By Graham Womack
(Editor's note: Each of the questionnaires pictured are courtesy of the collection of Bill Weiss. Click on any for a larger view. A complete list of viewable questionaires is provided at the end of the article.)
It started with a small office. When that office was full, six years after he moved in, Bill Weiss constructed a back office. Then he filled his basement, another office, his front porch, his garage and, eventually, an annex he built to his house. By the time of his death at 86 on August 16, 2011, nearly every corner of Weiss's San Mateo, California home was filled with his life's work: baseball history. A statistician and official scorekeeper for several minor leagues, Weiss spent close to 70 years accumulating historical material, rarely throwing anything away. His wish and the sizable task he left five friends he appointed to a board of trustees? Preserving his collection.
At first glance, the thing that jumps out about the questionnaire is the neatness and precision of penmanship. In ornate cursive, on a legal-sized sheet dated July 18, 1977, about a month after the San Diego Padres drafted him, Ozzie Smith details his amateur career and life to this point. Asked for his most exciting moment, Smith mentions winning Most Valuable Player in a tournament in Taiwan the year before. He talks of being two quarters shy of completing his bachelors degree at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Asked about other clubs he's played for, Smith writes of his summer of 1976 with the semi-pro Clarinda Iowa A's; he'll reference Clarinda again in his Hall of Fame speech 25 years later.
Every time a player joined a team in a minor league Bill Weiss worked with, Weiss would have him fill out such a survey within 10 days. Think of a noteworthy player who debuted in the minors between the late 1940s and 2006, and there's a good chance Weiss got a handwritten questionnaire from him. Through two visits to Weiss's home after his death, this author located questionnaires for Smith, Wade Boggs, Dennis Eckersley, Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor and many other players. Toward the end of his life, Weiss would occasionally sell an original questionnaire, such as Jose Canseco, though he always kept a photocopy. By the time of Weiss's death, it's estimated he had questionnaires for more than 100,000 players.
The questionnaires are but a small part of Weiss's collection. He also kept official stats, player files and draft records. He kept correspondence from players, managers and league officials who would write to complain about his scoring decisions. He kept records on high school and college baseball. He kept material from a circuit he helped found and run for 25 years, the Peninsula Winter League that featured the likes of Willie Stargell and Joe Morgan. Weiss's personal library of baseball books would eventually fill more than 125 banana boxes with selections dating to the 1860s. That's just the stuff the executor of Weiss's estate Mark Macrae said was fit for donation, about 26,000 pounds of material.
Part of the challenge that faced Macrae when he began going through the collection near Labor Day 2011 was that Weiss was somewhat indiscriminate in the things he kept. While one file cabinet drawer might contain priceless, original baseball research, another might teem with 30-year-old issues of TV Guide. Macrae said he spent more than 1,000 hours going through the collection, averaging one visit a week for more than two years. A memorabilia dealer and, like Weiss, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, Macrae said he accepted no payment for the work. Asked of his motivation, Macrae said, "We've been friends for a long time and we both shared the same dream: to get this in and preserve it."
Options for donation were, surprisingly, limited. From conversations with Weiss's friend and former Hall of Fame historian Cliff Kachline, it was presumed Cooperstown would have neither space, staffing nor interest for a minor league collection of this size; Macrae said the museum already stores 10 times as many items as it has on display. Weiss's trustees were against giving the collection to SABR for fear of it being disassembled. There was interest from Huntington (California) Library, though it proved fleeting. University of Notre Dame expressed interest as well but only wanted part of the collection, a dealbreaker. Prior to his death, Weiss expressed three wishes: that the collection be kept intact, that it be publicly accessible and that there be a long-term plan for it. "He wanted the fellas to take it and put [it] in a place where people could see it," Weiss's widow and wife of 56 years, Faye Weiss said.
Some years ago, one member of the board of trustees, former Baseball America president Dave Chase, ran a small minor league baseball museum in Memphis. Following Weiss's death, two other members of Weiss's board, Durham Bulls owner Miles Wolff and Baseball America founder Allan Simpson worked more than a year attempting to use Weiss's collection to found a larger minor league baseball museum, going so far as to locate a building in Durham. Figuring they'd need $5 million to get the building up to code and cover startup costs, Wolff and Simpson attended baseball's winter meetings in 2011 and 2012, though their efforts attracted little interest from Major League Baseball or potential sponsors. All the while, Macrae worked with the understanding that should anything happen to Faye Weiss, the house might need to quickly be sold, per Weiss's will and the collection put in storage or disposed of.
In Weiss's obituary, his friend and former SABR president Dick Beverage said Weiss did statistics for nine minor leagues at the same time at one point. Baseball-Reference.com notes, "Bill Weiss may have personally compiled statistics for more league-seasons than anyone else in baseball history." More than likely, Weiss did those stats by hand or typewriter. He loathed computers, didn't purchase one until his later years and, even then, avoided using it. Weiss was his own computer, with a filing system both intuitive and seemingly esoteric. "The way he organized the archive was only decipherable by him," Macrae said. "He knew where every single thing was on the property."
Weiss preferred letters, faxes and phone calls, getting them at all hours. His San Mateo home attracted more than 1,000 players over the years, and when a player arrived he might find Weiss napping in a recliner he kept in his office. Weiss favored cat naps over a full night's sleep, resting at breaks in the action. During baseball season, he'd work as late as games went, sometimes later. A spirit of altruism colored Weiss's work and life, with him donating to 150 charities by the time of his death. More than that, Weiss was driven by his lifelong passion, baseball. "He was just crazy about baseball," said Faye Weiss, who worked alongside her husband. "That was his whole life. That and dogs." Several generations of black cocker spaniels were the closest the Weisses came to having children.
In the age of the Internet, much of the work Weiss devoted a lifetime to may seem superfluous. The official stats he compiled so painstakingly can be quickly accessed at Baseball-Reference.com and a range of other websites, though his friends question their accuracy. Among other things, Weiss went a step further than some minor league statisticians by including players with their clubs less than 10 days. "Nobody has the files and stuff he has," said Ray Nemec, another member of Weiss's board of trustees.
Some of the most-detailed historical data for minor league baseball is currently in private hands. Weiss's collection was the largest of maybe half a dozen of its kind, each generally in the hands of an aging collector. Like Weiss, they represent a literally dying breed of researcher. The fate of Weiss's collection has been something of a test case for the others.
Asked if the current economic climate could support a minor league museum, Major League Baseball historian John Thorn said, "I think it's a product of dedication and a core collection. If the core collection were to be donated, then it would act as a magnet for smaller collections, and you might build up something that would be an attraction. It probably would need to become instantly a 501(c)3 and renounce profits and have an endowment or a sugar daddy that would underwite operating losses. In the age of the Internet, it may be that the best place to build a museum is in the cloud."
Thorn continued, "There are many people who have artifacts that are not necessarily eager to relinquish them unless it's part of their estate. Some of them will have monetary value, but they may be very willing to permit higher resolution images to be shared. You could create a virtual museum; and a minor league museum on the Net would be of high interest, lesser cost and, I think, value to the research community and to the larger community. And I think that the minor leagues would get behind such a thing."
About a year ago, Weiss's board of trustees finally caught a break in the form of the San Diego Public Library, home to perhaps the largest baseball research center on the West Coast. San Diego features a robust SABR group, the Ted Williams Chapter, with plenty of members available to volunteer and prepare Weiss's collection for public access. The library also had plans to expand in the fall of 2013 into a larger building where the baseball research center could occupy the entire eighth floor.
Through months of negotiations, the San Diego group arranged for a local trucking company to haul a load from Weiss's house for free on a return trip from the Bay Area. The group added a second truck, this time at a cost, after Macrae implored them that one truck would be grossly insufficient. That still only accounted for 20,000 pounds of material, leaving about 180 banana boxes or 6,000 pounds at Weiss's house after the group's first moving day on December 4. (Macrae said he packed 650 banana boxes in all.) A third truck came for the remaining boxes on January 4.
The work to make Weiss's collection publicly-useable is far from over. Macrae estimates 20,000 man hours of labor will be needed. Many of those hours could come from San Diego SABR members, led in part by Tom Larwin, who helped spearhead getting Weiss's collection moved. "It will be a fascinating job for us as we go through all of that," Larwin said. The non-profit LA84 Foundation has also volunteered to scan and digitize the player questionnaires, with work already underway. The new main branch of the San Diego library opened in September; Weiss's collection is being stored and gone through in the old, now-shuttered library.
In the past six months, two of the holders of private minor league collections have tentatively changed their wills to have their collections go to the San Diego library, while they monitor what ultimately happens with Weiss's collection.
If Weiss's collection becomes publicly available, it'll be a tribute to a man who avoided the spotlight and worked quietly for more than half a century. Longtime friend Bob Hoie speculated that Weiss compiled statistics for nearly every minor league team west of the Mississippi River, and did so with accuracy. "The guy was just a real perfectionist when it came to putting out his stats," said Hoie. "This guy, I think, was the greatest statistician who ever was."
View additional sample questionnares from Weiss' collection:
Kevin Bass | Wade Boggs | Bobby Bonilla | Jose Canseco | Santiago Casilla (as "Jairo Garcia") | Prince Fielder | Ozzie Guillen | Dan Haren | Rickey Henderson | Edwin Jackson | John Kruk | Paul Molitor | Paul O'Neill | Bret Saberhagen | Benito Santiago | Ozzie Smith | Bob Welch | Billy Williams
Graham Womack is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today Sports Weekly and other publications. He is the founder and editor of Baseball: Past and Present.