Filling out a Researcher's Notebook: A tribute to Al Kermisch

By Richard “Dixie” Tourangeau

SABR researcher extraordinaire Al Kermisch died quietly on November 21, 2002 in Alexandria, Virginia, though he lived for nearly forty years in nearby Arlington. In the April 2003 edition of the SABR Bulletin, he received a 38-word obituary, not saying much other than that he had died and he was the author of the popular and respected “Notes from a Researcher” [sic], his regular contribution to the Baseball Research Journal. It was far from a fitting goodbye or thank you.

There is no normal obituary written for him anywhere. About a dozen longtime SABR members were contacted recently to elicit a portrait of the man, but not one could remember meeting him other than by mail or phone, and those were a rarity. The only way to learn about Al was to piece together the descriptions of him from various SABR articles and other outlets. Finding them took some work, the kind of puzzle-piece search he would have relished. Here, finally, is a long-overdue attempt to put those pieces together and tell Kermisch's story.

Albert Kermisch was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 1, 1914, the second of seven children and the first of two sons. Parents David and Esther escaped the political turmoil of Eastern Europe in 1907-08. David was born in western Ukraine (Baczacz) while Esther was from Poland (Przemysl), 130 miles west. At various periods Austria, Poland, and Russia each claimed the area (also called Galicia), which at that time had a growing industrial economy.

The couple married in 1906 and went north 750 miles to Bremen, Germany, where David took the SS Wittekind to Baltimore, docking on May 17, 1907. Esther followed the next year. Over time five Kermisch brothers immigrated to America. David followed Solomon (in 1890), Bernhardt (1894) who created a prosperous jewelry business with his sons, and Phillip (1898). William was the last to cross the Atlantic in 1920. Bernhardt paid David’s oceanic fare and housed him in 1907-08.

David’s family really started in 1911 with daughter Pauline’s arrival. The family settled in the current Jonestown section of Baltimore, between the Phoenix Shot Tower and the Star Spangled Banner Flag House. Over the years they lived on East Lombard, South High, and Albemarle Streets and lastly Rockrose Avenue for many years. In a string of City Directory and Census listings David’s occupations varied from shirtmaker, to presser, tailor, salesman, auto repairman, gas inspector, supervisor and utilityman. Early on Esther clerked at brother-in-law Solomon’s neighborhood grocery before more children came, Al, Jeannie (1916), Ida (1919), Eleanor (1922), Jack Nathan (1924) and Fay (1927).

Glimpses of Al Kermisch’s life can be found in the 1973 SABR Bulletins #7 and #8 (Bob Davids, editor), the 1982 SABR Salute (Davids again), editor Jim Kaplan’s intro to Baseball Research Journal #19 in 1990, and a Baltimore Sun piece on April 3, 1992 by Al’s Baltimore baseball history cohort, James H. Bready. Finally in BRJ #31 (2002) appeared editor Jim Charlton’s sad news that Al had died. These came decades after The Sporting News’s brief graphs about Al’s whereabouts during World War II. From these combined sources we get the following script about a bona fide baseball addict.

Our primer is from founder Bob Davids’ 1982 SABR Salute to Kermisch. “Al had to leave high school after his first year because of a serious case of rheumatic fever, and when he recovered 12 years later he had to go to work. The early Depression years were tough but Al was a sports nut and played either baseball or basketball the year-round, establishing quite a reputation.” Add to that, “Growing up in East Baltimore, a lefty, Kermisch pitched for the Calumet Democratic Club, coached by (Richard) Rube Marquard. Once he pitched a 20-inning game on the old Trenton Club diamond on Reistertown Road. It was 95 degrees and thereafter he was a first baseman,” reported Bready in his Sun sketch headlined, “Guru of Baseball Games Gone By.”

Davids’ Salute continues, “Kermisch gave up the prospect of play-for-pay in 1935 when the Daily Sports Bulletin gave him an opportunity to cover Baltimore’s International League games at old Oriole Park. He made $2 per game.” This stimulated his love for baseball research and he divided time between YMCA sports and the library across the street. Kermisch met Ernie Lanigan at the International League offices, and passed along tidbits he acquired. These came thanks in great deal to Lanigan’s letter on League stationery to the bemused librarians that allowed the inquisitive kid access to many hidden sources.

Here Kaplan’s very enlightening BRJ piece steps in, “At age 20, Al seemed headed to the Bethlehem Steel Mill but was sidetracked by his old coach Ted Cox. Cox gave him the Sports Bulletin job saying, ‘Keep the box score at the Oriole games, and I’ll write the story.’” Al did so, but always wanting to know more, he kept pestering Lanigan, director of the League’s information bureau, with questions. According to Kermisch, it was Lanigan who finally told him, “It wouldn’t be bad for you to look up some things yourself.”

After his International League knowledge grew and his research skills solidified, Al got his first taste of national byline notoriety in 1939. After the 1938 season he sent Baseball Magazine editor Clifford A. Bloodgood a story about two Yankees prospects who tore up the International circuit, Charlie Keller (.365) and Warren “Buddy” Rosar (.387). The January 1939 issue carried his full-page article, “Two Rookie Riflers” (p. 370) with Al’s stat-evidence prediction of stardom for each (Keller yes, but Rosar fell short).

World events soon put a dent in his research routine. Kermisch enlisted in the Army, Warrant Officers branch, on November 26, 1940. His papers read, “… two years of high school completed.” Al served stateside during most of the carnage. The Sporting News, aware of his baseball ties, kept track of him. In June 1943 a graph reported, “Lt. Al Kermisch, former International League statistician at Baltimore, now stationed at HQ of the 8th Army Corps at Brownwood, Texas, is a feature columnist of ‘The Eight Ball,’ published monthly by the special service office.” Kermisch gave soldiers an entertaining page of baseball gossip. In September 1944, he was transferred to the 675th Ordnance Co., Camp Hood, Texas, and was dutifully tracked by TSN.

While still in the Army in 1949, Al got two TSN bylines in the December 7 issue within a multipage history of Baltimore baseball. One covered Orioles’ winning streaks of 25 and 27 games in 1920-21, and the other Babe Ruth’s six consecutive home runs in two April 1919 exhibition ballgames at old Federal League Terrapin (renamed Oriole) Park that burned down in July 1944.

Located between 29th and 30th Streets at Greenmount, the ballyard was 2.5 miles north of where Kermisch grew up. These tales were the first in the format of what became his signature storytelling method, short articles focusing on some quirky happening, record, personality, or just something damned interesting he had discovered.

Kermisch continued to serve his country, sometimes at a European base and later in Korea. Those geographical situations led to epic travels to spring training or special ballgames despite long distances and obstacles of military travel. For the Browns-turned-Orioles’ first (since 1902) major-league home game in 1954, he was at Memorial Stadium. Al managed to open that season with them in Detroit a few days before, seeing the modern Orioles lose 3-0 at Briggs Stadium as Ray Boone, Walt Dropo, and Frank Bolling homered off Don Larsen. But the next day Major Kermisch excitedly watched his O's win 3-1 on blasts by Vern Stephens and Clint Courtney.

Kermisch’s five-day pass from his Washington, DC office was well worth having because on April 15, the Orioles opened at home in a grand festive atmosphere, edging the White Sox, 3-1 behind Bob Turley and Stephens’s two RBIs. TSN covered Al’s movements as briefs and he stuck in some history notes for the stories.

During the 1950s, Al was regarded as the Orioles’ unofficial historian mainly because he knew so much of the early days of the club including its amateur roots, 1890s NL champion stars, 1920s and ’30s minor-league triumphs and almost everything else. For spring training 1958, the O’s were in Arizona and Al was stationed 65 miles outside Paris, France. Not wanting to break his string of several spring visits, he managed a two-week leave, three flights, and covered 6,000 miles to arrive in time.

During the 1960s Kermisch wrote at least a dozen pieces for TSN on myriad topics. By this time, whether sending articles or comments on baseball records to TSN or to Lanigan at the Hall of Fame, his reputation was solid. “If Kermisch sent it, it’s okay,” was Lanigan’s reply to anyone wanting to check Al’s facts.

After 23 years Kermisch retired from the Army in 1963 and eventually moved to Arlington. Pentagon City’s River House Apartments on South Joyce Street were within a long fly ball of the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, but most importantly Al was only a four-mile bus ride from the Library of Congress, his mecca.

When settled, he became the historian for the Washington Senators until they moved after 1971. As such he was repeatedly invited to be on several radio talk shows. Legend has it that he could be found at the Library of Congress seven days a week, year after year. He was married to baseball research.

Bob Davids also spent hours at the library on much the same mission. It was inevitable that they met and when Bob decided to start SABR one of his Cooperstown invitations must have gone to Kermisch. However, Al was not among the Original 16 at the establishment of SABR on August 10, 1971. But on October 3, he joined as SABR member number 56. His buddy, Jim Bready, joined as member 63 on October 17.

Ordnance Al had plenty of research ammo ready when Davids created the Baseball Research Journal in 1972. By the time it appeared in 1973, Kermisch was known from two fronts. In the February 1973 Bulletin #7 (p. 4), a tidbit called “Point of View” told us Al was “bothered by the number of strikeouts” fans had to endure. His remedy was not the new DH but moving the mound back two feet.

In the #8 issue in May, Kermisch was one of five members profiled by Davids. By that time the first BRJ was published with Al’s contribution, “Walter Johnson: King of the 1-0 Hurlers.” Thanks to member Phil Bergen and Joe Murphy’s tedious indexing of the BRJ through 2006, we know Kermisch holds the SABR record for both consecutive yearly articles published as well as total number of stories. He gave readers well-researched entertainment from 1972 to 1986 (15 years), missed two years due to ill health, and then continued the same stellar workload until his death in 2002 (14 more). In total, 223 subjects were covered.

Al also wrote four articles for The National Pastime. His last entries came in the BRJ #31, published in 2003 after his death. The finale of his seven-story submission was about nine-year outfielder Mike Menosky (.278) being called into court, amicus curiae. In 1951 Detroit judge O.Z. Ide, once a college player himself, decided that if probation officer Menosky couldn’t throw a rock 250 feet, then the young defendant couldn’t either. The charge of malicious destruction of property (broken window) was dropped. Another Kermisch gem to end his career.

The Sporting News heard from Al a final time in June 1975 via a letter to “Voice of the Fan.” Kermisch was not joining the hoopla over the major leagues’ One Millionth Run being scored. He felt any celebration was bogus since MLB decided not to count the runs scored in the National, Union and American Associations or the Federal League. It was in the 1976 BRJ that Kermisch started using his famed “From a Researcher’s Notebook” title for his 6 to 13 snippets in each issue.

Al’s fans were legion. One on-and-off SABR member, broadcaster Keith Olbermann wrote in a December 2009 blog post: “ ‘From a Researcher’s Notebook’ was my favorite part of the annual SABR Journal — the curious things the late Al Kermisch found, presumably in the pursuit of grander truths. I can’t hope to emulate the quality of Mr. Kermisch’s work but I do hope to touch the curiosity factor with nuts-and-bolts research and whimsy.”

Political columnist, author, and baseball fan George F. Will included a paragraph on Al in his book, Bunts (Scribner, 1998): “Spring training, where Kermisch frets over the Orioles, is his only respite from the rigors of research in the Library of Congress, where he studies old box scores. When Kermisch, 71, retired after 23 years in the Army, he started doing full-time what he had done intermittently while stationed at the Pentagon. And now he holds the major league record for the most time spent with the library’s microfilm machines. The fruits of his labor are sweet.”

Kermisch’s friend, James H. Bready, was himself an expert on Baltimore baseball history (two books) and was a 30-year editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun in addition to being the Orioles historian for many years. His April 3, 1992, profile, “Grand Guru of Baseball Games Gone By,” gives us his thoughts on Al: “In the history of baseball, particularly as played professionally in Baltimore and Washington, Al Kermisch has been everywhere. He has inspected the box score of every game ever played by the teams, major league and minor, of both cities.”

Bready admiringly continues, “His routine has been to arrive at the Library of Congress when the doors open and spend all day in the serials division, poring over old newspapers and making notes. It was a seven-day-a-week labor of love, though at 77, Kermisch has slowed down to five days.” Jim informed us that Al pitched batting practice in 1942 in his Army uniform to the Orioles in their uniforms.

It was left to editor Jim Charlton to tell the membership of its loss in his Editor's Note of BRJ #31 and with a brief inset paragraph with Al’s last bunch of anecdotal nuggets. “Since the inception of the BRJ, Al Kermisch’s ‘From a Researcher’s Notebook’ has been its most well-respected and longest running feature. … An ardent researcher for over 60 years, sadly he passed on in November 2002. Al’s last article was submitted by him shortly before he died. He will be missed by all of us in SABR.” The Kermisch “… Notebook” was for two decades the final item in each Journal, a purposely designed pleasant ending to anyone’s read.

Kermisch himself gets the last words, through the insightful prodding of editor Jim Kaplan for the Preface in BRJ #19 (1990). “Al commutes to the Library of Congress to dig for gems and correct the record books via his collection of voluminous notes,” Kaplan wrote. What was Al’s method and philosophy? “Dig, dig, dig,” he told Jim, “read, read, read until you find a note that triggers something. You not only have to read the boxes but the running accounts. And it helps to go to papers in cities where the event actually occurred.”

Though Al died on November 21, 2002, just nine months after SABR founder Bob Davids, he was not buried in Arlington National Cemetery (as was Davids) until September 13, 2004. His stone is at Court 5, Section NN, Stack/Row 17, Niche 1.

RICHARD "DIXIE" TOURANGEAU has been a SABR member since 1981. He lives in Boston one mile from Fenway Park and two miles from the Public Library. He has written articles for the SABR BioProject and many other publications.

 

This page was last updated March 22, 2017 at 4:49 pm MST.