Sean Forman started the site while earning his doctorate in mathematics
Sean Forman may have studied mathematical and computation sciences as a University of Iowa doctoral student, but what he really cared about was baseball, especially in October.
“I grew up in Manning, Iowa, as a Red Sox fan,” he says. “There weren’t many Red Sox fans in Iowa. But I’d read the league batting leaders every week in the newspaper, and it always had lots of Red Sox—Wade Boggs, Dwight Evans, Jim Rice—so I liked the Red Sox.”
It wasn’t until later he realized the abundance of Red Sox among the batting leaders was a statistical quirk of playing their home games in Fenway Park, with its Green Monster and oddly sized outfield that made it an easy place to hit.
It also helped spark Forman’s fascination with statistics, which led him to the University of Iowa and, after that, a career that has made him one of baseball’s most vital online presences.
Forman, (PhD ’01), is the founder, developer, and CEO of Baseball-Reference.com, considered the definitive website for baseball statistics, records, and other diamond minutiae. If anyone wonders—and fans do—how many wins Ken Holtzman had as a Cubs rookie, how many seasons Ted Williams missed while flying fighter planes in World War II and Korea, or how many home runs Babe Ruth hit during his sad final season with the Boston Braves, Baseball-Reference.com is the place to go.
(By the way, it’s 11; three full and parts of two others; and six, the last three of which were hit in the same game.)
The site has its roots at the UI. Forman was a doctoral student in the Department of Mathematics in the mid-1990s when he managed the Iowa Farm Report, his online source of statistics and information about minor league teams.
He soon discovered that there were no other websites doing what his did, even for the majors.
“You couldn’t find any reliable statistics source online,” he says. “You couldn’t even find Ty Cobb’s statistics online.”
So he started putting together what would become Baseball-Reference.com when he wasn’t working on his doctoral thesis, “Torsion Angle Selection and Emergent Non-Local Secondary Structure in Protein Structure Prediction.” His advisor, professor of computer science Alberto Segre, was patient.
“He was a great advisor and I enjoyed working with him, but he wasn’t a fan,” Forman says. “Mostly, he put up with me doing my baseball stuff.”
The site went live in 2000, filled mostly with statistics of retired players from the database of Baseball Archive. At first, it was 20,000 pages long and needed only 300 MB of server space, which he rented for $20 a month.
It wasn’t much, Forman admits, but considering there was nothing else like it, Baseball-Reference.com was a treasure trove for fans. Then one day the site came to the attention of a writer at Sports Illustrated, who published a small story about it.
“The server crashed,” Forman says, which made him realize that if interest was so high that his server would crash after a mention in SI, there might be a viable commercial market for this sort of thing. He kept building the site, even as he finished his doctoral work at the UI and joined the faculty at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
He added box scores from every major league game played, dating back to before World War I. He added statistics from the Federal League and other failed major leagues of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He added statistics from the Negro Leagues and Japanese major leagues, and minor league statistics dating back to the 19th century.
The site has grown to now include more than 500,000 pages of data from 20 different sources. It’s updated daily during the season with the latest major league standings and statistics, and an In Memoriam section memorializing every former major leaguer who died in recent days
It became so big that Forman eventually left his job at St. Joe’s to run his company—Sports Reference LLC—full time. He merged with several other companies that maintain sites with comprehensive NFL, NHL, and NBA statistics, as well as the Olympics. The combined sites generate hundreds of thousands of page views each day, even during the off-season, and he has a staff of seven employees at his Philadelphia headquarters. He earns enough revenue selling banner advertising and page sponsorships to make a comfortable living.
The site’s customers are more than just baseball fans, egghead statistics mavens, and fantasy and rotisserie league general managers agonizing over which flawed player they should draft as a fourth outfielder. It’s also a great site for the fan who wants to bask in the warm memories of that Twins vs. Brewers game in 1987 when Kirby Puckett went 6 for 6.
Forman says the site also is used regularly in press boxes, front offices, and law firms by sports reporters, team management, and player agents.
Forman says his work in the UI doctoral program prepared him to oversee a project that will never stop growing.
“My thesis was a large programming project that really helped me manage large projects like that,” he says.
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