Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 1, 2005
BASEBALL: The Numbers Game
I received in the mail about a month ago a review copy of The Numbers Game, by Alan Schwarz, which is now out in paperback and which I had somehow missed when it was first released in hardcover. I strongly recommend this book; if you like baseball statistics half as much as I do, you will enjoy it too.
The Numbers Game is a history of baseball statistics and the people who take them seriously, from the beginnings of box scores and newspaper tabulations up through the modern age of sabermetrics, live-updated internet stats, and Rotisserie madness, covering everything in between: stats in the broadcast booth, stats in tabletop games, controversies over batting titles, stats on baseball cards. It's an easy read; Schwarz uncorks a few good one-liners, but mainly his writing style is clear and straightforward, as he's content to let the story tell itself. If there's one flaw, albeit an unaviodable one, it's that there's only so many ways to tell the basic biographical background story of "but as a kid, what really fascinated him was baseball statistics . . . other people thought he was wierd . . . he did it on the side for his own enjoyment for years before he found an outlet . . ." This essential formula is repeated over and over in the book, as it is indeed the story of so many of the book's protagonists.
Schwarz begins with Henry Chadwick, the inventor of box scores and the game-scoring system and, essentially, the father of baseball statistics. One of the themes of the book's opening chapters is that many things we take now as newfangled modern innovations - from on base percentages and range factors to the obsession with rating players by the numbers in the first place - were there from the very beginning in the work of Chadwick and others in the 1860s and 1870s. Schwarz notes that one of the early enthusiasts about using statistics to manage a roster was Harry Wright, player-manager-proprietor of baseball's first-ever professional team. Today's stathead-bashing old fogeys may think they are old school, but it is not possible to be more old school than Chadwick and Wright.
The first challenges for the author of a book about a subject I know so well already are to (1) not leave out the stuff I know and expect to see in the book, and (2) tell me some things I don't already know. Schwarz succeeds on both fronts. Every time I kept thinking he needed to discuss a particular topic, he got to it. And there were a lot of new tales told along the way.
The older parts of the book were familiar to me from Bill James' work, among others; for example, James' book on the Hall of Fame had already recounted the stories of Ernest Lanigan and Lee Allen. And the more recent parts were familiar from having lived through them, from a chapter on James to the story of STATS, Inc. and Project Scoresheet to a summary of Voros McCracken's findings to the whole Oakland A's/Moneyball saga. Although I had not been familiar with the work of Eric Walker, who Schwarz identifies as the man who passed the torch of OBP to Sandy Alderson before it went to Billy Beane. (And I hadn't previously read about how the teenaged Beane used to set underperforming Strat-O-Matic cards on fire, a mental image that should chill anyone who plays for him today). And Schwarz makes the point about baseball owners that, hesitant as they were to use statistical analyses to evaluate their players for the mere purpose of winning games, they were much faster to adapt to new ways of thinking when it came to winning salary arbitrations, where money was on the line.
In between is where the real new-to-me material lies: profiles of the men who developed baseball's historical records and kep the spirit of inquiry alive through the dark ages from about 1910 through the stats bonanza that followed the 1969 publication of the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia (the compilation of which is the subject of its own chapter in Schwarz's book). The book's villian is Seymour Siwoff of the Elias Sports Bureau; Schwarz tries to give Siwoff's story a sympathetic rendering, and makes clear that his feud with Bill James was in large part a result of James' own prickly personality and iconoclastic writing style. But Siwoff just keeps popping up, fomenting litigation, pushing around idealistic rivals and upstarts, sneering at things in public while selling them in private, and generally playing Scrooge. (Of course, Siwoff's not the only bad guy - even Barry Bonds makes a cameo to deliver a gratuitous insult - but he's the one who persists throughout the book's second half).
Like I said, it's a fun book - a book about my people, as it were. Enjoy.