Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: “The Numbers Game”

The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz is on my shortlist for best baseball books of the last 10 years. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of any that can beat it. The main reason: while so-called traditionalists deride or dismiss the sabermetric approach to baseball, Schwarz’s book shows that stat obsession has existed as long as the game has. He even makes a convincing argument that baseball’s number-rich nature is the main reason it became America’s pastime in the first place.

The book is a brief history of baseball statistics: how they began, how they evolved, and who pioneered what. Schwarz points in particular to one largely unsung founder of baseball as we know it, Henry Chadwick. As early as the 1840s, newspapers published rudimentary “abstracts” about baseball games. It took Chadwick to refine these abstracts and turn them into the box score that we still use today.

In Schwarz’s estimation, the simple comprehensiveness of the box score meant that it could (a) be printed in the newspapers without taking up too much real estate, and (b) give the reader a concise but thorough sense of what happened in the game. So the average working stiff (who lacked the money and free time to go to a ballgame) could follow a team even if he could never attend a game in person. It is probable the biggest factor in turning baseball from a game to a sport.

Chadwick also became an evangelist for baseball, and tried to develop and perfect the way it understood itself through stats. Some metrics he developed caught on, others never did, and still others would wait 100-plus years until the game understood their merit.

Schwarz also shows that every era has had its own Nerds vs. Jocks debate. He traces the roots of fantasy sports all the way back to the 1940s, and highlights a few lonely Bill Jamesian figures throughout the game’s history who have, for the most part, been completely ignored by the MLB establishment and statheads alike. And he also shows that Billy Beane and his methods of team construction didn’t appear out of thin air.

In short, Schwarz shows that the history of baseball’s stats are really the history of the game itself. It is a thousand times more interesting than a book about math has any right to be. You can easily plow through this book in a day or two, and you’ll wish it lasted longer.