Allan Simpson's Unconventional Thinking Created An Enduring Baseball Convention
If Allan Simpson wasn’t just a little bit crazy, I would not have my career.
Neither would anyone else at Baseball America. And it’s likely that a number of draft and prospect writers at other media outlets also have their vocations because one Canadian baseball fan looked at baseball a little differently.
If you’ve ever scanned a list of top prospects, you have reason to thank Simpson as well.
Because of that, we can’t help but be thrilled that Simpson, the founder of Baseball America, is one of three finalists for the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the award for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing” selected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and awarded every summer during Hall of Fame induction weekend.
Simpson’s selection would be a non-traditional choice for the Spink Award. He was never a member of the BBWAA, and only one non-BBWAA member—Roger Angell in 2014—has been honored previously. Simpson himself estimates that the number of major league games he has attended in person is fewer than 200.
But it’s fitting that Simpson’s selection would be unconventional, because nothing about Simpson’s path in baseball was ever normal. As a Canadian growing up hundreds of miles from professional or even college baseball, conventional options for a career in the game were closed to him. Even following the game was difficult. He read everything about baseball he could get his hands on—The Sporting News was his lifeline—and he listened to any baseball broadcast he could find.
“You had to improvise. Any form of baseball, I lapped it all up,” Simpson said.
He wanted to be a part of the game. For a couple of years in the 1970s, Simpson snuck across the border every summer to work for the Alaska Goldpanners in the summer college Alaska Baseball League. One summer he worked for a Pioneer League club in Canada, but by the late ’70s, he had realized that as a Canadian far from the majors or even most of the minor leagues, his possibilities for working in baseball were effectively non-existent.
So Simpson became an accountant and put his baseball dreams to the side. But he couldn’t escape the idea that he had to be involved in baseball. If Simpson had grown up in the U.S., he probably would have figured out a way to become a minor league general manager or work for a college team. Without a U.S. work visa, that wasn’t an option.
So he made his own path. As The Sporting News shifted away from its baseball focus in the 1970s, Simpson wondered if there were others like him who loved minor league baseball and needed to see it covered. He wondered if they may prefer seeing coverage of the minors focused on identifying future big leaguers rather than rehashing who won the Southern League.
He wondered if there were enough college baseball fans to support a publication that shone a light on the College World Series. And as he looked at growing interest in the NFL draft, the NBA draft—Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were just entering the league—and even the NHL draft, he was baffled as to why no one cared to tell the stories of Major League Baseball draftees.
“My intuition was that there were a lot of baseball fans who were being short-changed. If no one else was going to do this. I’ll take a bold gamble and do it myself,” Simpson said.
He wasn’t ready. He didn’t know enough about the industry to know he was crazy to even try. He had never taken a journalism course. He didn’t have the capital to sustain the lean early years of getting a magazine off the ground. He didn’t even really know how to type.
But with his wife Jill encouraging him to follow his dream, the Simpsons moved to White Rock, B.C., just a few miles from the U.S. border. Their new home allowed him to drive the issues of BA across the border and ship them from Bellingham, Wash. The newsroom/production studio became Simpson’s unheated garage.
WIth assistance from baseball beat writers Tracy Ringolsby and Ken Leiker, who saw the potential in Simpson’s vision and helped him line up a roster of correspondents, Simpson produced the first issue of what was then called All-American Baseball News in February 1981. It wasn’t perfect, but it was unlike anything on the market.
The twice-monthly schedule he had laid out quickly became impossible. The number of hours he worked a week were almost unfathomable.
“We did the first one and then realized, ‘Jesus, we have to do a second one?’ ” Simpson said. “I didn’t know if we were going to make it. I ran out of money.”
For a few days that summer, Simpson had decided to fold the magazine. But that was just as the 1981 players’ strike shifted the focus of baseball fans to the minors and other alternatives to the majors. He figured out a way to piece together a way to get through the season. Readers responded. By the next season, major league scouting directors and other officials inside the game, thrilled to see someone pay attention to the vital areas of player development that had largely been ignored, started sharing their insight on the draft and prospects. A couple of years after that, major league GMs were using BA’s rankings to help improve their trade proposals.
By 1983, Baseball America was sold to then-Durham Bulls owner Miles Wolff, which allowed Simpson to get a work visa to come to the U.S. to produce it. He had found his path to a lifetime career in baseball.
With Simpson’s push, the MLB draft went from being something conducted in secret to a prime-time TV production. As Jose Canseco, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter and Andruw Jones rose through the minors, prospects started to become famous before they hit the big leagues.
“It got bigger and better, which would not have happened without quality people inside and outside the magazine. We had a great staff through the years,” Simpson said.
Maybe coverage of player development and baseball at levels below the majors would have materialized without Simpson’s push. Similarly, maybe the analytical study of baseball would have developed as it did without Bill James’ writing his influential Baseball Abstracts in the 1980s. It’s impossible to know if these were ideas that would have carried a momentum all on their own.
But just like the Velvet Underground was the band that birthed a thousand rock bands, Baseball America is the magazine that showed generations of fans, players and future front office employees that there was more than just the major leagues.
The first time I picked up a Baseball America magazine as a freshman in college, it showed me there was a world of prospects and draftees and college stars that had largely been hidden to me. Like a number of others, I quickly knew I wanted to be a part of that world.
We do know that before Simpson founded Baseball America in 1981, no other outlet tried to tell the story of players from high school to the major leagues. There were no outlets that thought it was possible to rank all of the best prospects in the minors. No one had ever been crazy enough to try to gather information on the top draft prospects and lay out how the first round would likely shake out.
Four decades later, coverage of all levels of baseball is now expected and even commonplace. Allan Simpson is the person who started baseball down that path.
Simpson said that simply being a Spink Award finalist is a great honor. He quickly adds that any recognition is really a shared honor for everyone who has worked at Baseball America.
But in reality, you would not be reading this if not for Simpson. And for that, I hope to be sitting with a lot of other Baseball America employees, alumni and subscribers in Cooperstown next summer watching him receive the recognition he richly deserves.