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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Numbers Game

Alan Schwarz in 270 tightly packed pages provides the first-ever history of baseball statistics from its beginnings with Henry Chadwick and the invention of the boxscore through Bill James and the information age and beyond.

From the book jacket: "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."

Simply put, this is the story of the men who have created, tracked, innovated, and had the biggest impact on baseball statistics. To that end the book is more a series of short and sometimes connected biographies than it is about statistical analysis. Schwarz, a writer for Baseball America, tells his story using some statistics but tries his best to shield the reader from too many formulas.

The story starts, appropriately enough, with a cricket reporter in New York named Henry Chadwick, who got hooked on "base ball" and created the first box score or "abstract" in The New York Morning News on October 22, 1845. From that begining Schwarz traces the history of the statistics and their analysis. The key players in his story are:

  • Chadwick of course
  • Ernie Lanigan, a reporter for The Sporting News and the New York Press
  • John Heydler, secretary and later president of the National League
  • F.C. Lane, editor of Baseball Magazine from 1912-1937
  • Al Munro Elias and his brother Walter, founders of the Elias Sports Bureau in the 1930s
  • Alan Roth, the stat guy behind Branch Rickey (1950s)
  • Sy Berger, who pioneered putting statistics on baseball cards (1950s)
  • Hal Richman, the inventor of Strat-O-Matic (1950s)
  • Earnshaw Cook, author of Percentage Baseball (1964)
  • George Lindsey, author of statistical studies using play-by-play data (last 1950s-early 1960s)
  • Harlon and Eldon Mills, authors of the technique called Player Win Averages (late 1960s-early 1970s)
  • David Neft, one of the key figures in the creation of The Baseball Encyclopedia (late 1960s)
  • Bill James (1970s-80s)
  • Seymour Siwoff, the head of Elias
  • Steve Mann and Dick Cramer who started STATS, Inc.
  • Dan Evans, who ran the Edge 1.000 program for the White Sox
  • John Dewan of Project Scoresheet and later of STATS, Inc.
  • Pete Palmer inventor of Linear Weights and creator of Total Baseball
  • Cal Morris and Stephan Jay Gould, academics interested in baseball statistics
  • Voros McCraken and the development of DIPS
  • Eric Walker, author of The Sinister First Baseman and influencer of Sandy Alderson (early 1980s) on the importance of on base percentage
  • Craig Wright, one time sabermetrician of the Texas Rangers
  • Ron Antinoja of Tendu (2000s)
  • Dave Smith of Retrosheet

Along the way Schwarz tells some interesting stories, particularly the massive amount of work that went into the development of The Baseball Encyclopedia and the ripple it caused through the game's most sacred numbers. Also interesting are the stories behind the stormy relationship of Semour Swioff and Bill James and the contentious history of Project Scoresheet and STATS, Inc.

I loved this excerpt from George Will's review of the book for the New York Times.

"Someday baseball statistics may be so sophisticated that they will be what James Joyce said his work was, something we should devote our lives to mastering. But if human beings have, as Schwarz believes, a ''compulsion to count, to quantify the world around them,'' then they are hard-wired to be baseball fans.

If so, that fact lifts a load of guilt off this Puritan nation's shoulders. All those hours -- years, actually -- we have spent watching games when we should have been reading ''Finnegans Wake''? Not our fault. Nature has made us do it. Which means that baseball is, as we chauvinists of the sport have long suspected, not merely the national pastime but the species' pastime. So there. "

No sabermetric library should be without a copy.

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