The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics

The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics

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Most baseball fans, players and even team executives assume that the national pastime's infatuation with statistics is simply a by-product of the information age, a phenomenon that blossomed only after the arrival of Bill James and computers in the 1980s. They couldn't be more wrong.

In this award-winning book, Alan Schwarz - whom bestselling Moneyball author Michael Lewis calls "one of today's best baseball journalists" - provides the first-ever history of baseball statistics, showing how baseball and its numbers have been inseparable ever since the pastime's birth in 1845. He tells the history of this obsession through the lives of the people who felt it most: Henry Chadwick, the 19th-century writer who invented the first box score and harped endlessly about which statistics mattered and which did not; Allan Roth, Branch Rickey's right-hand numbers man with the late-1940s Brooklyn Dodgers; Earnshaw Cook, a scientist and Manhattan Project veteran who retired to pursue inventing the perfect baseball statistic; John Dewan, a former Strat-O-Matic maven who built STATS Inc. into a multimillion-dollar powerhouse for statistics over the Internet; and dozens more.

Schwarz paints a history not just of baseball statistics, but of the soul of the sport itself. Named as ESPN's 2004 Baseball Book of the Year, The Numbers Game will be an invaluable part of any fan's library and go down as one of the sport's classic books.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312322236
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 05/02/2005
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 863,641
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America magazine, a weekly columnist for, and a frequent contributor to The New York Times. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and more than a dozen other national publications. He lives in Manhattan.

Read an Excerpt


Bless Them, Father

The tobacconist turned the corner from Bond Street onto Lafayette and keyed open his store at the usual time, 7 A.M. He sat down with his tea and unfolded his two-penny paper, the New York Herald. The date: August 18, 1858.

The front page retold yesterday's incredible news. The new transatlantic telegraph cable, a 2,200-mile piece of copper wire that took a year to string under the ocean, had allowed a ninety-eight-word message from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan to flash across the water in a mere 17 hours. To think — information that once took a fortnight to reach the other continent now took less than a day. Fireworks exploded around City Hall; the United States and England felt closer to one another than they had since, well, that little tiff at Lexington and Concord.

The merchant turned the page to his steady interest, the business section. As usual, numbers buzzed about like bees in a honeycomb: From the loan and deposit totals of 40 New York banks, earnings breakdowns of the Erie Railroad, dozens of stock fluctuations, and the prices of flour, coffee, cotton, iron, and molasses, numerical charts carried with them a fascinating immediacy and exactitude. After soaking it all in, he flipped to page four, where midway down the right-hand column he found yet another chart. This one was different from the others.

THE GREAT BASE BALL MATCH — ALL NEW YORK VS. ALL BROOKLYN, the headline above it read, followed by two long paragraphs recounting the event. The best ballplayers of New York and Brooklyn, representing then-separate cities eager to prove their mettle against each other, had staged an exhibition of baseball, a new sport descendant of cricket, that attracted thousands of spectators — even the "fair sex," the article claimed — to the Fashion Race Course in upper Queens. The tobacconist had in fact heard of this series, now tied at one win apiece. The first game, back in July, had attracted more than 10,000 spectators, jamming the roads with horse-drawn buses and carriages. People taking the Flushing Railroad were met at the station by a carnival atmosphere, complete with guess-your-weight booths and shysters playing three-card monte. All for adults playing a child's game? he wondered. The fellow would have turned the page dismissively, but the numbers in "the score," the accompanying array of dots and digits, testified to something more significant, more scientific. More legitimate.

Brooklyn had won, 29 runs to 8, but the little chart told stories of Brooklyn's 29–8 victory and offered explanations as succinctly as his stock listings. Grum, Brooklyn's right fielder, clearly had led his team to victory, having scored 6 runs with just 1 "hand lost," or out. New York's shortstop, Gelston, scored 3 runs with 2 hands lost, while several of his mates — De Bost, Bixby, and Davis — scored nary one run among them. It was all very clear; responsibility for the win or loss was identified, codified, and solidified, fired in the dispassionate kiln of numbers. Perhaps this baseball held more than at first glance ... Several weeks later, on September 10, the tobacconist decided to close shop early and check out the third and final game of the New York–Brooklyn series in person. He caught a small steamer from the Fulton Ferry, disembarked at Hunter's Point, and took the Flushing Railroad to the Fashion Course, where he paid 50 cents admission — a decidedly new custom of the day. He watched the New Yorkers mount an early 7–2 lead and hold off the Brooklynites 29–18, with groups of partisans vociferously rooting and clapping for fine plays from their side.

The next day, perusing his morning Herald, he found the box score, a perfect little encapsulation of the afternoon's events. There was Gelston, scoring five runs for the New Yorks. Tooker, who also made a splendid catch in left field, made three runs of his own. And De Bost! A fine catcher indeed. The numbers confirmed what he had seen. They let him relive it, measure it, analyze it. A baseball fan was born.

* * * The scene repeated itself with countless bank clerks, teachers, dry-goods dealers, and more in the late 1850s throughout New York, baseball's primordial petri dish. The new sport's statistics carried an unexpected purposefulness. After the last out had been made and the sun had set on the ball field, the numbers emerged to glow like gas lamps, lighting the way to a new appreciation for the game.

Humans' compulsion to count, to quantify the world around them, has been around almost as long as their 10 fingers. Ancient civilizations would keep tallies by etching notches on bones or wooden sticks. (This led to today's double meaning of the word score.) The Domesday Book of 1086 statistically surveyed William the Conqueror's England to determine land revenues due the crown. Almanacs from 1500 on evolved from navigational charts to agricultural databanks, becoming some of the world's most widely selling books. The mid-nineteenth century in particular saw a sharp spike in the keeping of statistics: Insurance men waded through mortality rate ledgers and accountants mastered double-entry bookkeeping while social reformers debated issues of prisons, schools, and drunkenness with ever more sophisticated numerical information. "When you can't express it in numbers," the scientist Lord Kelvin (1824–1907) once said, "your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind." Statistics were becoming cold and incontrovertible tools of a new generation. How fitting, then, that they be married with its new game: baseball.

Despite later efforts to award the genesis of baseball to Abner Doubleday and his merry men of Cooperstown in 1839 — a stubborn myth since picked apart like a Thanksgiving turkey — the sport in fact evolved from the English games of cricket and rounders, ball games that bequeathed to it their zeal for quantifying the goings-on in charts of numbers. In 1837, the Constitution of the Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia, which played a variety called town ball, mandated that a scorer must record in a book "an accurate account of all the games played on Club days, date of the same, names of the players, the number of points made by each ..." Eight years later, Alexander Cartwright and his New York Knickerbockers codified the first set of modern baseball rules: Bases were set 42 paces (approximately today's 90 feet) apart, batters got three strikes and teams three outs, and the game ended when one team scored its 21st "ace," or run. It took mere weeks before the first primitive box score — initially termed an "abstract"— appeared in the New York Morning News on October 22, 1845.

The chart clearly demonstrated baseball's recent roots in cricket. That sport's batters have but two fates: either being put out or scoring a point by reaching the opposite wicket. With those sensibilities in mind, the first baseball box score listed each New York and Brooklyn player beside his two totals of runs and "hands out"; hits that placed a batter on base without ultimately helping him score a run went wholly unrecorded. But as the game grew more popular, spreading to more than a dozen teams in the New York area and many others outside the city, baseball's record keepers quickly recognized how complicated, and scientific, the new sport already was becoming.

Baseball was a pastoral game, to be sure. Games at Hoboken, New Jersey's Elysian Fields, one of the most popular grounds, sat atop a cliff and overlooked the Hudson River with a gorgeous view of lower Manhattan island. (The longest drives to right field could plop into the water.) In 1856, a young cricket reporter happened upon a ball game there between New York's Eagle and Gotham clubs and was transfixed by the intricacy of the contest, the dance among batters, fielders, and base runners. "The game was being sharply played on both sides and I watched it with deeper interest than any previous base ball match that I had seen," the man recalled some years later. His name was Henry Chadwick, and he soon decided to become baseball's greatest evangelist, a preacher from the pulpit of numbers. "The Father of Baseball," as he came to be known, Chadwick spent the next half-century designing new scoring methods, box scores and statistics, all formulated not just to capture the events of the game but to encourage a value system he held desperately dear.

Chadwick came from a long line of social reformers. Born on October 5, 1824, in Exeter, England, he counted among his relatives a grandfather who, according to the historian Jules Tygiel, dedicated his days to promoting "measures for the improvement of the condition of the population," as well as a half-brother, Edwin, who designed Britain's public health and poor laws throughout the mid-1800s, often relying upon statistics to prove his points. (Edwin was later knighted for this.) Henry, who moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was 12, soon enjoyed playing ball games such as rounders, though he detested the custom of getting "soaked" with the ball — hit with it, often square in the ribs — to be retired while running the bases. By his early twenties Chadwick had begun stringing for the Long Island Star and soon was covering cricket for several local newspapers. It was after joining the New York Clipper, a weekly devoted mostly to cricket and the theater, in 1857 that he focused his attention chiefly on baseball.

The game to which Chadwick was attracted bore scant resemblance to the one we know today. The bases did sit 90 feet apart, with nine men to a side and nine innings to a game, but the competition mainly pitted the batters and base runners against the fielders; the pitcher was a mere convenience. The early rules of the National Association of Base Ball Players (the sport's first formal organizational body) mandated that the pitcher, standing 45 feet from the batter and tossing underhand, "deliver the ball as near as possible over the center of the home base, and for the striker ... The ball must be pitched, not jerked or thrown to the bat." He was a pitcher, not a thrower, and was considered simply an enabler to getting the ball put in play, after which the true game took place. Fielders wore no gloves, making catches of ground balls, line drives, and even pop flies displays of skill nowhere near as routine as today. Master bunters such as Dickey Pearce vexed the defense; base runners took extra bases with abandon. Whereas now much of baseball boils down to the 60-foot tunnel between pitcher and batter, intrigue in the early game lay everywhere but.

Reports of games captured this dynamic in staggeringly detailed statistics. One box score from 1858 listed runs and outs, as usual, but for each player presented nine more columns: for his defense, his total of fly catches, bound catches (balls caught on one bounce, which then counted as outs), and times putting out a runner on the bases; for his batting, times put out on flies, bounds, and foul balls; and for his base running, how often he was put out at first, second, and third bases (not home, curiously). These tallies gave a reader a vivid snapshot of how every player's bat, legs, and glove impacted a win or loss.

Chadwick considered the generation of such statistics vital to the young game. Grey-bearded, tall and sourly austere, the Englishman wrote hundreds of thousands of paragraphs on baseball over the next 50 years, railing against gambling, alcohol, and profanity as the game evolved from gentleman's sport to serious industry. Yet he pounded his rhetorical fist hardest while discussing the importance of statistics. As early as 1861, he wrote in Beadle's Dime Base-Ball Player, his annual guide to the game, "In order to obtain an accurate estimate of a player's skill, an analysis, both of his play at the bat and in the field, should be made, inclusive of the way in which he was put out; and that this may be done, it is requisite that all ... contests should be recorded in a uniform manner."

To spread the gospel, Chadwick invented his own personal scoring form in the hope that it would become standard. The grid extended nine players deep and nine innings wide, each box housing a player's at-bat as he came up in turn. Each outcome was coded with either numbers, for the fielder who handled the ball, or letters, to denote a fly ball or the like. (Many of those letters were chosen as the last of the events they connoted, such as "D" for catch on bound, "L" for foul ball and "K" for struck out, the last of which has survived to delight generations of kids as they first learn to score.) Chadwick's grid, which remains virtually unchanged to this day, then could be distilled into a detailed box score like this one, from an 1861 game between the Atlantic and Eckford clubs:


Passed balls, on which bases were run — Beach 6, Boerum 4. Struck out — Woods 1.

Catches missed on the fly — Boerum 1, Mills 2, Josh Snyder 2, Grum 2, Manolt 1, Woods 1.

Catches missed on the bound — Beach 1, Grum 1.

Times left on bases — Smith 1, Price 1, Joe Oliver 3, Hawkshurst 2, Manolt 1, Beach 1.

Time of game — two hours and forty-five minutes.

Umpire — Mr. A. L. Brainard, of the Excelsior Club.

Scorer for the Atlantic — Mr. G. W. Moore.

Scorer for the Eckford — Mr. McAusian.

Note how fielding and base running were quantified in considerably more detail than batting, and that pitching was ignored altogether. Hits made by batters appeared nowhere — just runs and outs, the only items that ultimately mattered to the team. Chadwick did sense some unfairness to individual players who reached base with a hit but didn't score a run — hence the Times Left on Bases category, then used for individuals rather than teams. But just like today, the box score was a perfect illustration of double-entry bookkeeping, yielding a self-contained universe as busy and balanced as a carbon atom. Positives (fielding plays) and negatives (batting outs) canceled each other out with no stragglers to upset the equilibrium. Everything was divvied up among those responsible. From the very start baseball's box score was, as Roger Angell would note a century later, "a precisely etched miniature of the sport itself."

Chadwick had grander plans for his box scores than to provide breakfast fare in morning papers. The system would allow him to compile cumulative statistics at the end of the season to assess which players were the true stars. Chadwick had his own opinions — more than hairs on his chinny-chin-chin, it turned out — but he strived to formulate a set of measures that would reveal cold, hard evidence of who helped his team win and who didn't. In his 1861 Beadle guide, he presented the totals of games played, outs, runs, home runs, and strikeouts for the hitters on five prominent clubs. Since teams and batters did not all play the same number of games, Chadwick, all but obsessed with issues of fairness, introduced a new method to even the scale: dividing runs and outs by games played. (These were presented not with decimals but through the average-and-over method of the time, whereby 19 hits in 7 games would yield an average of two with five "over.") The best hitters, Chadwick declared, were those with the highest average of runs per game. Burtis of the Gotham club fared best, at three and two over.

These were the first tracks on which baseball statistics began their long journey to the modern day. The sport was just taking shape, malleable as wet clay, as dozens of new clubs emerged all over the Northeast. Rules changed almost every season for the next 20 to 30 years in a lurching attempt to achieve a balance between the offense and defense. Pitchers slowly gained the right to throw hard, develop curveballs, and pitch overhand. Hitters would gain the right to call for a high or low pitch, but lose some bunting privileges, as baseball sought a pleasing equilibrium.

To Chadwick, the game's station would always be found through the statistics it generated; runs and outs were its latitude and longitude. And more than anyone else, as he wrote for the Clipper and edited various annual guides, Chadwick would stand behind the nautical steering wheel, using those ever-changing coordinates — and devising new and improved methods to interpret them — to guide baseball where he wanted it to go.

* * *

It's almost impossible for a modern baseball fan, conditioned to focus on the battle between pitcher and batter, to appreciate how important fielding was in the early game. Whereas we now often think of baseball as one (pitcher) versus nine (batters), it began more as one hitter versus nine fielders trying to keep him off base. Even as fielding gloves became more common after the sketchy National Association gave way to the more formalized National League in 1876, the mitts were small and had no padding, nothing like today's comfy fishnets. Particularly after bound catches (fair balls caught on one bounce) were no longer considered outs, starting in 1864, stopping a ball required a dexterity (and tolerance for pain) that only the best demonstrated with any consistency. Balls were muffed all over the place, even 10 times in a game or more. As baseball historian John Thorn has noted, "Fielding skill was still the most highly sought after attribute of a ball player."


Excerpted from "The Numbers Game"
by .
Copyright © 2004 Alan Schwarz.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Foreword by Peter Gammons,
1 Bless Them, Father,
2 The Second Generation,
3 The Sultans of Stats,
4 Darwins of the Diamond,
5 Big Mac,
6 Bill James,
7 From Field to Front Office,
8 All the Record Books Are Wrong,
9 The Arms Dealer Goes to War,
10 Luck and Where to Find It,
11 The March of On-Base Percentage,
12 In God We Trust; All Others Must Have Data,
Additional Praise for The Numbers Game,

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