It Was Twenty Years Ago Today...
How This Great Game evolved over two decades, from a modest datebook to an ambitious coffee table book to the popular web site it is today.
By Eric Gouldsberry, This Great Game
Posted December 30, 2012
It all started as a holiday calendar. One of my enduring traditions running a freelance graphic design business has been the creation of an annual holiday card. It’s in the form of an online video these days, but back before the explosion of the Internet, print was the way to go. I did funny little cards to mirror my sometimes-humorous design style; there was the one where my avatar icon was dressed up as famous Christmas story characters, the one where I made my list of all things red and green (a frog in a blender, for instance), and the one where I took a stock photo of a gorgeous, harried female holiday shopper and shamelessly Photoshopped my EGAD logo again and again over the many boxes and bags she was toting. (That particular card was a hit with the male portion of my audience, who wanted the phone number of the model.)
I only recall referencing baseball once, listing “Paul O’Neill in right field” in the red-and-green concept (at the time, he was a member of the Cincinnati Reds). But in the Fall of 1992, when it came time to start thinking about my next holiday card to send out at the end of the year, I thought about throwing a change-up; instead of a season’s greetings piece that can be opened, laughed at and tossed within a few weeks, why not something with a little staying power—a weekly calendar, for instance? Sounded great to me, but what would the theme be? No longer restricted to the holidays, my options were open to anything.
Baseball was the first thing to come to mind.
Growing up, I passionately followed three sports: Baseball, football and soccer. I never played Little League (making my mother a proud soccer mom instead), but I loved watching baseball. The first major league game I ever saw in person was in June 1972 when, while visiting relatives in Texas, my parents took us to the Houston Astrodome to see the Astros and New York Mets—just a week after they acquired Willie Mays from the San Francisco Giants. The Astros lost, 5-4, but I thrilled in calling one home run (the Astros’ Doug Rader belted one over the fence just seconds after I yelled out to him to do it) and in seeing the great Mays, even as a late-inning replacement in the outfield.
Over the next few years, we attended more games, mostly in the Bay Area where we lived; I saw Willie McCovey’s 400th career home run, witnessed Juan Marichal’s last career shutout, almost saw Hank Aaron’s 707th homer (it died on the warning track), and checked out the great Oakland A’s teams of the early 1970s. I would have caught a foul ball from Dick Allen, but my arm was broken from a bicycle accident and I couldn’t raise my cast up in the air; the cast otherwise won me sympathy when, before a game at Candlestick Park, I was singled out by Giants pitcher Mike Caldwell, who autographed it.
As much as I loved baseball, I loved the numbers that went with it even more. I understood and embraced the value of breaking down a player’s worth based on his statistics; a sabermetrics pioneer perhaps I wasn’t, but in an age before Bill James and Moneyball where greatness was dictated solely on the “triple crown” categories of batting average, home runs and runs batted in, I knew better by reading deeper into the numbers. Just for the hell of it, I quietly developed an “index” in the 1980s that took into account all the available numbers on a hitter’s stat line beyond the marquee figures, from total bases to walks to steals to grounding into double plays. Accessing that information in a time before retrosheet.org was difficult; the few comprehensive printed tomes of the day, such as the Baseball Encyclopedia, didn’t include the more nuanced numbers such as intentional walks and hit-by-pitches, so it left me with a potpourri of smaller guides that did—but just not from all the years.
There were a few existing books out there with similar ambitions, but they were poorly designed with all the writing excitement of a user’s guide. This, to me, was a golden opportunity to show what clearly could be done better.Nevertheless, I felt I had enough material to move forward with my baseball concept for the weekly calendar, which was this: The majors’ top ten hitters, year by year, based on my statistical index. The top ten list would be ideally prefaced with a short paragraph and, as a graphic beacon, a line drawing of a key player from the profiled season. But I began asking myself the usual 20 logistical questions that come with every design assignment, starting with: How do I cleanly divide 90 years of modern-era baseball into a 52-week calendar? Where do I get the resources for all those line drawings I had planned? And, most nagging, would a marcom manager at a hi-tech company really care who the best hitter of 1936 was?
After some soul searching, I punted. My weekly baseball calendar became a simple, cute open-and-shut holiday card, typographically tangling the words “EGAD” and “Xmas” together and remarking, as a punch line, how I loved getting caught up with Christmas.
The card went out, but I couldn’t shake the urge to do something with the baseball concept. At first I thought to try again with a weekly calendar, but the same logistical issues dogged me. I sought an alternative solution.
That solution was to reinvent the calendar as a coffee table book.
I’ve always had a knack for the “big project,” a gene I inherited from my father. Once I wanted to write about my 100 favorite movies, and so I did. Not a simple list, not a quick-hit synopsis, but a massive Word file with each of my picks fully reviewed, as well as 20 “guilty pleasure” flicks thrown on top of that. It took time, but it was never a burden; if you’re really into it, no project is ever too big.
Quickly, the coffee table book concept took shape. This was clearly going to go beyond a series of top ten statistical lists; I envisioned a baseball history book to end all baseball history books—a complete, kinetic, graphically charged balance of words, images and statistics that would cover the history of modern-era big league baseball. There were a few existing books out there with similar ambitions, but they were poorly designed with all the writing excitement of a user’s guide. This, to me, was a golden opportunity to show what clearly could be done better.
With the end of the century fast approaching, I gave the book its selling angle by titling it Major League Baseball: The Twentieth Century. It would include a year-by-year oral review of each major league season from 1900-99, graced with standings, pictures, newspaper headlines, fun facts and awards. Oh, and those line drawings originally conceived in the calendar? They would be retained, but this time as full-color, photo-realistic illustrations of players, from Honus Wagner to Barry Bonds. One hundred in all. Daunting, yes. Tons of work, yes. Fun, absolutely. Best of all, time was on my side; it was 1993, and the end of the century was still over six years away.
For me, each aspect of the project contained skill, experience and passion. I knew I could design; that, after all, I did for a living, and EGAD was thriving. I knew I could write; I penned sports stories for community newspapers at the age of ten, was the sports editor at Saratoga High School where, for all it was worth 15 years earlier, Steven Spielberg had done the same, and only turned my back on a journalism career at San Jose State because I knew graphic design would pay better. I knew I could draw; that was proven at SJSU when, most memorably, an especially tough life drawing instructor singled out my self-portrait in class as the best for the “honesty” of its detail.
I knew baseball history, too—but I needed to know more. After all, a hundred years of intimate history from this great game doesn’t just drop into your lap. I had very good knowledge of the sport, but it was largely limited to the numbers I’d memorized looking through the baseball encyclopedias over and over. Now, the project energized me to look beyond the numbers, to read, research and tell the stories behind the numbers. I wanted to say more than to simply write that Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927, that Dizzy Dean won 30 games in 1934, that Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. I was eager to uncover each and every angle available, and I did. No bookstore or library was spared. The crash course was on.
I already knew everything about the recently ended 1992 season still fresh in my mind, so I wrote away and used it as the test case, the sample chapter. With unlimited enthusiasm, I energetically cranked out a first draft of roughly 1,500 words in one short evening. I fine-tuned it here and there but, for the most part, the original prose survived—and it lives on today. There was sidebar material discussing some of the various firsts, records and oddities that took place during the season. For the standings, I used Adobe Illustrator to recreate the cap logos for placement alongside each team. Raids on the microfilm sections of several major Bay Area libraries led to a small stack of Xerox copies with sports page headlines from the year’s biggest baseball-related news. And I broke out the art box and illustrated the Chicago White Sox’ Frank Thomas swinging away.
Those who saw the high-end color printouts of the four-page sample chapter were impressed. One who had particular interest in the book’s progress was Ed Attanasio, a local copywriter who had become a good friend of mine a few years earlier. Ed’s unbuttoned, edgy yet congenial attitude and pop culture-infused sense of humor gave him the arresting gift of making friends quick. We held a mutual, profound love for baseball—never mind that he was a big Dodger fan while I loyally rooted for the Giants—and his passion for the game also went beyond simple fandom, actively interviewing ex-major leaguers as a member of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR).
One day, Ed mentioned that he had bought a web domain entitled thisgreatgame.com, though he had no idea what he was going to do with it; he said it just sounded cool to have, since he believed “this great game” were the final three words spoken by baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis when he banished the eight Chicago Black Sox players for life in 1921.
Three years and countless hours of reading and research later, I felt comfortable enough to prep a proposal and begin promoting the book to the people that counted: The literary agents. I had long since understood that selling direct to the publishers was a non-starter given their reputation for shunning rookie writers, so I plowed through the Jeff Herman Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents, the industry bible of sorts, and sent proposals to some 30 agents who listed sports or “picture books” as subjects they often pitched to publishers.
A few weeks later, on a beautiful early summer afternoon, I appeared to strike the mother lode. Sherry Bykofsky, a well-known New York agent, rang. She was glowing over the proposal, almost raving. I was alternatively trying to slow my heartbeat and keep my feet on the ground. After the pleasantries, it was time to get to the details. Sherry asked how much the permissions costs—money spent on acquiring images for the book—would add up to. I had done the research on this and gave her what I felt was a well-prepared answer: About $100,000. The next sound was the air sucking out of Sherry’s feel-good balloon.
Bruised by my own naivety, I stupidly glossed over the knowledge I had learned long ago in dealing with stock photo agencies in the design world; the more you buy, the bigger the discount. Never took that into account with Sherry. Regrouping, I re-researched the numbers and came back to Sherry with a sharply reduced $25,000 budget, and although it was a more manageable figure for her to swallow, it didn’t send her thrill-o-meter back to the level of our initial moments together. But, she did agree to take on the book and see how the publishers felt. Perhaps the publishers weren’t wild about the budget, either; they rejected the book for various reasons, most of them cost-related. So it was back to the drawing board, querying more agents and even some publishers in the hope that someone new might bite.
During one busy workday, the phone rang yet again. I answered and heard a man who I thought had identified himself as Bob Constance. I reached back in silent thought as to who this might be…a print broker, a forgotten client? After a few seconds of dead air, the man proceeded under the pretense that I was starstruck, thanking me for considering him to do the introduction to the book but that he was busy and that he had too many commitments going…and it was about at this point that it hit me straight between the eyes: Holy s**t, it’s Bob Costas. I quickly recovered and we ended up having a very nice five-minute conversation on a number of topics. I don’t know what stung more: Costas saying no to the intro, or my perceived starstruck reaction. (I may have far fewer brushes with fame than Ed, but I’ve been known not to go nuts over the few I have had.) I was hoping a Costas introduction—which would have made it one of umpteen he has done over the years—would have helped carry persuasive weight with future agents or publishers, so his thanks-but-no-thanks call, as nice as he was to reach out, further sobered the project’s momentum.
Over the next two years, I continued to plug away with finding luck for the book. A few other agents gave it a shot but found no takers. Rizzoli, a high-end publisher who had their own bookstores, was very curious but seemed overly focused on my player illustrations—as if this was to be an art book, not one on baseball history. Crown Publishing, which also had its own stores—but unlike Rizzoli, specialized in bargain books—called to say that they would publish the book. However, they wanted it to be no longer than 200 pages—less than half of what I had planned—and would only pay me $5,000. When I was told I’d be on the hook for the image permission costs, I saw a loss and simply couldn’t agree to their specs.
By 1999, I rested. More than half of the book had been written; the research for the unwritten rest had mostly been accomplished. Perhaps I realized that, at well over 400 pages measuring 11x12 inches each, I had created a monster in a box too big for the literary world. My priorities had somewhat shifted as well, having become a father for the first time at the end of 1998. Options exhausted, it became ironically clear, on the eve of the new millennium, that Major League Baseball: The Twentieth Century was just not to be.
I took an indefinite break from the book, telling everyone that it was officially “mothballed.” It was as optimistic an outlook as I could make. Maybe the content could be brought back to life someday, into what I don’t know. Maybe a web site.
Fast forward to the spring of 2002. Life went on. EGAD, based in the heart of Silicon Valley, had survived the dot-com crash with little angst. My girl was now a precocious three years old and we had added a boy celebrating his first birthday. The failure to get Major League Baseball: The Twentieth Century off the ground hadn’t hardened my view of the National Pastime; on the contrary, I kept close tabs on the game and continued writing down notes of the seasons that passed, just in case.
Ed Attanasio would, on occasion, bring up thisgreatgame.com and his desire to use it to, perhaps, merge his interviews and my book content. At first I shrugged my shoulders at the whole concept; the Internet was in its toddler era, many users were still on snail-pace dial-up mode, and the web’s graphic limitations left me gnashing my teeth—most bitingly in the realm of typography, where html fonts were very limited to a mere eight or so. It seemed that there was no better medium to dumb down a coffee table book design.
But gradually, I came around to Ed, telling him, “Let me see what I could come up with.” My main challenge was to create a web site that matched the quality of a high-end book. I overcame the font issue by creating all text mostly as .gif art files, allowing me a more liberating creative reign by constructing files in Illustrator before moving them into and saving in Photoshop. This would likely harm our standing in the search engines since spiders can’t read .gif text, but I was willing to sacrifice web hits for a superior design; after all, I wasn’t about to have it denigrated by floating elements, subpar interfaces and Palatino. Besides, with a kick-ass design quality, the site would encourage word-of-mouth sneezers to ultimately bring in more visitors.
Brand-wise, I shed the corporate palette of red, blue and industrial olive from the book and went for a more homespun mix of goldenrod, brick red and dark green; and I had recently fallen in love with Mrs. Eaves, an elegant type font that could pass as either contemporary or retro and would be a perfect fit for a baseball history project; without hesitation, I chose it as the site’s main font.
Ed, too, was initial ambivalent about what we could do; that changed the moment he saw the drafts of the test page, using the 1951 season as a pilot. He loved the look, the presentation and the accompanying site map of how I planned the web site out. He was happy, and so was I. This Great Game was on.
There was never any debate over the name, even as we failed to find proof that Commissioner Landis finished his verdict of the Black Sox Eight with those three words. This Great Game sounded epic, upbeat and encyclopedic all at once.
I dusted off the cobwebs on all the research materials from Major League Baseball: The Twentieth Century and pushed the restart button, moving forward to complete the writing. Quickly, I discovered one great benefit of the Internet; it provided a library that came to me, and not vice versa—thanks to sites like Retrosheet, Paper of Record (which had pdf files of every Sporting News issue going back to the 19th Century) and numerous media sites that had archived information that proved greatly useful. Such convenience was not going to speed This Great Game’s launch overnight; the remaining research and the staggering task of creating roughly 400 web pages for the site would take time. Into 2003. Into 2004. Finally, before Opening Day 2005, our site was complete enough, with my writings and Ed’s interviews, that we were ready to rock and scroll.
There was some early critical feedback. Some of it was legal; the This Great Game logo originally had the likeness of Joe DiMaggio as part of it, but we were rightfully warned that the DiMaggio estate might come at us with a cease-and-desist edict—or worse. So I altered it, loosely basing the new figure on a right-handed, Caucasian Reggie Jackson. Then my wife, whose own journalistic past made her a keen observer of many things, noted that while 400 web pages worth of baseball history would appeal to a lot of people for a first visit, what would make them return a second time? Updating the site every year with a review of the season just ended wasn’t enough to merit repeat users, in her opinion; I agreed. That led to the birth of two important sections that has kept the site fresh: The Opinions and the Comebacker.
The Opinion section got off to a rollicking start when our first entry, a piece I wrote entitled “Altitude-Challenged: Why the Colorado Rockies Will Never Win a World Series”, drew a bit of controversy—and nearly forced me to eat my words two years later when the Rockies almost did win it all. The section has also allowed Ed and I to do one of our very favorite things on the site: Our springtime predictions for the regular season where, like everyone else, we’re quite sure of what’s going to happen and then laugh ourselves silly six months later—sometimes because we actually got it right.
The Comebacker, meanwhile, started in late 2005 as a daily review of baseball events big, little and odd from the day before, highlighted by the Best and Worst hitters and pitchers from that day’s major league action. The daily grind of writing, producing (via .gif) and uploading got to be just that, so in 2007 we re-paced the Comebacker to become a weekly event, and it remains today as one of our most popular pages.
Ed’s interviews, represented in our They Were There section, have brought even more color and character to the site. It’s often joked that Ed has become the Grim Reaper of baseball interviewers because he aims to come knockin’ on the doors of the very oldest living ex-ballplayers, but his jovial disposition has encouraged all of his subjects, both young and old, to smile, relax and open up. That formula has worked in forging one previously unknown admission—Ernie Broglio revealed to Ed that he was damaged goods when shipped to the Chicago Cubs from St. Louis in the infamous 1964 trade that brought Lou Brock to the Cardinals—and raised eyebrows among our readers when Ed Mayer confessed that a UFO interrupted a minor league game he was playing during the 1950s (he was not abducted).
Needless to say, a web site loaded with over 300,000 words—or, in the world of print, a 1,500-page coffee table book—is going to have a few slip-ups. We’ve done out best to uncover them all. Yes, we initially said that Cleon Jones made all those great catches for the New York Mets in the 1969 World Series. (Jones actually did make a terrific grab or two, but it’s Ron Swoboda’s swan dives that everyone remembers.) Yes, we at first wrote that Jim Bagby won three World Series games in 1920, when actually it was Stan Coveleski. And there were some players we just couldn’t help but misspell, over and over, like Pete Donohue (we had it Donahue) and, most egregious of all, Carl Yastrzemski—because it really sounds like Yaz-strem-ski.
Reviews of This Great Game from the mainstream media have been more than kind. Newspapers have praised the site and, in July 2005, shortly after we went fully live, Yahoo! named us its Site of the Day, exclaiming that TGG was “the hallmark of a true devotee…throw this in your bookmarks, baseball fans, quick as a Nolan Ryan hummer.”
After coasting on our laurels for five years, we realized it was time to start thinking about This Great Game 2.0. The original look had served its purpose, and we now felt comfortable that the Internet had grown up to the point that we could make the next steps without sacrificing aesthetics. High praise and word-of-mouth had made us something of a cult hit, but we could always use a few more page views to increase traffic, which would lead to increased awareness, which would lead to increased revenue and, therefore, an even better TGG down the road. It’s just the way things work.
The 2013 refresh has given us the opportunity to add some things. Some very cool things.
Our Teams section, which previously consisted of little more than year-by-year results for each major league team, has been greatly expanded to include, among other additions, the top hitters, pitchers and most memorable games for each of the 30 ballclubs—because, apart from having the knowledge and want to do it, we remarkably couldn’t find another site anywhere on the Internet that had done the same thing. So if you want to check out the ten greatest hitters in Cincinnati Reds history, or the ten greatest New York Yankee pitchers or the ten most memorable games ever played by the Philadelphia Phillies, This Great Game is now the place to go.
Speaking of lists, we’ve added a new section called…Lists. More trivial in nature, the Lists will present a range of arresting topics, from the ten greatest season performances by a hitter to the five least deserving MVP recipients to, in the near future, the five worst team rebrands (i.e., the Boston Bees) and, just maybe, a list of five players who wouldn’t have to change their names if they went into porn (i.e., Max Carey). You get the idea; we’ll have fun writing the Lists, and you’ll have fun reading them.
The voluminous Yearly Reader section, the anchor store in our mall of baseball history with comprehensive reviews of each major league season dating back to 1900, has been rethought and enhanced. With vertical flow back in these days on the web, the pop-ups are gone, the content coalesced together and a wondrous plethora of new imagery included, making the experience more inviting and enjoyable for our visitors.
We’ve also established a new YouTube page that greatly expands on the handful of original videos we posted on the old site, a small batch that included the controversial scrum to get Barry Bonds’ 73rd home run in 2001 and, more lightheartedly, Joe Morgan’s trip to a hotdog vendor during an ESPN break. The TGG YouTube page includes a growing list of over 100 videos featuring rare footage, full movies and moments you thought you’d never see, such as Steve Bartman’s harrowing departure from Wrigley Field after interfering with the Chicago Cubs’ quest for a National League pennant in 2003.
Don’t think for a moment that we’re done, either. This Great Game will remain active in the near term with more new content, including a section devoted to Ed’s highly acclaimed Bushers illustrations (which we’re in the process of trying to leverage into—you guessed it—a coffee table book), more entries into the new Lists section, more of Ed’s interviews, the usual activity from the Yearly Reader, Opinion and Comebacker pages, our continued foray into the social media world with our TGG Facebook page and, as our next big thing, a section on major league ballparks past and present. Finally, for those currently missing Mrs. Eaves from the old site, rejoice: We’ll soon be reuniting our favorite typeface with the new site as web fonts take hold and bring the Internet out of its typographical dark ages.
It’s amazing how one little idea, a passing thought, turns into something like this. Had we known, 20 years ago, that this is where we’d be today with my weekly calendar, I’m not sure we’d believe it.
Ready for the next 20 years?
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