I had the newspaper opened to an entire page of baseball box scores when my wife walked into the room, looked at me as if I were a moron and left. I'm not sure how long she was gone—maybe five minutes, maybe 25—but when she returned, I had not moved, and she asked how many hours of my life I'd frittered away studying those endless columns of microscopic numbers. Then she said, "The really frightening thing is that you look like you're reading Moby-Dick."
That's because with statistics such as runners moved up; runners left in scoring position, 2 out; GIDP (grounded into double play); Pitches-strikes; bf (batters faced); and other minutiae, the box score is now nearly as detailed as the Melville novel. Everything's in it except how many times a player scratches himself, though I don't know why that couldn't be included: SP 3, for scratched privates three times.
"I don't read every one of them anymore," says NBC's Bob Costas, who thinks the explosion of sports information, much of it in agate type, is mind numbing. "How can you consume all the stuff that's out there before your eyes glaze over?"
The baseball box score, more than boxes for other sports, shares a problem with the mousetrap: People can't resist trying to build a better one. Baseball writer and historian Henry Chadwick, who is credited with creating the modern box score around 1860, would barely recognize the mutant descendant. The box score was pretty standard in the first half of this century, after which putouts and assists were dropped and a tabular pitching summary was added.
In the early 1980s USA Today sports managing editor Henry Freeman began the biggest makeover, adding a scoring summary and incidental stats such as caught stealing and umpire locations to make his boxes the most comprehensive, in part to attract stat-crazy Rotisserie league players. The National, the short-lived sports daily, added more innovations in '90, including updated batting averages. There haven't been many changes since, but more newspapers now run a version of the expanded box score produced by STATS, Inc. and distributed by the Associated Press.
Oakland Tribune columnist and longtime baseball pundit Leonard Koppett, for one, thinks the expanded box is nonsense. "I've missed the old box score for 40-some years," he says. "When the box score had putouts and assists in it, you could practically reconstruct a game from reading it."
Fine, says STATS president and CEO John Dewan, but not everyone is that nostalgic: "If you went back to the old box score there'd be a lot of complaints. What would you rather know, a player's updated batting average or how many putouts and assists he had?"
Even with all the additions, box scores have evolved as concise, neat, indisputable autopsies that for millions of fans are as essential as a morning cup of coffee. A four-hour game can be distilled to a block of information the size of a bleacher ticket. 'The magic of box scores is that you can see the action—the game just runs through your head," says Paul Dickson, author of The Joy of Keeping Score.
For me, the attraction was always the cold, naked record of success and failure. I get sick pleasure out of seeing that Florida Marlins rightfielder Gary Sheffield, who just signed a contract that will pay him roughly $60,000 a game, went a measly 1 for 5 against the Cincinnati Reds. On the other hand, I figure that if Atlanta Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser can go 4 for 4 against the Houston Astros, I'm capable of winning a Nobel Prize.
Author and editor Pete Hamill, who grew up trying to score tickets to Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field, raises a frightening specter. The box score is essentially a form of hieroglyphics, and what if, in 2,000 years, it's all that's left to explain us? Some people can't even crack the code today. "We're trying to do more with immigrant groups," Hamill, who runs the New York Daily News, says of his paper's efforts to attract more readers, "and when we ask them what is the most mystifying thing about American culture, the Chinese say the box score. They're trying to get into it, but they cannot figure the thing out."