Seymour (Sy) Siwoff, who regards earned run averages and pass-completion percentages as so many rubies and pearls, has always had this real feeling for statistics. He had it, certainly, well before he went to work for a struggling New York baseball information bureau that sometimes had difficulty meeting its payroll. It happened three decades ago, yet to this day Siwoff hasn't forgotten one particular stretch of empty paydays that ran to 13 in a row. But then, he's always had this real feeling for statistics.
Happily, Siwoff has come to know better times. Although he still works at the same place that used to have trouble paying its help, he does so as the boss rather than as an employee. And he has become, as it was his heartfelt mission to become, the sports world's No. 1 professional answer man. Although primarily a statistician, Siwoff traffics not only in the bare bones of figures and fractions but also in that somewhat fleshier matter that is sometimes called, redolent of a quainter day, dope. "My job isn't just figuring out batting averages," he says with an uneasy grandiloquence. "I'm in the business of problem solving, you might call it. I suppose you might even say that I'm running a think factory."
Siwoff's forte is not the things he can tell you off the top of his head, in the manner of your barroom know-it-alls, but the things he can find out for you quickly, accurately and cheerfully. As president and owner of Elias Sports Bureau, Inc., he is one of two great founts of information at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, the other being the New York Public Library across the street. His desk, on an upper floor of one of those mid-town office buildings that command unobstructed views of one another, has three phones on it, so that anybody who calls him for information is right away batting .333. Sometimes a question can arise even while a ball game is in progress, as with a call from Chicago earlier this season concerning the Cubs' Ernie Banks.
Banks was having a big afternoon—seven runs batted in—and the boys in the Wrigley Field press box were groping for their statistical bearings. Promising to get right back to them, Siwoff put down the receiver and hurried into a large, cluttered room with a sign over the entrance: ETERNAL VIGILANCE IS THE PRICE OF ACCURACY IN STATISTICS. Inside, looking as vigilant as could be in front of electronic calculators and outsized ledger sheets, Siwoff's four full-time employees (he also has several others as temporary summer help) were fast at work, a group of like-minded men with whom Siwoff interacts like the cheerleader with the crowd. He is nominally their leader, yet the current of enthusiasm running between himself and the others seems to flow in both directions.
"Look it up even if you know the answer," he urges them. "Don't trust your memory."
Or: "Wow, how do you like that? Willie Mays once appeared in a game at shortstop. It's unbelievable the things you come across just leafing through these sheets."
Another time: "Hey, there's a strikeout missing here somewhere. Let's find it. Where are your controls?"
Now Siwoff was exhorting his men to comb the records for Ernie Banks' personal single-game high in runs batted in, and they were responding with exuberance. Out came large volumes containing sheets laced with forbidding rows of figures, including a day-by-day compilation of the 2,300-odd games the 38-year-old Banks had played. Each man, Siwoff included, took one of the volumes and scanned the columns quickly and silently.
Moments later the phone rang back at Wrigley Field. "Banks has had seven RBIs in a game twice before," Siwoff reported breathlessly. "On August 4, 1955, and again on May 1, 1963." This intelligence went out immediately over the ball park's public-address system to the crowd on hand and, via the press box, to the outside world. "If Seymour says it's so, then it's so," testified Chuck Shriver, the Cubs' publicity man. "He's my bible."
A small, angular, dark-haired man of 48, Siwoff has about him an earnestness that seems rather at odds with the impish Groucho-style mustache he wears, the latter a luxuriant affair that looks as if it might have been brushed on in response to one of those matchbook-cover ads directed at smokers with untapped drawing ability. It is the face of a man anxious to please but not at all sure whether he is succeeding. "When somebody calls to find out something, I try to get it for him like that," says Siwoff with a snap of his fingers. "I want to do all I can for him. Maybe it's because I'm so friendly, I don't know. But when they call me, it's flattering."