There are two kinds of baseball fans, those who keep scorecards and those who don't. The latter, unencumbered by score sheets and pencils, no doubt have an easier time hailing vendors and are able to keep a better grasp on their beers and their hot dogs. Devoted scorecard keepers, however, invariably have a better grasp of the game.
To the uninitiated, a much-penciled baseball scorecard must seem like a manuscript done in cuneiform; there are so many numbers and letters, dots, circles and shaded corners in box after box. Yet in the hands of an expert, a well-kept scorecard is a thing of beauty. It can capture the dramatic pulses of the game as no garishly lighted scoreboard can. Tended with imagination and precision, a scorecard can help unravel some of the game's complexities and, from time to time, can even assist in predicting upcoming action.
A few years ago in County Stadium, Milwaukee, the Brewers were playing the Orioles. Late in the game the Brewers were ahead 1-0. At bat for Baltimore was Al Bumbry. The count: 2 and 0. In the press box, Washington Post baseball writer Tom Boswell studied his scorecard and noticed that an earlier batter, Rick Dempsey, had fouled off six two-strike pitches. The Milwaukee pitcher, seemingly tiring from throwing all those fouled-off pitches, was having difficulty getting his curve over. And, first time up, Bumbry had flied out to the fence in left on a 2-and-0 fastball. "This pitch, left-field bleachers," Boswell brazenly announced to his colleagues as he looked up from his scorecard. Unfortunately, he didn't back his prediction with a couple of bucks, because a second later the ball cleared the fence in left. Score one for scorecards.
Look over the shoulders of a few scorecard keepers and you'll find nearly as many systems and idiosyncratic notations as you will scorecards. Some systems employ inks of various colors. Others might be dubbed Space Invaders, because they usurp the righthand totals columns (AB, R, H, RBI, etc.) for other functions. And some systems are so complicated you almost need a cryptographer to decode them.
No matter how inventive, most scoring systems adhere to a few basics, notably the 1 to 9 numbering of the field positions and the various letter combinations used to record a batter's history at the plate. Traditional abbreviations include BB for base on balls, FC for fielder's choice, HR for home run, SF for sacrifice fly, DP for double play (for example, DP 6-4-3 indicating a twin killing short to second to first) and the dreaded K for strikeout. The last seems an unlikely abbreviation, but it's well-rooted in history.
The father of the baseball scorecard, Henry Chadwick, was also the father of the K. Writing in the 1860s for a seminal baseball publication called Beadle's Dime Base-ball Player, Chadwick laid out the game's first scoring system. He numbered the players on the field (a bit differently from the way it's done today) and assigned letters to "record the movements of each player...A—put out on first base, B—put out on second base...F—put out by fly-catches...LD—put out by bound catches [of a foul ball. At that time, any batted ball caught on one bounce was a putout], RO—put out between the bases, HR—home run, and K—put out by three strikes." He went on to say, "The above, at first sight, would appear to be a complicated alphabet to remember, but when the key is applied it will be at once seen that a boy could easily impress it on his memory in a few minutes. The explanation is simply this—we use the first three letters of the alphabet to indicate the three bases, the first letter of the words 'Home' [and 'Run'] and 'Fly,' and the last letter of the words 'Bound,' 'Foul' and 'Struck.' " So, K for strikeout.
A contemporary of Chadwick's, a reporter for The New York Herald named M.J. Kelly, is said to have personalized a system so detailed that he not only could pinpoint errors but could also distinguish at a glance between a "slight muff," a "bad muff," a "total miss" and a "total miss that was mitigated by a good attempt." Kelly went so far as to consider how hard a ball was hit and even how many bounces it took before being fielded. As for balls that bounced too many times to be counted, Kelly even had a name for them—"daisy cutters."
Today's observers of the game are equally diligent. Roger Angell of The New Yorker, perhaps the most celebrated baseball writer in the land, makes note of so-called "eye" hits, those that find their way between fielders, by drawing two small circles beneath his pencil stroke for a base hit. The notation, he readily admits, was borrowed from Henry Hecht of the New York Post. So it goes. If there's one constant in the varied fraternity of scorecard keepers, it's their willingness to share both their systems and their thoughts on the significance of scorecards.
"I can't enjoy a game without scoring it," says Stanley Grosshandler, a Raleigh, N.C. physician who, before making a visit to a ball-park restroom, hands his scorecard to one of his sons or a friend well schooled in his methods. Grosshandler has a collection of some 320 scorecards, arranged by city, dating back to 1936, to the first game he ever attended (Phillies 4, Dodgers 3). He finds the old scorecards a pleasure to peruse. "I've got myself a memento of every game I've ever seen," he says. "Not only did I see Lou Gehrig play, but I can tell you exactly what he did." Among his most cherished scorecards is one from Aug. 11, 1961. It notes that he was one of the 40,775 fans in County Stadium who witnessed Warren Spahn's 300th victory, a six-hitter, won 2 to 1 thanks to an eighth-inning home run by Braves Centerfielder Gino Cimoli. Except for adhering to his childhood habit of noting a strikeout as SO, Grosshandler keeps a pretty conventional scorecard.
Boswell, though, is a Space Invader. Long before the end of the game, he has filled "those useless, empty spaces to the right" with check marks and Xs denoting whether a pitcher was ahead of or behind the batter. He then records the final count. It was this system that helped him predict the Bumbry home run. "I do it for the one time in 20 that it's interesting," says Boswell. "This past summer Scott McGregor of the Orioles threw 23 consecutive strikes in a game. Now that's interesting, especially if you're the only one in the ball park who knows it. On the next to last Saturday of the season in Milwaukee, Baltimore's Jim Palmer got the last 17 outs on 27 pitches. The players watch the game with enormous intensity. They love the game at precisely this level. I think it's important to try to watch the game as closely as the players do."