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Metrics masters muster in Manhattan

Participants listen to speakers at the Society for

Participants listen to speakers at the Society for American Baseball Research's  47th annual convention at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan on Thursday, June 29, 2017. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Steve Steinberg had just finished a presentation on the heroes and goats from Game 7 of the 1926 World Series on Thursday when several hands shot up with questions, comments, corrections and additions.

This led Steinberg to note the obvious: Where else would an audience know as much — if not more — about a subject such as a baseball game played 91 years ago than a historian giving a talk on the subject?

So it goes at the SABR convention, the 47th of which came to New York this week, its first visit since 1991 — when Mel Allen was a guest speaker — to the city where the sport took shape in the mid-1800s. (Sorry, Cooperstown.)

The reasons for the gap are varied, including the costs associated with visiting New York, but here it was, and it was expected to exceed the record attendance of 726, set in St. Louis in 2007.

Since its founding in 1971, SABR — aka Society for American Baseball Research — has evolved from a fringe group of baseball nerds to . . . well, a mainstream group of baseball nerds, one with its own word: “sabermetrics.”

That is the term used to describe mathematical tools and analysis to study the game, pioneered by SABR’s Bill James and now standard in every major sport.

But while analytics are a key area of interest for the organization’s 6,000 or so members — and are the subject of a separate convention in Phoenix — the national get-together skews toward the history that is most members’ primary focus.

That was evident across an eclectic series of panel discussions and presentations at the Grand Hyatt hotel.

There were ones on early baseball figures such as Doc Adams and Harry Pulliam, the former presented by Adams’ great-granddaughter. There was one on the proposed “Continental League” that led directly to the Mets landing in New York, and another on Louis Armstrong’s ties to baseball.

Keith Olbermann was to head a session on baseball cards.

Members, many of them dressed in throwback jerseys and hats from around the country, perused displays on the evolution of catcher’s mitts, the use of fictional baseball cards in films and a detailed analysis of an age-old question: What was the best offensive game in big-league history — Josh Hamilton on May 8, 2012, or Ed Delahanty on July 13, 1896?

Many of the attendees also took a trip to Citi Field on Friday, including a pregame session with Mets general manager Sandy Alderson and manager Terry Collins.

If all of this sounds is if it might attract a membership that skews old, white and male, that it does. SABR is around 5 percent female, and its average age is 57, which actually has fallen in recent years.

Leslie Heaphy, a college history professor who is vice president of SABR’s board of directors, said the organization is working hard to diversify.

Heaphy said when she joined in 1988, she was one of only 10 or so women. “The first time I walked in the room, I was like: ‘Wow,’ ” she said.

Marc Appleman, SABR’s CEO said: “We’re trying to get more diverse, and we’re definitely trying to younger . . . I think we’re facing a lot of what Major League Baseball is facing. We really want to get the next generation of baseball fans into this and hooked on it.”

SABR works with schools and gives scholarships to some young convention attendees. A group of New York high school students surrounded MLB Network’s Brian Kenny on Thursday, peppering him with questions before a session on sabermetrics.

Part of SABR’s challenge is remaining relevant in a world full of free information, and lots of it. “It used to be SABR was the only place you could come to get some of the history and some of the statistics,” Heaphy said.

But nothing beats in-person interaction with fellow fanatics. The convention lobby was full of conversations that only true believers could share, or understand. There also was a trivia contest.

The New York chapter is named for Casey Stengel. Its co-chair, Ernestine Miller, said getting young people interested is crucial.

“My main passion is passing down this rich and wonderful history to the next generation, because I am, as we all are, concerned about the history being lost, and it’s happening,” she said. “The reality today is people are on their gadgets, they want instant gratification, they want scores.

“But the rich personalities of New York are legendary, and I want my grandchildren, I want my children, I want everyone that I know that loves baseball like I do, to know what came before.”

What was the best offensive game in big-league history — Josh Hamilton on May 8, 2012, or Ed Delahanty on July 13, 1896?

New York Sports