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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Keeping statistics is a hobby with some, a crusade with others. Around the country is a small army of number addicts whose second greatest thrill is to check the official statistics against their own; their first greatest thrill is to catch a mistake in the official ones. "People like Seymour live in a fishbowl," sympathizes Don Weiss, the NFL publicity man who works with Siwoff on league statistics. The existence of amateur statisticians poised to pounce helps provide a constant check on official records, but some show signs of overreaching.

The pathology of the condition at its most acute is illustrated by a Times Square denizen who maintains, on small scraps of paper, meticulous records on such matters as the number of home runs yielded by Cleveland pitchers during May. His homing instincts bring him to the Elias bureau, a memorable visit having occurred during the seventh game of the 1960 Pirate-Yankee World Series, the one eventually decided by Bill Mazeroski's ninth-inning home run.

Siwoff and the others were watching the game on TV. Without so much as a glance at the screen, their visitor walked in and announced that his records on regular-season grand-slam home runs seemed to conflict with the bureau's, and wouldn't everybody help him sleuth out the discrepancy? This was too much even for Siwoff. "I threw him out," he recalls sadly. "The seventh game of the World Series. How do you like that? He keeps all those baseball statistics, and he doesn't like baseball."

There is not such a shortage of quirkiness on his own staff that Siwoff has to go around importing it from outside. One of his employees, Bernie Levy, has a particular weakness for statistics on minor league ballplayers, in whom he is whispered to lose interest as soon as they reach the majors. Levy was introduced to a onetime journeyman minor league ballplayer named Rocky Tedesco at a baseball luncheon a few years back, whereupon he numbed everybody, Tedesco included, by saying, "You're Rocky Tedesco? The one who played for Salina in the Western Association in 1946?" The 36-year-old Levy has maintained statistics on almost every player in the higher minor leagues—from triple A as far down as some Class B leagues—for the past 23 years, and he updates his records every Tuesday and Friday night while his wife plays mahjongg with friends.

Siwoff shares with Levy and the others in the bureau a fascination with sports oddities, conundrums and knotty problems. In sports' equivalent of the trivia game, they might ask you the one about which brother combination won the most games among big-league pitchers and then answer, after you've made a silly of yourself over the Dean boys, that it was the Mathewsons with 373 combined wins (Christy's record, 373-188; brother Henry's, 0-1). They'll also tell you that baseball's foul lines really ought to be called fair lines since, unlike the situation in football or basketball, any ball touching them is still in play—all of which is probably as fruitful as arguing that life insurance really should be called death insurance.

At the heart of such exercises is an absorption with cold, chiseled fact that manifests itself in other ways. For instance, when Siwoff drives past one of those highway signs reading SERVICE STATION 3� MILES, he actually checks the distance against his odometer. Then, too, he has little patience with any form of fiction. "You wouldn't catch Seymour reading Valley of the Dolls," says Al (Rocky) Avakian, another bureau employee. "He'd only wind up counting the number of pills."

Any suggestion that fiction and statistics spring from incompatible impulses, though, ignores James T. Farrell, the novelist and an inveterate baseball fan who can tell you, without looking it up, that " Eddie Collins played 25 years, batted .333 and was one of eight players who made over 3,000 hits—and he didn't do it on booze." Says Farrell: "I was figuring batting averages before I could read."

Unlike most boys, Siwoff enjoyed the rare good fortune of having his youthful passion converge with his adult profession. A native of Brooklyn who rooted variously for the Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox, Tigers and not more than eight or 10 others, he graduated in 1943 from St. John's University with a degree in accounting. In his freshman year a college friend introduced him to what was then known as the Al Munro Elias Baseball Bureau, and Siwoff got a job there during summer vacations computing minor league statistics and running errands. The free baseball passes that he received helped compensate for the long delay in collecting his $12-a-week salary.

The bureau had been founded in 1916 by South Carolina-born Al Munro Elias, who shortly afterward became the National League statistician. Elias knew his stuff—Damon Runyon called him "the figger filbert," a term that came into general currency—but the bureau was never on solid ground financially. A few months after Siwoff joined the bureau, Elias died and the business passed to other members of the family. Siwoff, after serving with the 88th Infantry during World War II in Italy (and suffering shrapnel wounds in the stomach), took a fling at accounting and then returned to the bureau in 1948, although he was newly married and had serious doubts about whether there was any future in the business.

Those doubts intensified in 1952 when, first, the Elias bureau lost some of its biggest newspaper accounts to a competing statistical service recently launched by the Associated Press and then, a few months later, the last active member of the founding family died. "As bad as the business was I couldn't let go," recalls Siwoff. "It was like an infection." So he picked up the pieces, reorganizing the bureau but keeping the Elias name. Over the next few years the rapid expansion of professional sports and the growing influence of public relations combined to keep the bureau afloat. But not until Siwoff became official statistician for the NFL in 1960 (he got the AFL after the merger agreement in 1966) was the turnaround complete. The football account enabled the bureau, which hitherto had languished after the baseball season, to develop into a year-round operation with a permanent staff.

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