Richard D. Cramer has been doing baseball analytics for just about as long as anyone alive, even before the term “sabermetrics” existed. He started analyzing baseball statistics as a hobby in the mid-1960s, not long after graduating from Harvard and MIT. He was a research scientist for SmithKline and in his spare time used his work computer to test his theories about baseball statistics. One of his earliest discoveries was that clutch hitting—then one of the most sacred pieces of received wisdom in the game—didn’t really exist. In When Big Data Was Small Cramer recounts his life and remarkable contributions to baseball knowledge. In 1971 Cramer learned about the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and began working with Pete Palmer, whose statistical work is credited with providing the foundation on which SABR is built. Cramer cofounded STATS Inc. and began working with the Houston Astros, Oakland A’s, Yankees, and White Sox, with the help of his new Apple II computer. Yet for Cramer baseball was always a side interest, even if a very intense one for most of the last forty years. His main occupation, which involved other “big data” activities, was that of a chemist who pioneered the use of specialized analytics, often known as computer-aided drug discovery, to help guide the development of pharmaceutical drugs. After a decade-long hiatus, Cramer returned to baseball analytics in 2004 and has done important work with Retrosheet since then. When Big Data Was Small is the story of the earliest days of baseball analytics and computer-aided drug discovery.
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About the Author
Richard D. Cramer started analyzing baseball statistics in the mid-1960s, after graduating from Harvard and MIT, and by 1969 he had discovered (or reinvented) the metric now known as OPS. He is the co-founder of STATS Inc. and has done important work with both SABR and Retrosheet. John Thorn is the official historian for Major League Baseball and the author of Baseball in the Garden of Eden.
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Setting the Stage
My parents grew up in Norman Rockwell country, in two towns along the Juniata River in central Pennsylvania, linked by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Most of their predominantly Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry can be traced back to at least the early nineteenth century. My father's mother had wisdom and a warm spirit so compelling as to set the tone for the upbringing of all her fourteen grandchildren, and so lasting that half a century later those grandchildren and their grandchildren still faithfully attend an annual reunion. Education was her top priority, and despite Depression challenges her four children all finished college by commuting from home using free fares that her husband's administrative railroad career provided. My mother's father was a major figure in her town, as his youthful preference for automobiles over his mother's horse brokerage developed from a Model T Ford franchise into a garage that became the town's general store. But at her home there were tragedies — my mother's mother died of Spanish flu, and my mother's brother's crippling childhood polio, which he cheerfully overcame to become a world-traveling college history professor.
Both my parents were stand-out students in Juniata County, my mother reportedly being regarded as "smartest" and my father as "most likely to succeed." They met when the county included them both in a Washington field trip, and mutual attraction soon followed. After a 1937 public ceremony endorsed a year-old secret wedding, my mother followed my father to Harvard, where he had been accepted for PhD studies as a chemist. His thesis advisor was George Kistiakowsky, a genial Russian, then German, political émigré best known today as a key designer of the Fat Man nuclear weapon, and then as Eisenhower's science advisor, the first to hold that position, before resigning to better challenge the military-industrial complex. (Considering the many excellent books on various Los Alamos physicists, it is surprising that no popular biography of such an interesting and accomplished chemist exists.) "Kisti" was also a chemical da Vinci. My father's PhD thesis described something completely different: the first use of a radioactive atomic label in a biological experiment. This groundbreaking research is still cited, which, because I was given my father's name, suggests an implausibly long scientific career for Richard David Cramer in the indices of scientific literature!
Marriage for a graduate student was then a somewhat risky endeavor, undertaken only because, as my mother's classmates put it, "Gwen knows how to marry without having children"— of course by means that in Massachusetts were then legally banned. At Princeton, marriage meant dismissal for a graduate student of either sex. But my mother fondly recalled that her employment as secretary to a Baker Chocolate executive allowed her to splurge on a home typewriter with special chemical symbols so that she could proudly type my father's PhD thesis.
After the twelve lean years of Depression, in 1940 almost every American's priority was financial security and asset accumulation, so accepting an offer to leave an associate professorship at Carnegie Mellon in grimy Pittsburgh to join a new research group at the DuPont Experimental Station in Wilmington, Delaware, was a no-brainer. The DuPont four-thousand-dollar salary paid for a suburban house with an elegant mansard roof and a 1937 Ford V8 and helped my father's younger siblings to finish their higher educations and become a high school district supervisor, a radiologist, and a nurse turned wife to a DuPont engineer. And, most important, it allowed my parents to start a family. I am the oldest of four, who, reportedly as intended, was followed in two years by a brother Marvin, after another three years by a sister, Mary, and in two more years a second sister, Sara, whom we call Sally.
We four appreciate one another. Marv is a respected Long Island cardiologist, married to Eva Cramer, a dean at State University New York's Downstate College of Medicine, who now heads BioBAT, Brooklyn Navy Yard's new biotech center. They have two children, Jocelyn and Jeff, and three grandchildren. Mary's marriage to David Dawson, a mathematician turned legacy IBM System/360 authority, produced two children, Richard and Megan. Sally administers the University of Massachusetts–Amherst's biochemistry department and farms in the Berkshires with her husband, Donald Ives. As children and as adults the four of us resemble each other (according to a midnight cabal of our spouses during one family reunion) in being conflict-averse, emotionally restrained, and responsible family members. We establish daily routines for ourselves that include personal health rituals, and we all read voraciously. Put differently, the four of us are perhaps light on charisma and even a bit dull at times, yet earnest, dependable, and reasonably accomplished.
When Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II, my father was old and DuPont-relevant enough to be exempt from the draft, and I was en route, to be born on February 26, 1942. I have vague memories of unexpectedly sitting in the dark one evening as my father walked the block looking for blackout violations that might silhouette an oil tanker for Nazi submarine attack, and of being carried to a victory garden that my father planted in a nearby vacant lot.
With everyone expecting the lean years to return when the war ended, my parents seemingly believed that financial security for their growing brood might depend on economic self-sufficiency, which implied acreage. In 1945 they chose a former farm owned and occupied by an eighty-year-old spinster, Mary Carlile, who had supported herself alone for many decades by selling off pieces of land originally granted to her ancestors by William Penn. Terms of her final hundred-acre sale to my parents included an agreement that she could stay in her house undisturbed as long as she was capable of doing so and required immediate payment in full, with an eight-thousand-dollar loan from my mother's father.
The house had been built during the farm's mid-nineteenth-century prosperity, achieved by meeting demands for milk from rapidly growing Philadelphia and for willow-tree charcoal to help make DuPont's black gunpowder. So it was a substantial three-story cube of double stone wall construction. But when refrigerator cars and smokeless powder appeared, these markets disappeared, so electricity or running water had never been added, and heating and cooking still required cutting wood. Not a satisfactory twentieth-century home, especially for a growing family. Moreover, mere habitability would not be sufficient for my father, and that reportedly provoked some private arguments, though ones acknowledged only after my father's death. For, perhaps remarkably, as children my siblings and I were absolutely never exposed to any parental disagreement. Furthermore, my father would have been embarrassed to express and was irritated even to be exposed to "gossipy" discussions of personal feelings or motivations. So it's not easy today to understand how such an exceptionally competent man convinced himself and my mother that he could almost singlehandedly remodel this worthy antique into a Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired showplace while, of course, earning his salary and paying appropriate attention to his children and the local community. It helped that he required little sleep; every evening he would commute the fifteen miles "out to the farm" to plan and work, seldom returning, I was told, before 1:00 a.m. On clement Saturdays and Sundays we would all pile into the Ford, drive to the farm, and picnic together. There were a few unsuccessful farming forays, such as the pasturing of a couple of steers on the least overgrown field, and the purchase and winter-long resuscitation of an antiquated Case 12-20 tractor to help clear the decades of brush, which after a week of noisy pushing and dragging expired while reportedly throwing a piece of crankcase just past my father's head.
But within a year or so Miss Mary suffered a stroke, and was admitted into an old folk's home where we would visit her every Christmas afternoon until her death. Serious remodeling began. Comprehensive architectural plans had already been drawn up, presumably with some professional assistance. Certainly professionals drove the bulldozer that carved the slope to position a garage and driveway. But my father brought in electricity and plumbing almost by himself, converting one of the two staircases into a tier of bathrooms and completely rerouting the other one, hiring only the occasional day laborer to help with heavier work like digging the septic tank. The farmhouse was ready for us in June 1950, with central heating added before winter set in.
Our new locale, a declining family farming community at the eastern end of the Mason–Dixon line near Landenberg, Pennsylvania, was attracting other young DuPont professionals. The surroundings included several ruined grain mills, a covered bridge then still very much in use, scattered Indian arrowheads, and some reputed Underground Railroad hiding holes. Elementary education was provided in two one-room schools, each authentically equipped with hand pump water and his-and-her privies, each schoolhouse respectively handling around thirty pupils in grades one to three and four to six. Inadequate? Well, two of my classmates and I would later attend Harvard!
For the most part, we newcomers blended smoothly with the existing community. There were community collaborations in the spirit of traditional barn-raisings, one erecting a (prefabricated) community building and another resuscitating a third vacant one-room school the day after one of the other two burned down. There were only a few awkward edges. In 1952 my father was elected to the local school board as reportedly the only Democrat elected anywhere in Chester County, thereby becoming a supervisor to our two teachers, one who, with the veteran assurance of someone now teaching her previous students' kids, had infused the classroom with her own politics, having us listen to MacArthur's now-notorious Korean recall speech to Congress.
Baseball? Not yet on my radar. Somehow the Phillies' 1950 pennant completely escaped my awareness. I didn't even know the basic rules — in an informal Cub Scout game I was confused when a well-hit ball was nullified for being foul. This is the more surprising as baseball was integral to the culture of both my extended families. For example, my mother favored the Dodgers as a racially enlightened team, though she preferred Roy Campanella to Jackie Robinson because he didn't "make trouble." During visits to grandparents I was dragged to the town's battered grandstands for baseball games, where a hat was passed to pay something to the players and memories were shared of big-leaguers such as Billy Cox. And eventually I went to my first major league game, on September 27, 1953, when my father put aside a day of remodeling for a family outing to watch the Dodgers edge the Phils at Connie Mack Stadium.
I had been something of a wunderkind, reportedly reading by the age of two or three. Lists (or, might I offer, ur–big data?) were an early fascination. I spent hours copying and creating lists, charming my mother by using her beloved typewriter. At first these lists were of capital cities, but somehow by 1949 antique cars, and especially steam cars, had become my first major obsession. For example, if you wanted to know, say, what kinds of Fords preceded the Model T, I could (and perhaps still could!) enlighten you. At my mother's urging, I wrote an enthusiastic letter to the main provider of the antique car literature at the Wilmington Public Library, one Floyd Clymer, who confirmed that I was his youngest reader. (At that time, libraries were the only source of such specialized books because new books were so expensive that my mother satiated the family's general love of reading by haunting used book barns.)
However, with the family move to the farm, my privileged role in suburban classrooms as an indulged and unregulated "teacher's pet" prodigy was completely reversed in that one-room school to "know-it-all" pariah. The fourth-to-sixth-grade teacher disparaged my eager cleverness in favor of rote and disciplined order — unsurprisingly, considering her temperament and probable training as well as the educational demands inherent to a one-room school. Exceptionally thick glasses, deficiencies in empathy and ability to fit in (still extant, sigh), athletic ineptness, physical awkwardness, and pathologically picky eating didn't help. Surely suspect were my first appearance at the community Halloween event — my mother accentuated my Cinderella costume with grapefruit halves on my chest — and my preference during lunchtime recess for the playground swings with the girls, instead of the softball game with the boys. The beating my self-esteem took in those three years continued well into my twenties.
But weak self-esteem may have encouraged my development of other intense interests. In those days most boys collected stamps, which appealed to me perhaps because public library books included exhaustive stamp catalogs — in other words, more lists. Collecting stamps demanded more money than my monthly allowance provided, but the remodeling provided a lot of earning opportunities. One representative activity was stacking lumber. To provide the natural patina that Frank Lloyd Wright advocated, the architectural plans called for wood paneling, to be obtained by harvesting the farm's abundant hardwood regrowth. But between trees and paneled walls there's a lot of work; woodwork will warp and crack if the lumber is not first dried thoroughly, a process that takes years without kiln heating. So there were tons of lumber that had to be stacked and restacked, board by board, carefully spaced by shims between each layer so that the air could circulate. Once dried and milled, the lumber needed finishing, tedious and laborious work that we shared with our mother. Meanwhile there was year after year of dust and debris, in rooms sometimes demarcated only by two-by-fours and hanging canvas. Sally returned from her first visit to a neighboring farm to excitedly report that "they have doors on their bathrooms!" Nevertheless, in spirit we kids were completely on board and proudly anticipated a showplace, and with family meals and many family board game evenings, there was no reason for any of us to feel neglected.
However, in 1955 this remodeling campaign was interrupted. Our dog contracted rabies and bit my father. The Pasteur treatment induced an autoimmune response and a creeping neurological paralysis starting with his legs. The outlook for my parents must have been ominous. How far would the paralysis spread? Would my father lose his job? And what sort of financial asset was a half-finished remodeling project surrounded by stacks of lumber? Yet, as always, nothing of this sort was ever said aloud, so I doubt that any of us children ever sensed these threats. And as matters developed, for all the sorrow this illness brought for my parents, one of the results of my father's incapacitation was positive. His blunted passion for remodeling was constructively redirected to his research activities for DuPont, ultimately resulting in two prize-winning publications. He later commented that had this not happened, his previous indifference to his job would probably have cost him that job, just as would happen to many of our neighbors as DuPont began a long retrenchment. And remodeling activities were put into the hands of two expert carpenters, who made the work affordable for us because it was an especially gratifying project that they could fit into the gaps between their other jobs. Four years later the Frank Lloyd Wright inspiration had become a reality.
At about this time my mother was also succeeding at what was then something of a nationwide obsession, becoming a successful quiz show contestant. She succeeded twice in two attempts, on one show setting a record for longevity and on the other a record for total prize value. Both were daytime shows with contests that slowly revealed some common phrase, the winner of course being the first to decipher that phrase. One of the contests involved a rebus, a picture representing a word in the phrase; this might have been The Jan Murray Show. She would spend at least a year researching her target show, deciphering and recording any patterns in its phrases and pictures as she folded laundry. When she felt ready, she would travel to its New York studio, join the show's audience, and then, to encourage her selection as the latest challenger, sit near the aisle and behave very effervescently (not her usual persona). I was in the studio audience, at least as excited as she was, for what turned out to be the last of her appearances. Ironically the tax rates of that era made her winnings, mostly of whimsical products rather than cash, a mixed blessing for family finances, requiring further creativity. For example, there was the donation of a twelve-foot stuffed giraffe to a local high school for use in "street fairs," providing a deduction which allowed us to keep a relatively fungible but much more useful Oldsmobile 88 behemoth.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "When Big Data Was Small"
Copyright © 2019 Richard D. Cramer.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by John Thorn
1. Setting the Stage
2. Baseball and Science Surface
4. Graduate School and the 1960s Computer
5. Industrial Synthetic Chemist
6. Harvard’s Research Computer
7. Computer-Aided Drug Discovery
8. Sabermetrics’ Infancy
9. Scientific Recognition
10. Twists of Fate
11. Birth of STATS Inc.
12. White Sox and Yankees
13. Scientific Career Transition
14. Rebirth of STATS Inc.
15. Comparative Molecular Field Analysis
16. STATS Soars
17. Cheerlessness and Lyme Disease
19. The Rise and Fall of TRPS
19. Repudiated by STATS
20. Tidying Up
21. In My Humble Opinion
22. Summing Up
Appendix: Bamberg Mathematical Analysis of Baseball