Baseball is deeply ingrained in Chicago’s identity. With the White Sox on the South side of town and the Cubs nestled in the north, the city has a deep-rooted history and love for the game.
That love of baseball enthralled Bethesda Big Train historian Bill Hickman, who attended scores of games at old Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field growing up.
Of the two, it was the Bleacher Creatures and the Cubs that he frequented the most.
“I used to come home from school, drive over to the stadium, probably around the seventh inning or so, and I would just go in because the ushers, by that point, didn’t care,” Hickman said.
Decades later, he still frequents the baseball diamond, but now along with watching games, he’s archiving them.
Hickman has spearheaded a project to rank the Top 25 games in Bethesda Big Train history, which will roll out over the course of this summer. This idea was originally to compile the top ten games, but that list eventually more than doubled in size.
“That project is the essence of Bill Hickman,” Big Train President & Founder Bruce Adams said. “One of us gets an idea that requires some research and we just say, ‘Hey Bill, what about?’ and he jumps right in. It’s incredible…The projects always grow, and he always responds.”
While this most recent project is one of the highlights of this summer, Hickman’s history with the Big Train dates back to the organization’s inception in 1999.
“It’s been since year one, or at least pretty close to that, that I ran into Bill,” Big Train manager Sal Colangelo said. “He was that guy that when you walked into the ballpark, you would see him every day. He would welcome you to the ballpark, support you, do whatever you needed that you asked. He was very accommodating and that was just Bill.”
Hickman started as an usher for Big Train games at Shirley Povich Field, mostly keeping an eye on the fans’ safety as originally the foul netting didn’t extend past the home plate area.
In 2001, Hickman took over as the Big Train’s first Volunteer Coordinator. Leading a mostly volunteer-run organization, he had a lot of responsibilities and a hefty game day staff of all ages to oversee.
“In those days, it was very different from the volunteering that goes on at Big Train now,” Hickman said. “There were up to as many as 40 volunteers used per game, so it was a pretty complex thing.”
He manned the position for a decade, and took over as the souvenir program editor, which he has continued on until this day.
Around 2005 or 2006, while serving as Volunteer Coordinator, he first got the idea to keep track of statistics, players and records for the Big Train.
“Bruce had put together binders of each season,” Hickman said. “They had box scores and league statistics on paper. He had kept them up in the press box in the glass trophy case. I looked through the binders from the 1999 season through 2005 and that became the core of keeping track of statistics of Big Train for each season.”
Once he stepped down as Volunteer Coordinator in 2011, his focus fully turned to his current position as team historian.
Hickman was also the first person to officially track Big Train alumni through their collegiate, minor, major league, international and even post-playing careers.
“That was natural to me,” Hickman said. “I’ve always been interested in who the players were…We are sort of a family in Big Train, and we’re proud of what they’ve done in life. The success doesn’t have to come only on the ball field.”
Hickman has a knack for spotting players. It comes in part from his involvement with the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), of which he has been an active member of since 1994, after a brief stint between 1984 and 1985.
Flipping through the pages of the sports section of newspapers growing up, Hickman tried to remember the names of the players.
At SABR, he took that hobby into a full-fledged project, helping develop the organization’s Player Image Index as the chair of SABR’s Pictorial History Committee.
The committee has catalogued images for about 98 percent of the players who have played in the majors since 1871, from Hall of Famers to those who appeared in just one game.
“Bill’s reach is incredibly wide,” SABR member and colleague T. Scott Brandon said. “…He was and is a wealth of information and a nurturing leader.”
Early on, the index was separate collections from individual members, but once Hickman took the reins, that all changed. It’s a testament to the person he has always been as he’s continued his tireless research now for the Big Train.
“I had hoped to do something related to baseball and this turned out to be a perfect opportunity,” Hickman said.
This winter, Hickman and Adams teamed up to write a piece on the history of collegiate summer baseball in Maryland and Washington D.C. for what was to be a special issue of The National Pastime, a SABR magazine, for its 2020 convention in Baltimore.
The convention was postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the issue and article are still scheduled to be published this summer.
“I learned an enormous amount from doing this project,” Hickman said. “…We gathered more information than we could share in the article because of the word cap we were under, and we hope there will be future opportunities in which we may provide oral briefings to let interested audiences know even more about the rich history of summer baseball in Maryland and the D.C. area for college-age players.”
Hickman has no plans of stopping anytime soon. Each new season brings a youthful jolt back into his life.
It’s fitting for what has become a perfect fit: Bill Hickman and the Bethesda Big Train.
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