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THE GREAT NUMBERS NONSENSE
Stanley Frank
November 24, 1958
A veteran sportswriter lets fly at the bane of almost any game: the incubus of the meaningless statistic
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November 24, 1958

The Great Numbers Nonsense

A veteran sportswriter lets fly at the bane of almost any game: the incubus of the meaningless statistic

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Joe McCarthy, a stern perfectionist who thought a ballplayer was violating a sacred trust if he smiled during a game, won eight pennants for the Yankees with Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio. Today, when McCarthy is in an expansive mood, the titans play second fiddle to Jay Kirke, an imposing hulk who terrorized minor-league pitchers in the 1920s but was betrayed in the majors by his utter inability to hit a curve ball. After a brief trial at the Cleveland training camp, Kirke was bounced back to Louisville in the American Association, where McCarthy was the manager. Kirke went up for his first turn at bat with men on first and third and two out. McCarthy, noticing the pitcher was permitting the runners to take long leads, gave the sign for a double steal. The catcher whipped the ball to second base, but the shortstop cut it off to get the man heading for home.

The runner had the play beaten from here to Halloween—whereupon Kirke hauled off and belted the ball over the fence. He was called out for interference, of course, ending the inning. Before taking fungo practice on Kirke's head, McCarthy asked him what obscene idiocy had impelled him to swing at the ball.

"I couldn't resist the temptation," Kirke said earnestly. "It was the first fast ball I've seen all year."

Baseball had a full complement of engaging wacks within the memory of fans who are not yet eligible to vote. Lefty Gomez, never beaten in the World Series, registered a revolving bowl for tired goldfish with the U.S. Patent Office. Bobo Newsom pitched, and won, complete games with a broken kneecap. Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang built bonfires in the dugout when the thermometer reached 112°. Cletus Elwood Boots Baron Poffenberger set out from New York for Detroit in response to an emergency call and arrived three weeks later after detours through all refreshment parlors en route. Pitcher Lee Grissom cost the Reds a pennant by breaking his leg on an attempted steal of second base, with his team leading by five runs in the ninth inning. Rabbit Maranville played in the National League for 24 years and contrived a new gag every day for his own and the fans' amusement.

Human nature and ballplayers do not change radically in a few years. All the current heroes are not as prosaic as ribbon clerks, but the quaint characters are lost in the fast shuffle of deadpan statistics palmed off as provocative news.

It is a tossup whether records will be mentioned more often than the sponsor's product on a telecast. One safe bet can be made: figures will be thrown around indiscriminately, without the frame of reference necessary to place a performance in proper perspective. "And that was the Cubs' 146th double play in 142 games!" the announcer cries ecstatically. A team in last place will invariably average more than one double play a game because the opposition gets so many runners on base, but the man at the microphone neglects to point out that negative factor. You don't knock the home team. Holler up a storm with big numbers and you'll create the impression these clowns are fancier than Tinker to Evers to Chance.

Last season the New York Knickerbockers scored 100 or more points in 66 of the 72 games on the pro basketball schedule, a new record. In the confusion, the Knicks finished last in the Eastern Division of the league. The air was filled with lamentations implying the Knicks' failure was a rank miscarriage of justice. There was no suggestion that the team's troubles were strictly the result of its lousy defense.

Even the Russians, the undisputed champions for distorting facts, have got a bellyful of juggled sports statistics as a coverup for ineptitude. On October 26, 1958, Izvestia, an official organ of the Communist party, attacked "bureaucratic optimism" that does not win races or games. On the contrary, said Izvestia, it lulls both athletes and their followers, leading only to greater failures and disappointments.

The blast was provoked by the lumps Soviet athletes have been getting in international competition. Last July the Russians claimed a stirring triumph for Communist culture over decadent capitalism when they shaded an American track team by a trumped-up count of 172-170 in Moscow. Before the meet it was agreed to keep separate tabulations of the results in events for men and women, but the Russians combined the scores to take the curse off the 126-109 licking the Americans gave their men.

"The indifference of trainers and athletes as well as bureaucratic leadership methods are intolerable in sports," Izvestia thundered. "The 'everything is all right' reports mislead and avenge themselves in new failures." We don't have bureaucratic leadership in sports, but substitute statistical bureaus and the situation is comparable.

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