Howard County Times

Baseball fans meet for diamond dialogue

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Talk baseball with Washington native David Paulson for a few minutes, and his obsessive lifelong fandom pours out in facts, figures and lore.

He recalls how he loved the most obscure of Washington Senators players, like outfielder Stan Spence. How he admired third baseman Cecil Travis less for his career average (.314) than his combat service in World War II. And how he got to see Frank Howard, a soft-hearted, 300-pound slugger from Ohio, hit 34 homers a year for the hometown team even as they cemented their reputation as one of baseball's perennial doormats.

"It could be frustrating, being a Senators fan," Paulson, 80, says of the club that became the Texas Rangers in 1972. "But you could always see [visiting] players like Ted Williams and [Joe] DiMaggio. That was more than enough to learn to love the game."

Paulson, a Columbia resident, has never loved it more than he does now. He is unofficial director of "Talkin' Baseball," a discussion group for baseball junkies like himself that he founded with a friend, Skip McAfee, in 1999, and that has met in his adopted hometown once a month ever since.

"Talkin' Baseball," which meets the second Saturday of every month, usually features a talk by a baseball author, journalist or insider from the Baltimore-Washington area, draws a dozen or so people and spins off into wide-ranging conversation about the sport in its past and present forms.

Attendees have ranged in age from 7 to 87, and though most come from the Baltimore and Washington areas, bringing their Orioles or Nationals fandom with them, some visit from Delaware, Pennsylvania and points beyond.

Why spend two hours talking about a game?

"Baseball is unique," says McAfee, 74, another Columbia resident. "It's the only sport unconstrained by the clock, so a game can theoretically go on forever. And if weren't for the fences, the foul lines would diverge to infinity. That's getting a little philosophical, but we do have people who like to do exactly that."

Paulson says he got the idea for "Talkin' Baseball" during the late 1990s when he used to receive fliers in the mail from the local Borders bookstore announcing coming events.

A longtime member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), a group of baseball lovers that has spawned new-school analysts like the influential author Bill James, Paulson says it struck him that while the bookstore hosted meetings for Civil War buffs, civil rights activists and others, it had nothing for the pastime he considers one of the most conversation-friendly in the world.

"I saw there were 13 members of SABR who lived in Columbia, so I looked them all up in the phone book and called them," says Paulson, a retired pharmacist. "Borders gave us a room. Eight of the 13 showed up. We talked for a couple of hours. It was such a good time we decided to do it monthly."

Within a year or so, enough people were showing up that the idea appeared to have staying power. In April 2000, "Talkin' Baseball" had its first speaker, David Pugh, the author of "The Baltimore Orioles Book of Lists."

Since then, over the years, the group has featured speakers as wide-ranging as Jane Leavy, the Washington-based author of bestsellers on Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle; Stephen Norwood, an Oklahoma professor who cowrote a book called "Going to Bat for Jackie Robinson: The Jewish Role in Breaking the Color Barrier"; and ESPN analyst (and former Baltimore Sun baseball writer) Tim Kurkjian, who was promoting his book "Is This A Great Game or What?" in 2008.

The Kurkjian session set an attendance record: 26 people packed the seminar room the group uses at Brighton Gardens of Columbia, a senior living community.

"It took us a while to get Tim; he's booked far in advance," Paulson says. "People enjoyed that one."

Kurkjian and the others sign on in part because of "Talkin' Baseball's" relationship to SABR, an international organization aimed at rediscovering the game and its history through fresh scholarly lenses.

Founded at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1971, it now boasts about 6,000 members in 60-plus chapters, including new outposts in Japan, Puerto Rico and the United Kingdom.

Paulson, McAfee and friends belong to the largest such chapter. "Talkin' Baseball" is officially hosted by SABR's Bob Davids Chapter, named for a longtime Washington-based stringer for The Sporting News who helped found SABR.

It covers three states and the nation's capital, and claims more than 600 members.

"The last time I counted, our territory included 18 minor-league teams," says Paulson, the chapter treasurer.

Bob Davids members gather several times a year to attend major- and minor-league games and to put on an annual meeting. This year's, set for Jan. 28 in Arlington, Va., will feature guest speakers like Bob Hanna, a Senators pitcher from 1962 to 1970, and Steve Sclafari, whose baseball education organization, the Baseball Factory, has helped develop dozens of future major leaguers, including O's shortstop J.J. Hardy.

On a smaller scale, "Talkin' Baseball" gives any interested "seamhead" plenty of chance to share his or her considerable knowledge.

Baseball geeks are big on minutiae, and McAfee deals it out liberally. He opens each session with a trivia question. In recent meetings, he has asked how much the Yankee franchise is worth, how many baseballs are used in the average game and how many pitches are thrown in an average big-league contest.

The attendee whose guess is closest wins a door prize.

"Nothing too valuable — maybe a drinking glass with a Yankees logo," McAfee says with a laugh.

Participants are asked to name their favorite teams (the O's and Nationals are the most popular, but the Giants, Pirates and Cardinals are also represented) before they are given a chance to pepper the guest speaker with questions, then fan off into whatever direction they want.

Topics can include anything from a baseball current event, such as the recent departure of Albert Pujols from the world-champion Cardinals, to musings on history to just plain tales about ballplayers — which ones were underappreciated, for example, and what made them tick.

For instance, Paulson can talk all day about Travis, a Senators mainstay during the 1940s whose excellence over 12 years might have been more widely recognized had he not played in the shadow of Williams and DiMaggio.

It interests Paulson that when Travis returned from World War II, he didn't sustain his level of play to the same extent other ballplaying veterans, including Williams, did.

"He got frozen feet during the Battle of the Bulge," Paulson says. "He was never the same."

Paulson was recently impressed by a 7-year-old visitor who rattled off the names of the three players who hit more than .400 for the same team in a single year. (Billy Hamilton, Sam Thompson and Ed Delahanty turned the trick for the Phillies in 1898.)

"He really knew his stuff," says Paulson, a man who, incidentally, once caught a foul ball off the bat of O's third baseman Doug DeCinces at Memorial Stadium — and was summarily awarded an "honorary Orioles contract," which still hangs, framed, in his house.

He and his fellow conversationalists are looking forward to the next "Talkin' Baseball" on Jan. 14, when Maryland author Bob Luke is scheduled to discuss his latest book, "The Most Famous Woman in Baseball: Effa Manley and the Negro Leagues."

Manley, a charismatic sort, ran the Newark Eagles, a Negro Leagues franchise, between 1936 and 1948, repeatedly locking horns with giants like Dodgers boss Branch Rickey, the man who eventually signed Jackie Robinson.

She became the first (and still only) woman admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

Her story is one of a million threads in the fabric of baseball, which people such as Paulson see as a game but always, in addition, something bigger.

"You never run out of things to talk about," he says.

If you go

What: "Talkin' Baseball," conversations on the national pastime

When: 9:30 a.m., the second Saturday of every month (next meeting is Jan. 14)

Where: Brighton Gardens of Columbia, 7110 Minstrel Way, Columbia

Admission: free (and open to the public)

Information: 410-740-1145