Sunday, May 15th, 2005
2:31 pm - You Can't Tell the Players...  
The first big league baseball game I ever attended was Mets versus the Cardinals at the Polo Grounds in 1962. My grandfather took me as part of an outing with his volunteer fire company. Our seats were in the first or second row of the second deck, right behind first base. You could see everything from there, including the guy who operated the manual scoreboard on the third base side. Stan Musial made a sliding catch in the outfield for the Cardinals, and Gil Hodges played first for the Mets. Those are about the only specific details I remember about the game itself, although I'm pretty sure the Mets lost*.

I do remember a lot of general things about that night. It was my first ever ride through Manhattan (from the Lincoln Tunnel up to the stadium in Harlem), and I recall my nine year-old, raised-in-the-suburbs self being appalled by the amount of litter in the streets. I marveled at how big the Polo Grounds were in real life, and how green the grass was. (I'd attribute some of that to the fact that the game broadcasts were still in lively black & white back then, but to this day I still marvel at how green the grass is in major league parks. Of course, now I also know that grounds crews occasionally use paint to make it look that good.) I was amazed at how high up a major league fly ball can get. I was sure every routine fly ball was going to be a homer. I even remember one of the ads in the program my grandfather bought for me. It was for Hebrew National hot dogs, and went something like, "Bite off both ends of your Hebrew National hot dog first, you'll never come to the end." I still do that once in awhile.

What I remember most of all was the scorecard that came inside the program, or rather, the instructions for keeping score that came with it. I was too excited to really do anything with the card at the game, but in the days that followed I went over those instructions again and again. It was a whole new language, and I thought it was coolest thing ever. I already knew some of it, the fielding part, because the TV announcers routinely used terms like "6-4-3 double play," but it was the way one could use horizontal lines to indicate various types of hits, one for a single, two for a double, and so on, that fascinated me. I couldn't wait to try it out.

The thing was, such fancy-schmancy stuff as desktop publishing programs and baseballscorecard.com didn't exist yet. If I wanted my own scorecards, I'd have to painstakingly draw them myself with a pencil and a ruler. It was demanding work (remember, I was nine), and that meant it had to be reserved for special occasions. The earliest actual game I recall scoring was the third game of the '63 World Series. It was the first time my Dodgers were in the Series since I'd become a fan. I wasn't able to watch the first two games, because they were already over by the time I'd gotten home from school (back in the days when they played the games in the afternoon), but the third game was on a Saturday, so I set about getting ready. Since it was to be an event, I walked down to the corner store to buy a Pepsi. When I got back, I had just enough time before the game to carefully draw the magic grid that would turn a piece of loose-leaf into a score sheet. Then I plotzed down in front of the old Motorola, cracked open the Pepsi, and settled in to score the game. Damn, I wish I'd managed to keep that sheet. It was a great game. Drysdale beat Bouton, 1-0, with a three-hit shutout. (I later figured out that since loose-leaf already had horizontal lines, I could cut my preparation time in half by only drawing the necessary vertical lines. Eventually I noticed that if I was careful about lining up my columns, I could get away without the vertical lines as well, but I digress.)

The earliest scorecard I still have is one I got at Yankee Stadium on August 17, 1967, the fourth game I ever attended. It was a good game, according to my card. The Orioles beat the Yankees, 4-1. Gene Brabender pitched for the Orioles, Fritz Peterson for the Yanks. Peterson was throwing a one-hitter until the seventh when the Orioles started hitting him hard, and Brabender threw a four-hitter. Three future Hall of Famers played in the game. Frank Robinson was 3-5 with a double, while Brooks Robinson and Mickey Mantle were each 0-4. The Orioles' side of the card looked like this, and the Yankees' side like this.

I have a file box full of old programs like it, one from almost every game I've attended since. I have a small stack just from March, 1989, from my first trip to spring training. The late eighties were a time when a lot of the old spring training facilities were being replaced by new, state-of-the-art facilities, as cities throughout Florida fought tooth and claw trying to steal attract a team from elsewhere. One such facility was built near Haines City, on some unincorporated land once known as Barnum City, the site of the old Circus World amusement park. The site was bought by new owners (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, of all companies), who renamed it Baseball City, and built a shiny new spring training facility there for the Kansas City Royals, hard by the old amusement park (now renamed Boardwalk and Baseball).

It really was an interesting attempt, but it neglected that age-old real estate adage, "Location, location, location." Baseball City was in the middle of frelling nowhere, a nondescript exit on the highway between Orlando and Tampa, with nothing to recommend it except the park. This became obvious pretty quickly on my first visit there. A combination ticket bought admission to the park and a box seat for the game, a great deal under any circumstances, and even better considering that I practically had the park to myself that day. (It was overcast that day, but still.) Besides the rides, the park had an exhibit hall run by the Hall of Fame, and various other baseball attractions. There were batting cages, a booth that would measure how hard you could throw a ball, and even a fielding cage, where for fifty cents or so, a machine would hit you a dozen grounders. Nice idea, but lame in practice, because the fielding surface wasn't even astroturf. It was pavement.

After exploring the park for a bit, I wandered over to the stadium to discover that my box seat was the best seat I've ever had for a major league game, front row, first base side, right next to the home dugout. It was so close to the action that the one other guy in my section and I were carrying on a conversation with John Mayberry, the Royals' first base coach, while he was standing in the coach's box. There were only a couple hundred people in attendance, so it was quiet enough in the park so that we didn't even have to yell. The quiet also made Gary Thurman's at bats in the game stand out even more. Thurman was a reserve outfielder for the Royals. What made his at bats so notable was that whenever he'd make an out, he'd scream "Fuck!" at the top of his lungs as he ran down the baseline. You could probably hear him in Orlando. I was a lot closer than that, and the memory of Gary "Fuck" Thurman has stayed with me all these years. (The Royals finally abandoned Baseball City when their lease ran out a couple of years ago. The ballpark was torn down to put in a strip mall. State-of-the-art just ain't what it used to be.)

The reason I bring all this up is that I recently read The Joy of Keeping Score: How Scoring the Game Has Influenced and Enhanced the History of Baseball by Paul Dickson. It's a very short book, only a hundred pages or so, with lots of illustrations, mostly of old or significant scorecards. The illustrations are the main reason I bought the book in the first place. The inside covers show the cards from the longest game in baseball history, a 34-inning marathon between the PawSox and the Rochester Redwings in 1981. (veejane and I saw the originals of these on display at McCoy when we were there a couple of weeks ago.) I wish I could say the text is as good as the pictures, but it isn't. There's a short history of scoring, a chapter on various ways of keeping score, a very long chapter on scorecard trivia, and finally the chapter with scorecards from historic games. That's it. I did say it was short, although the shortness is not the actual problem.

The first problem is that there are some annoying gaps in the information presented. The most egregious is regarding Henry Chadwick, the man who pioneered scoring. Dickson spends a good bit of time talking about Chadwick throughout the book, stating several times that Chadwick's system was incredibly complicated, and yet he never shows an example of Chadwick's system so we can see how complicated it really was. I'm not asking for an in-depth examination of the entire system, but if you're going to talk about it that much, show us an example.

The other problem is that he inadvertently manages to undercut one of his own basic premises for the book, that scoring is the means by which one can recall exactly what happened in a particular game, even decades later. He starts the book off talking about how he'd never scored games until just a few years before. What started him was that he'd had an opportunity to sit in the broadcasting booth with Sox radio announcer Joe Castiglione for a spring training game between the Sox and Astros in March, 1989. He was fascinated that Castiglione could keep track of the whole game on a simple little card, and he kept the card after the game to see how it all worked. All well and good, because this is similar to the way a lot of people first start scoring. I thought it was a neat coincidence that I was in Florida at the same time. Then he proceeds to undercut his own credibility by showing a picture of that inspirational card. There, right at the top, leading off for the "Astros" is Gary "Fuck" Thurman, followed by a bunch of other Kansas City Royals. It just seems to me that if someone is going to insist that one can recreate a game from a scorecard many years later, it would behoove him to get the identity of opposing team right.

Except for the illustrations, it's a sadly disappointing book.

* (I've been able to fill in some of the details by searching through the game logs at retrosheet.org, a very cool site with online box scores going back to the sixties. I've been able to narrow it down to one of two games, either July 6, which the Mets won 10-3, with Roger Craig beating Ray Sadecki, or August 18, with Bob Gibson(!) beating Roger MacKenzie, 10-0. I would think the August game to be more likely, but retrosheet says it was the second game of a double header, and I have no recollection of a first game. Someday I'll have to track down the actual box scores, and see if that can tell me which one it was.