conference, the attendees could all rest secure in the knowledge that they share the same obsession.

They had come to the Marriott City Center to celebrate another year of research and edification, and they had come to the luncheon en masse to reward some of their most accomplished peers. And there was Thorn, at the lectern, summing it all up in language bordering on poetry.

"For some of the game's most ardent devotees -- like those of us here -- the seasons pass almost without notice," said Thorn. "For them -- for us -- the grass does not turn brown ever. In the green fields of their mind, there is a perpetual thrill of the grass. Always, there are baseball statistics to digest, projections to make, fantasy transactions to contemplate and history's attic to excavate."

Those words were so exemplary, so precise, and they served as a fitting epilogue to the awards luncheon. SABR recognized several people for their research Friday, and it saved the largest laurel for Jan Finkel, who was given an award named after Bob Davids, founder of the organization.

Finkel, who has been to 18 straight SABR conventions, was visibly touched by the honor. A professor by vocation, Finkel has lent his services to SABR as an author and as an editor for the august body's Biography Project, and he said Friday that he was surprised to be recognized.

"Every year, when the Davids winner is announced, I would say, 'Well, of course! Who else would it be?'" he said. "This year, I can think of so many people who are so deserving. And as I look around and realize the names that I'm in there with now, I am stunned. All I can say is, 'Thank you so much.'"

Minnesota native and longtime front office executive Bob Gebhard was honored with the Roland Hemond Award in recognition of his commitment to scouts and player development.

Hemond, the award's namesake, jumped the gun by announcing that Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan will be the 2013 recipient at the SABR 43, scheduled to be held in Philadelphia.

But after lunch was over and the awards had been presented, SABR returned to the normal course of events, which meant a whole host of compelling lectures on disparate baseball topics. One of the most interesting talks came from Alan Nathan, a physics professor at the University of Illinois.

Nathan, who operates a website called The Physics of Baseball, spoke about what scientists have learned about bats in the last decade. His lecture explained the forces at work when a bat meets the ball, and he spoke in detail about how the NCAA has managed to redesign aluminum bats.

But perhaps the most interesting part of his lecture was the revelation that a hitter's grip has little to do with how far he hits the ball. Nathan used a video of a Todd Frazier home run swing from late May to clearly show the impact of the ball and bat and the position of the batter's hands when he hit it.

"I've been saying this statement for 10 years, and finally I have proof," he said. "His top hand is completely off the bat. His bottom hand is barely in contact with the bat. This is essentially a free bat when the ball hits it, and that ball went for a home run. ... It was a well-hit ball, and that just shows that the grip of the bat during the time the ball and bat are in contact simply doesn't matter."

Another revealing lecture came from Bryan Soderholm-Difatte, who attempted to quantify how much the 1951 Giants -- who beat the Dodgers in a one-game playoff on the famous Shot Heard 'Round the World -- were aided by an alleged system to steal signs from the home clubhouse.

That story had been originally broken by Joshua Harris-Prager of the Wall Street Journal, but Soderholm-Difatte broke down the numbers for that season, showing explicitly how the Giants hit at home before and after the apparent institution of their sign-stealing scheme. And while he didn't find any smoking gun evidence, he said the reason for his work should be relatively clear.

"If stealing the other team's signs allowed the Giants to steal just one win between July 20 and the end of the scheduled 154-game season," he said, "then it had a decisive bearing on the outcome of that pennant race. Just one win less, and there would've been no Miracle on Coogan's Bluff."

The speaker went through each hitter one by one, showing how they hit at home and on the road for the first part of the season and then again down the stretch. He produced some interesting comparisons and contrasts, and while we'll never be sure, Soderholm-Difatte came to his own conclusion.

"In a neutral context, it is fair to say ... that it's only a marginal advantage," he said. "But the context is not neutral. The Giants had to overcome a huge deficit. A marginal advantage is not irrelevant."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.