The art of the stat

Mark Lamster is writing a book about the political career of Peter Paul Rubens.

A few months ago, while rummaging through a box of moldering books from my adolescence, I came across a monogrammed Bible I had been given at my bar mitzvah. I don’t think its faux-leather spine had been cracked more than twice. For salvation, at least in those years, I preferred another sacred tome, received on my 10th birthday: the Baseball Encyclopedia. The agate type of that good book was an Eden for me; I spent untold hours exploring the legendary feats of its bygone heroes and contemporary idols. I wasn’t much of an athlete and compensated for my lack of skill on the diamond by embracing its history. The Encyclopedia was my entree into that world, one that opened with a personal invitation from the game’s commissioner, Bowie Kuhn. “Dear Baseball Fan,” he wrote. “Here, without doubt, is the finest and most complete of all record books.”

A presumptuous claim, perhaps, but to diehard fans of the game it seemed warranted. In a review of the first edition, published in 1969, Los Angeles Times sports columnist Charles Maher called it “awesome.” The book’s editor at Macmillan, Bob Markel, proposed running an ad that pictured it next to the King James Bible, with a caption reading “VOLUME II.” “The powers that be shot that one down,” says Markel.

The Encyclopedia was surely a book of miracles (how else to explain Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak?) and none greater than its own existence. Though statistics had always been, as Kuhn noted, an “essential” part of the baseball experience, before the Encyclopedia the sport had neither a comprehensive nor a trustworthy record book. Statistics predating 1930 were notoriously unreliable. Before that time, the game’s books had been kept with something less than actuarial diligence -- when they weren’t being cooked altogether.

As Alan Schwarz relates in “The Numbers Game,” his joyful account of baseball’s statistical obsession, the job of reconstructing that history fell to David Neft, a Columbia University-trained statistician and former Harris pollster. Beginning in 1967, he led a team of more than 30 on a two-year blitz through America’s newspaper archives, retrieving and cross-checking box scores and game stories in a Herculean -- sometimes Sisyphean -- effort to set baseball’s record straight.


The mass of data Neft and his team collected was outsourced to Israel for coding onto IBM punch cards and then formatted to design templates created by Macmillan’s revered art director, Abe Lerner. The result was a milestone for baseball and also for the publishing industry: The Baseball Encyclopedia was the first American trade book to be typeset entirely by computer.

Lerner’s masterful typographic treatment, not to mention the book’s sheer physical presence (the original edition weighed in at 6 1/2 pounds), imbued the “Big Mac,” as it came to be known, with a sense of scriptural infallibility. In my youthful naivete, it never occurred to me that anything printed on its pristine pages might not be absolute fact, just as it never occurred to me that Kuhn, one of baseball’s more checkered commissioners -- and that’s saying something -- could be anything but a benign authority.

But in its zeal to correct the record and dispel fictions, the Encyclopedia established a few mythologies of its own, beginning with the game’s very Genesis story. Fans accustomed to the legend that baseball was the invention of Civil War hero Abner Doubleday were surprised by the emphatic first statement of the book’s historical introduction, which claimed that “the first seeds that led to organized baseball in the United States were planted on the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 19, 1846.” Serious historians had long discredited the Doubleday story, but the Encyclopedia’s substitute was hardly an improvement. The Elysian Fields of Hoboken were no more the seed ground of organized baseball than the dusty Cooperstown street on which Doubleday supposedly inscribed the game’s first diamond. Americans began playing organized baseball long before the summer of 1846, and far from the Garden State. A Pittsfield, Mass., town ordinance indicates that the sport had been a public nuisance there as early as 1791.

If nothing else, Neft and his team of inadvertent postmodernists had demonstrated the essential instability of the historical record. Even the most hallowed of marks was susceptible to revision. Ty Cobb’s career hit total of 4,191, then still the all-time record? Actually, it was 4,192. Such changes so upset baseball’s old guard that future editions of the Encyclopedia, with Neft out of the picture, reverted many statistics (including Cobb’s hit total) to their “historical” levels, forever compromising its integrity.

For defenders of the faith, there has always been an impulse to toy with the historical record. Back in 1961, with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle chasing Babe Ruth’s single-season home run mark, Commissioner Ford Frick suggested any new record be listed separately from the Babe’s, as he accomplished his feat in a 154-game season and the schedule had since grown to 162 games. When Maris went deep in the last game of the season, calls for a dreaded asterisk followed, although there was no official record book to annotate and wouldn’t be until the publication of the Encyclopedia.

MARIS’ mark entered that book without qualification. “I don’t believe in asterisks. Period,” says Neft in an interview. “The record is the record. The record is the achievement. You may not like the person who holds the record. You may think he cheated. It doesn’t matter. He’s got the record.” It’s an argument that doesn’t sit well with many fans upset over the alleged abuse of performance-enhancing drugs in the past few years. In an ironic twist of fate, there are now calls to typographically encumber, or even strike altogether, the home run totals of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the three men who sit above Maris in the single-season home run column.

Baseball’s ledger, however, is by its nature resistant to the imposition of a moral structure. Changes to the rule book, in equipment, to facilities, to the size and racial makeup of the league and countless other variables render strict numerical comparison across eras a dubious, albeit entertaining, practice. It is the job of the scholar, not the record keeper, to provide context to the game’s narrative; an unadulterated statistical register is critical to that task.

We don’t have the Baseball Encyclopedia to kick around any longer. Its final, 10th edition came out in 1995, but its obsolescence was implicit in the computerized production that made it possible in the first place. The Encyclopedia did spawn worthy successors such as the late, great Total Baseball, first published in 1989, and ESPN’s Baseball Encyclopedia. These days, websites like Baseball Reference and Retrosheet allow serious historians and casual fans to sort perpetually updated (and easily corrected) statistical information using an assortment of criteria with a few clicks of the keyboard. Cobb’s career hit total? Scholars now argue it is 4,189. Just be glad you don’t have to tell him.