Home Book Reviews The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz

The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz

by Matt Smith

“The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics” by Alan Schwarz, (St Martin’s Press, 2004), 270 pages.

It’s a popular misconception that the infatuation with statistics in baseball is a product of the recent computer-obsessed age. Alan Schwarz debunks this myth in “The Numbers Game” by charting the history of the sport from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, revealing how integral statistics have always been in the way the game is both played and enjoyed by millions. As Schwarz contends: “baseball and its statistics are inseparable, as lovingly intertwined as the swirls of a candy cane”. 

The opening chapters provide an invaluable insight into the way baseball developed from its formative stages to the game we know today. Schwarz introduces us to an eccentric cast of characters throughout the book, none more important than Henry Chadwick. Born in Exeter, Chadwick moved with his family to America in 1836 and became known as the “Father of Baseball”. Chadwick’s insatiable desire to record the events of baseball games, principally in the form of box scores for which he is credited as the inventor on his Baseball Hall of Fame plaque, was driven by his belief in using statistics to accurately analyse and order the ability of players. This desire is still thriving in the twenty-first century, as anyone who has read Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball” will know.

Baseball fans today are blessed with access to all the information they could ever wish for. Indeed the final chapter of The Numbers Game highlights the work of a company called Tendu who, in partnership with MLB.com, allowed baseball fans in 2007 to watch a live record of every facet of the game including the speed, location and flight of pitches being thrown via MLB.com’s Enhanced Gameday feature. Such wonders would have been unimaginable one hundred years ago.

Back then it was box scores that enabled fans across America to enjoy the games they were unable to attend in a time before television and radio became widespread (never mind broadband). The importance of these statistical accounts of games in bringing baseball to the masses was epitomized by the impact of Babe Ruth. F.C. Lane, editor of Baseball Weekly at the time, noted that “while thousands cram the grandstands to be actual spectators, literally millions scan the [box scores] for word of what Babe has done”.

This collective experience produced a devoted attachment to statistics that shows no sign of abating. As players of the current day march towards and surpass many of the hallowed records of the game, rather than diminish in stature, they are respected even more.

It is therefore fascinating to read how ramshackle the recording of these statistics, so important to millions, really was. From simple miscalculations to deliberate falsification, baseball fans began to discover through painstaking research in the second half of the twentieth century that some of the most cherished milestones were simply wrong. The subsequent attempts to produce ‘correct’ encyclopaedias caused a political battle at the heart of the game. In 1981 for instance, after three years of research, the Sporting News shocked the baseball world by revealing that Ty Cobb’s career hit record stood at 4190, not 4191 as everyone believed. No reader could fail to understand how important that one hit was. Not only was 4191 etched in the memory of every baseball fan, but Pete Rose was closing in on the record at the time. The then Commissioner Bowie Kuhn furiously rejected the motion to alter the record, regardless of whether the claims were true or not. The passion on both sides of the debate, those who wouldn’t dream of such a precious record being changed and those who cared so much that they thought the number simply had to be corrected, is laid bare by Schwarz’s prose.

This saga was far from the only time that mere baseball statistics could cause monumental disagreements. As they became ever more lucrative, so the disputes between those involved became more bitter. Schwarz covers the legal battle between STATS Inc and the NBA, while a revised edition might also include the recent court battles over the copyright of baseball statistics in relation to Fantasy baseball. Of course, the stats are worth so much money precisely because the information is so important to so many people.

From Topps baseball cards, to Strat-O-Matic, to Rotisserie (fantasy) baseball, statistics provide many avenues for baseball fans to enjoy the game in different ways on top of the game itself. Yet they’ve also impacted the way it is played. The recent “Moneyball” phenomenon is nothing new. Schwarz reveals how Allan Roth was crunching numbers for the Dodgers in the late forties, while Earl Weaver could be seen consulting his index cards in the dugout from the day he took over the Orioles in 1968. The increased power and sophistication of computers has made the process much easier, yet the motivation behind this work, and the understanding of its usefulness, has been around for many decades.

As you would expect in a book of this name, the more scientific world of statistical baseball analysis is discussed. The reader is introduced to many of the key concepts and debates that rage within the world of sabermetrics, including a very useful summary of the ten most influential discoveries made by the seminal Bill James over the course of his infamous Baseball Abstracts series. Schwartz goes into enough depth to provide a decent understanding, while not getting too bogged down in the details that might put off the more casual reader.

So do not be confused by the title: this is not a dry maths textbook about complicated formulas. It is a very human look at the the perfect marriage of the sport of baseball and the numbers that it produces. As an alternative history of the sport, the Numbers Game is an essential addition to all baseball libraries.

Have you read “The Numbers Game”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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