Since we’re clearly relaxing our way into summer (at least on this blog), I thought I’d talk about sports again. But really, I want to talk about statistics.
I got to thinking about baseball statistics last month after reading a post by one of the internet’s brightest—Tim Carmody at Snarkmarket— about the origins of Rotisserie/Fantasy baseball and the way we read games as culture.
The conversation about fantasy sports often intersects with the story of Sabremetrics—that is, the study of baseball by the numbers, the recent founding of which is traditionally attributed to the baseball writer Bill James and his famed Baseball Abstract.
My hunch is that Sabremetrics first erupted into polite culture by way of Steven Jay Gould. In his famous New York Review of Books essay on Joe DiMaggio’s streak he wrote:
Among sabremetricians1—a contentious lot not known for agreement about anything—we find virtual consensus that DiMaggio’s fifty-six–game hitting streak is the greatest accomplishment in the history of baseball, if not all modern sport.
The footnote leads to an explanation of the origins of the term in the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research. And the next footnote shows that the Daily News had previously introduced the world to Sabremetrics, but with a less august framing. The story was titled: “”Buncha Pointyheads Sittin’ Around Talkin’ Baseball.”
Sabremetrics has now become substantially more well known. Michael Lewis’ Moneyball can be held responsible to a large degree. Fantasy sports in general has undoubtedly been an excellent educator. And the 2008 US presidential election included its own advertising for Sabremetrics in the form of the popular, statistical analyses of Nate Silver, a Sabremetrician who turned his skills to politics at fivethirtyeight.com (now a NY Times sub-domain).
It is not surprising that most of the attention to Sabremetrics surrounds the creation of new and interesting metrics or the way able statisticians can interpret and mathematically test vast dumps of data. When we talk about statistics these days, we generally mean a way of thinking or a discipline related to mathematics.
I tend to think about statistics through a mid-nineteenth century lens, however. My statistics happen at a point when some people (ahem, Quetelet) were doing something like what we mean when we talk about “statistical thinking.” But most “statisticians” were essentially collectors—like naturalists, but on the look-out for numbers rather than skulls or species. The American Geographical and Statistical Society, founded in 1854 New York as one of the earliest American statistical organizations, neatly folds the statistician in with the explorer. Check out the society’s statement of its objects here.
So when I think about the history of baseball statistics, I wonder: where did the numbers come from? Who collected them? Who aggregated them long before Bill James was born?
One might suspect that baseball teams were the first to pay attention to statistics. After all, they were the ones managing their teams. That could well be. But I doubt they are too important to this story.
Individual fans are also likely culprits. But that depends on when it became common for fans to keep their own scorecard. I don’t know when that was. I do know that baseball games are *much* more fun if you keep score.
But credit for the popularity of baseball statistics clearly belongs to the press and more particularly to the box score. The New York Times published a brief info-graphic on the evolution of the boxscore a few years ago. And Wikipedia ties early baseball statistics to Henry Chadwick and his publications for the famed dime novel purveyors, Beadle and Adams.
Why and how did the box score become a must for newspapers? I don’t know. But I think with that answer and some further digging we can also get some new insights into the way that Americans became more and more invested in a world suffused with numbers and statistics.