provide a valid basis for comparing athletes," Smits said recently.
"For instance, I never realized the importance of rebounds in basketball
until they were added to the box score. Tabulations such as runs batted in and
passing averages help to give recognition to players who would be overlooked on
poor teams. Of course the whole thing can be carried to extremes. Baseball
writers are the worst offenders for coming up with trick records like a
left-handed third baseman making two errors on one play for the first time at 3
o'clock in the afternoon."
Smits admits that
"too many reporters have fallen into the trap of rewriting publicity
handouts," but insists that "a lot of good, lively copy still is turned
out." When does it see the light of day in the papers? Take the case of
Herb Elliott, the Australian antelope who is unquestionably the outstanding
athlete of 1958. Until the November 10 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED explored the
motives and methods that go into the making of a 3:54.5 miler, Elliott had been
invested with no more personality than a stop watch by American newspapers. Few
sportswriters had bothered to probe the whys and wherefores of the young man
who broke four minutes in 10 mile races between January and September.
agree with you more that the emphasis on figures at the sacrifice of
personalities is a bad trend," the NCAB's Homer Cooke says amiably.
"You may not believe this, but I went into the statistics business 22 years
ago as a protest against it. When I was a sportswriter on the West Coast I got
fed up with every team coming into town and ballyhooing its football players as
the best performers in every conceivable department. I began to keep my own
averages on games in the Northwest to sift conflicting claims and show up press
agents who were grabbing free space and headlines with phony figures."
service was expanded into a national clearinghouse for college football and
basketball statistics by the NCAA after World War II as a gimmick for selling
guides. The annual cost of maintaining the bureau and 11 full-time employees is
estimated at more than $100,000 now, but the revenue from the sale of 175,000
guides reduces the subsidy to about $35,000. The NCAA gets a lot of action and
publicity for its money.
night during the football season Cooke's staff is the busiest bunch of
computers this side of Cape Canaveral. Immediately after the games, 109 major
colleges telegraph team and individual statistics, the latter in 52 categories,
to Cooke in New York. Each report is only slightly less voluminous than a
transcript of the United Nations charter. The data is fed into IBM machines,
and by noon Sunday the information has been compiled cumulatively. It is given
to the A.P. and U.P.I. for release, and copies are sent to each school. The
routine is repeated on Monday with reports airmailed by 509 small colleges.
Throughout the week the NCAB continues to grind out supplementary bulletins
analyzing the flow of statistics.
make such a production of squeezing the last decimal from the figures that they
employ as many statisticians as coaches. Army assigns six actuaries to the
press box for each game, and at Princeton a crew of mathematicians processes
ratings in an electronic computer to appraise the efficiency of players in 80
with numbers produces a staggering mishmash of irrevelant trivia, but Cooke
sees a value in them nonetheless. "Statistics do a whale of a job for the
losers," he says. "I saw dramatic proof of that 20 years ago on my old
beat. The University of Washington had a terrible team except for Dean
MacAdams, a great punter. The fans had so little to cheer about there was a
roar, as though Washington had scored a touchdown, every time MacAdams went
into punt formation. His showing in the national statistics was what sustained
interest in the team.
thing happened at Auburn in 1946. The team lost six straight games, but a
freshman named Travis Tidwell led the country in total offense. Tidwell never
amounted to much thereafter, but for that one season he was a lifesaver to
inevitable step is to pump spurious excitement into the gate by deliberately
fabricating, records—even if it helps one's opponents. Cooke recalled a
flagrant example of this abuse in a Pacific Coast game six years ago. One team
was leading by two touchdowns late in the game when someone in the press box
found out that its quarterback needed one more completed pass to set some sort
of regional mark. There was time for just a few more plays, and the other team
had the ball far down-field. This noble eleven let its rival score a gift
touchdown so it could get possession of the ball and give the hero a chance to
throw a couple of passes.
statistics to build up one player is as old as the discovery that an
All-America candidate does wonders for the box office. A common gambit is to
concentrate publicity on a lineman by keeping a special tabulation of his
tackles and the yardage he yields on defense. Since no one knows what goes on
in the snake pit, the figures are accepted at face value. Is a hole opened at
the hot shot's position big enough for a motorcycle to barge through with a
sidecar? The college press agent loftily retorts that any idiot could have seen
the stalwart was playing a looping defense on that one and was blameless for