The Baseball Encyclopedia (aka The MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, Big Mac) was the first modern sports encyclopedia. It was the first encyclopedia to include complete statistics for every player in history, and the first book (other than telephone directories) to be typeset entirely by computer. The research and effort put into the Big Mac made it a landmark, and all subsequent encyclopedias- including BaseballReference.com- have relied heavily on its statistics.
The Baseball Encyclopedia was not the first attempt at an encyclopedia, but all previous attempts had been severely lacking. Ernest Lanigan, later the first official historian of the Hall of Fame, published The Baseball Cyclopedia in 1922. While it included players names and other information, it lacked any statistics. Some other books, such as Who's Who in Baseball and The Sporting News's Daguerreotypes, included statistics for only a handful of players. Finally in 1951, Hy Turkin and S.C. Thompson published The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball, which included statistics for every player, but the statistics were limited to games played, position, and either won/lost record for pitchers or batting average for other players.
Furthermore, the statistics in the early books were suspect. In the 19th Century, statistics were subject to outright fabrication, as leagues and teams tried to manipulate the record to benefit favored players. Although fabrication was eliminated in modern baseball, errors still crept into the records. Statistics were kept by hand, and not always carefully. Errors adding up individual totals and dividing them to calculate averages were common. Different authorities cited different stats for the same player. Even the identities of all players weren't perfectly clear, as poor record keeping and even bad handwriting by official scorers generated "phantom players".
The First Big Mac
Under the direction of David Neft, Information Concepts, Inc. attempted to remedy the situation. Rather than relying on tabulated league totals, Neft's team went back to original source material. They checked original box scores to reconstruct day-by-day statistics for every player. They even went back to newspaper play-by-play accounts to reconstruct records of RBIs, ERAs, and saves that had not been kept as official statistics in the earliest years of the game. All of the statistics were entered into computerized records, which made it possible to ensure that team totals always matched the sum of individual records. Using computers also allowed the statistics to be typeset electronically, avoiding the risk of typographical errors.
It was also necessary to consider how statistics had been kept historically. Both playing and scoring rules changed over time, so it was necessary to consider how to handle those changes. A committee appointed by MLB decided that statistics would reflect the playing rules in force at the time they were recorded, but that as much as possible current scoring rules would be applied. For instance, through 1930 balls that bounced into the stands were credited as home runs rather than doubles, and that rule difference was respected in the statistics. In 1876 walks were counted as hitless at bats and in 1887 they were counted as singles, but the Encyclopedia applied their normal treatment as non-hit non-at bats for those seasons.
Aided by a skillfull media campaign by publisher MacMillan, the Encyclopedia was an immediate hit upon its publication in 1969. It received rave reviews from fans of all stripes. Despite its formidable size - 2338 pages and 6 1/2 pounds- and price- $25, or over $200 adjusting for inflation- the first edition sold over 100,000 copies. Subsequent historians have suggested that the publication of the Encyclopedia was an important contributor to the increased popularity of the game in the 1970s. It even inspired a song, Dave Frishberg's Van Lingle Mungo.
Not everyone was thrilled, though. The meticulous record keeping caused the records of nearly every old-time star player to be revised at least slightly. Traditionalists were very upset that the records they had grown up respecting had been changed and viewed the changes as needless revisionism. Even Commissioner Bowie Kuhn weighed in in support of the traditionalist position, saying of a revision to Ty Cobb's hit record that "The passage of 70 years constitutes a certain statute of limitation as to recognizing any changes in the records with confidence of the accuracy of such changes."
In response to the objections of the traditionalists, subsequent editions of the MacMillan encyclopedia backed away from the revised statistics, a move that has in turn been criticized by statistically-minded fans who cared more about getting the most accurate numbers possible. Eventually, even MLB decided that the Encyclopedia had gone too far and removed its status as the official encyclopedia of MLB.
Despite its later backtracking, the statistical record compiled for the first edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia has formed the backbone of all subsequent encylopedias. There have been a handful of subsequent discoveries that were missed when the Encyclopedia was compiled, but it remains a landmark.
References and Further Reading
- Robert C. Berring: "The Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, the West System, and Sweat Equity", The Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Vol. 39, Number 2 (Fall 2010), pp. 81-83.
- Joe Posnanski: "Did Babe Ruth actually hit 715 homers? How building the first computerized stats database almost changed the most important number in sports", mlb.com, June 7, 2018. 
- Alan Schwartz, The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Numbers, St. Martin's Griffin, New York, NY, 2005. ISBN 0-312-32222-4
- John Thorn, et. al., Total Baseball, ISBN 1-894-96327-X