SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
August 18, 1969
Quick and accurate, Seymour (Sy) Siwoff of the Elias Sports Bureau is the recording angel of statistics for baseball's National League and pro football
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August 18, 1969

His Word Is The Law Of Averages

Quick and accurate, Seymour (Sy) Siwoff of the Elias Sports Bureau is the recording angel of statistics for baseball's National League and pro football

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His dedication to his work has earned for Siwoff vast reserves of good will and, in the last few years, even some modest riches. He busily compiles and certifies averages, percentages and totals in his capacity as official statistician both for baseball's National League (plus the International and Eastern Leagues) and for the pro football leagues. He also feeds statistics on demand to magazines, newspapers and such varied clients as the Topps bubble-gum people, who put players' records on baseball cards to give kids something else to chew on. And he publishes The Little Red Book of Baseball, a compendium of records and marginalia that baseball writers have used in their work for four decades.

There are some people, Siwoff among them, whose idea of bringing order to a bewildering universe is to assign numerical values to everything and then to add, multiply and otherwise scramble them into supposedly meaningful patterns. Sports are especially susceptible to such exercises because, unlike the ebb and flow of daily life, they take place in a self-enclosed world in which most things—games, seasons, careers—have precise beginnings and ends. Statistics, of course, have been particularly pervasive in baseball, so much so that the game's detractors often complain of being inundated by gray masses of agate type. Pro football, on the other hand, is said to have flourished for the very reason that it is not so enveloped in statistics, it being a more fluid and interdependent game, one in which it is more difficult to isolate individual performances and so forth.

All that aside, the fact is that pro football's upsurge in popularity has been accompanied by a rapid increase in the statistics that surround it, a phenomenon that Siwoff has openly aided and abetted. Until 1966, for example, individual field-goal records were confined largely to the number of goals and total attempts. Siwoff has since amplified those records to reflect the number of field goals and attempts according to distance—one to 19 yards, 20 to 29 yards, etc. Similarly, statistics on punt and kick-off returns were maintained separately until the St. Louis Cardinals' Chuck Latourette had a big and busy season in both last year. After research by Siwoff, two new categories have been added in the 1969 NFL official record book:

Most Combined Kick Returns, Season 74 Charles Latourette, St. Louis, 1968 (28 punts, 46 kickoffs)

Most Yardage, Combined Kick Returns, Season 1,582 Charles Latourette, St. Louis, 1968 (345 punts, 1,237 kickoffs)

In encouraging the proliferation of statistics, Siwoff has had the good sense to realize that they are valuable only insofar as they reflect what happened in yesterday's game and generate interest in what might happen tomorrow. They thus are tools primarily for the historian and the public-relations man, an insight that eludes the fetishist who indiscriminately collects meaningless statistics for no apparent reason but to talk to them, little caring that they often have nothing to say in reply.

"Statistics can be cold and trivial," says Siwoff. "But they can also be alive and full of drama. When a batter hits three home runs in a game and then comes to bat for the fourth time, and if you know that only a few people have ever hit four in history, what could be more dramatic? The excitement in the air is unbelievable. It's electric. And what about a no-hitter? That's a statistical thing. But, wow, what a thrill when the pitcher keeps retiring the side and the crowd starts buzzing in the seventh and eighth innings. It's unbelievable.

"But what I enjoy most about statistics is the chance they give you to relive the past. When Ernie Banks gets seven RBIs in a game or when Reggie Jackson gets 10, it brings back memories of when Jim Bottomley drove in 12 or Tony Lazzeri drove in 11. In looking up things like that, I can see those guys in my mind as clearly as if they were playing again. And to think that when Jackson got his 10, he struck out one time at bat with the bases loaded. How do you like that?"

A troubled expression clouded Siwoff's face. "My son Ronnie, he's 18, and it's unbelievable. Why, he never even heard of Mel Ott until last year. It stabs you when something like that happens. He looks at the record and says, 'Hey, Dad, who's this Mel Ott? Wow, 511 home runs, he must have been quite a player.' How do you like that? Well, it pains you to hear that from your own son. But, you see, those statistics serve a purpose. They help describe what kind of hitter Mel Ott was. They provide the historical continuity that enables us to compare one generation to the next. They tell a story."

The job of fashioning sports statistics into story form is widely shared. Siwoff is the National League statistician, while his chief competitor, Chicago's Howe News Bureau, handles the American League and eight minor leagues. And rather than use any outside bureau, the pro basketball and hockey leagues, as well as most college conferences and associations, compile their own statistics. Individual teams maintain some records, as do sportswriters and news media. There are also a few freelancers, notably Leonard Gettelson, a retired grocer in Fair Haven, N.J. who has been compiling statistics for The Sporting News for the past 44 years and who collaborates on several of that publication's annual guides, including One for the Book. The attic in Gettelson's home contains 200-odd cartons crammed with newspaper accounts and box scores of every major league baseball game since 1917. Says his wife Fran: "if he'd devoted the same time to stock-market statistics, we'd be millionaires."

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