Guys remember different things. The first time they drove a car. The first time they bought one. The first time they kissed a girl and didn’t go “eeeeew!” And the first major-league baseball game they saw in person.
Mine was the opener of a Sunday doubleheader at Tiger Stadium on August 4, 1963. The Indians were in town, and Hank Aguirre shut them out. In the nightcap, the Tigers had the lead but gave it up in the ninth inning (some things never change), and Jim Bunning, former twenty game winner and future Hall of Famer and U.S. senator, pitched in relief. I have the yellowed game stories from Monday’s sports sections in a scrapbook. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to have fresh printed copies of those box scores, in larger type, maybe framed with the ticket stubs?
Two Internet compendia of baseball information, Retrosheet and Baseball Almanac, now make this possible.
Retrosheet is the more scholarly of the two. Founded in 1989, its goal is compiling play-by-play narratives of pre-1984 major league games from primary sources; usually newspaper game stories or scoresheets. Many of its contributors are members of the Society for American Baseball Research. Familiar names appear on its web site. The work of John Tattersall, whose collection of newspaper accounts of early 20th century games provided the foundation for the first Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, is cited. SABR members Bob McConnell, who maintained the Home Run Log Tattersall started, and David Vincent, who later took it over, are also credited.
Very few documents compress as much information into as small a space as a baseball box score. Author Stanley Cohen called the box score “the catechism of baseball, ready to surrender its truth to the knowing eye.” Any fan, with a little practice, can study a box score, regardless of its age, and come up with a pretty good mental picture of what happened that day.
Retrosheet has every American League box score from 1959 through 2004, and every National League box score from 1960 through 2004. There are play-by-play accounts for most of the games from 1959/60 to 1992, and 2000 to 2004. An accurate narrative requires information from a scoresheet compiled by someone who attended the game. If the local paper didn’t print one, this information has to be translated from symbols often unique to each fan’s scoring scheme into prose form. Completing one game can take a while. Variations between two accounts of the same game can occur, and must be checked out. The number of narratives on Retrosheet’s web site stand in quiet tribute to the time and attention to detail its members have contributed to the project.
Retrosheet’s box scores and narratives for 8-4-63’s doubleheader confirm that Ted Abernathy, whose submarine delivery my father talked about for years after that Sunday, pitched in the second game, and that, with one Indian on base, Jose Azcue ended the opener with a fly out to left; the same one I remember Rocky Colavito catching with a leap against the screen, with the Tigers up by only two runs.
The scoresheets yielded enough information for several supplementary lists. Players called out for batting out of turn, or passing teammates on the bases, are noted. Victims of the hidden ball trick have their own list. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen is on it three times, the last time courtesy of baseball’s master prankster, Steve Lyons. There’s a log of home runs washed out by rain, or negated by umpires’ questionable decisions. Had Al Kaline not lost home runs to rain in 1958 and 1963, he, and not Carl Yastrzemski, would have been the first American League player with 400 homers and 3,000 hits.
Transferring a scoresheet to narrative has also revealed a lot of weirdness. In a 1970 Tigers-Twins game, Earl Wilson struck out and was put out left fielder to shortstop to left fielder. Find out how in Retrosheet’s log of unusual, but legal, plays.
“Content is king,” says Sean Holtz, Baseball Almanac’s webmaster. Content is what his site has, in bulk quantities. It’s a People’s Almanac of baseball facts and stories; less scholarly that Retrosheet, more friendly to the new or casual fan. If there’s someplace you have to be in a couple hours, don’t visit this web site. If there isn’t, get ready to spend an afternoon or evening rummaging through baseball’s attic.
Baseball, more than any sport, is statistical in nature. The Almanac’s Year In Review section has the top 25 in every major stat category, by season since 1901, for both leagues. Before the Internet, you’d need a whole room of reference books to access this much information.
The box scores Retrosheet has are also here. However, if there’s one you need that isn’t on-line, Sean will provide, for a fee, a scanned, printable copy. Pay by Paypal in the morning; have a JPEG scan in your mailbox that day. (Is that not cool?)
Former Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who saw a lot of statistics in his fifty-four years behind the mike, often said that baseball is really a game of stories and personalities. That concept is more vital then ever now, in a stats-mad time when many fans’ only link to baseball is through a fantasy league. Columns of names and numbers in the record book are meaningless without the stories behind them.
You’ll find out what hitters besides Ted Williams homered in their last at bats, and what pitchers were allowed to continue throwing the spitball after it was banned in 1920. Stanley Coveleski, who lived down the street from my grandparents in South Bend, Indiana, was one. If you’re a Tiger fan and can’t remember who wore number 1 in 1961, the answer is in the Almanac’s rosters section, where every number worn since players wore numbers can be found. (It was Steve Boros.)
Ever wanted to look up a baseball rule but didn’t know where to start? You’ll find all the playing rules here. There are also songs and poems (readers are encouraged to contribute their own), articles (submissions welcome), and all of David Letterman’s baseball top ten lists. In fact, there are lists of all sorts of stuff. Seven ways to more effectively heckle the opposing team, courtesy of a patron of the place where interactive baseball was born; Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Pitchers whose earned run average for a season was infinite, having allowed one or more runs without retiring a batter. Lots more reasons, besides the ones I already knew, why baseball is better than sex. (Not on them is the observation that the other team doesn’t make you watch ice dancing with them on Saturday afternoon.)
There’s a fascinating chronicle of firsts. Did you know that Alex Rodriguez was the first player to hit a walkoff grand slam on his birthday? (July 27, 2002. I heard that game. Thaaa Yankees WON!) Or that Luis Gonzalez was the first to hit home runs into two different bodies of water? McCovey Cove in San Francisco and Bank One Ballpark’s swimming pool. You’ll win a few bar bets with that one.
Another reason to like Ike
President Eisenhower kept score of every baseball game he attended. So have I. Ike may not have kept a scrapbook of game stories from the Washington Post, but I have them from the home newspapers of both teams in almost every game I’ve seen in person. I missed two or three on road trips. Retrosheet and Baseball Almamac saved me a few long drives to the nearest library with newspapers on microfilm, and afternoons squinting at box score agate when I could have been home watching a game or two.
Like painting the Eiffel Tower, compiling the complete and accurate record of major league baseball is an endless task. There’s still a lot of white space, and new information continues to turn up in personal archives of scorecards and scrapbooks. A fact as small as a home run lost in yesterday’s rainout can become another piece in the puzzle. Any fan can participate. You don’t need to paint your face in the home team’s colors or appear on Kisscam to become part of the baseball experience.