Baseball’s Scoring Slump

Why scoring baseball is becoming a lost art.

Major league baseball has changed a lot in the past 25 years: Players’ salaries have skyrocketed, teams are wearing an ever-expanding assortment of caps & jerseys, and pitchers are filling more specialized roles. The fan experience has changed too. Sure, the sights, sounds and smells at the ballpark remain essentially the same. There’s the crack of the bat, green grass on the field, and the comforting ritual of the seventh inning stretch. But tickets and concessions are now often prohibitively expensive, stadium facades are dominated by advertising, and scoreboards are equipped with the latest bells and whistles. Longtime baseball observers have noticed that something is missing from today’s ballparks; fans engrossed in the old-fashioned and low-tech practice of scoring games.

Once upon a time, you could find a scorecard-and-pencil-equipped fan in virtually every row. Yet, at a recent game between the Cleveland Indians and Oakland Athletics at Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland, California, those clutching scorecards were few and far between. At best, one person in each section could be found, head down, body scrunched forward, dutifully recording every play, using an archaic notation system that has been passed down from generation to generation of baseball lovers. 

To the initiated, scoring is a relatively simple practice. Each defensive player is assigned a number (1-9, for each of the nine players on the field). Whenever a ball is hit the scorekeeper writes down the sequence of how the play unfolded on a pre-printed grid. For instance, a ground ball to the third baseman (indicated by the number “5”), and thrown to the first baseman (indicated by “3”) for an out would be recorded as “5-3.” A pop up to the third baseman would simply be indicated by “5.” Plays that don’t correspond to a particular fielder are indicated by letters. Some of the most commonly used letter symbols include “K” for strikeout (swinging), a backwards “K” for strikeout (looking) and “BB” for base on balls. A few less common designations are “HB” for hit batsman and “BCB” for bench clearing brawl. 

The modern system was pioneered in the 1860s by a newspaper man named Henry Chadwick, and although the earliest baseball box score dates back to October 1845, he is generally considered the “father” of scoring. To those unfamiliar with Chadwick’s scheme, the dizzying array of letters, numbers and symbols can be downright intimidating. Even those who are well versed in baseball terminology can be frustrated. Alan Fitzgerald, a 58-year-old usher at Network Associates Coliseum (who reports seeing about a half-dozen people scoring per game) insists that a scorecard interferes with an otherwise blissful day at the ballpark. “I don’t like it because I spend more time figuring out what to write down than watching the game,” he says.

Some people attribute the decline in scoring devotees to today’s attention-deficit/instant gratification society. Baseball fans have many distractions at the modern stadium—everything from trivia questions and cartoons on the JumboTron, to restaurants, batting cages and fast food outlets. Greg Jouriles, a high school teacher from Alameda, California, who learned the practice from his father and spent the entire Indians/A’s game recording every play, notes that scoring “requires patience and sticking to it—something you don’t see much anymore.” 

Digger Lauter, an 18-year-old New York Yankees fan from Monterey, California, who documented the action with his brother Mick, has his own theory, claiming that scoring methodology is no longer essential baseball knowledge. “It’s simply not taught anymore, because there is so much information on the scoreboard,” he says. While each glossy game program sold in major league stadiums includes a heavyweight-paper score sheet, it usually goes unused. Fans tend to be much more interested in the photos and personal profiles of their favorite players. 

But to hardcore devotees, scorekeeping is an essential part of the fan experience, a cerebral exercise that allows you to appreciate the nuances of the sport. “Baseball is a slow game,” says Jouriles. “Scoring gives you something to do and gives you a better understanding of the game. It also fits in with baseball’s whole statistical mindset,” he says. 

On occasion, those with scorecards can become a quiet center of attention at the park, as they reward fans in nearby seats with insights that only a diligent scorekeeper could bring to light. Jouriles tells the story of documenting a Florida Marlins/San Francisco Giants game in which Marlins outfielder Cliff Floyd was 0-4 with four strikeouts. In his last at bat, “he had an 0-2 count on him,” recalls Jouriles. “It looked like he was going to strike out five times, but he hit a home run to beat the Giants. If you don’t keep score you probably don’t notice that.” 

Although the basics of the scoring system are universal, the fan can make his or her record-keeping as simple or as complex as desired. Some fans content themselves with notating hits, runs and outs. Others record every detail of the game. Fans have been known to commemorate how much beer they consume or who threw out the ceremonial first pitch. “If an airplane flies overhead or if there’s a fight in the stadium, I note that,” claims Jouriles.

The system also allows for a certain amount of creativity and personal flair. For instance, some scorers incorporate color and diagrams into their score books. Mick Lauter notes the flight path of the ball on each play. Others scribble details about injuries in the margins or use exclamation points to highlight spectacular catches.

Occasionally, a group devises a new scoring method designed to supplement or even take the place of the modern system. However, these new and often innovative methods have generally failed to catch on. In 1954, L.L. Bean—now known for its catalog retailing success—revealed a simplified system built around five core symbols. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a group named Project Scoresheet (PS) created a new system in 1984 that featured hundreds of new scoring codes. Using the PS system, a stolen base play in which the catcher’s throwing error allowed the runner to move to third base would be notated as SB2(2-3)E2/TH)). Needless to say, Project Scoresheet was too cumbersome to gain acceptance and disappeared by the early 1990s. 

As with any activity, there’s always a fringe element that takes a hobby to the extreme. Some especially devoted fans keep score while watching games on television or listening to the radio. A few collect game programs, which occasionally become collectors items worthy of an Ebay or even Sotheby’s auction. In 1991, at the height of the baseball collectibles market a ten-cent program from the 1905 World Series sold for more than $24,000. 

Not surprisingly, though, aficionados focus on the here and now. The most common problem reported by scorekeepers is staying focused and keeping up with the action on the field. Phil Rizzuto, the Hall of Fame New York Yankees shortstop and longtime broadcaster, even came up with a letter symbol, “WW,” to be used whenever a scorekeeper misses a play. What does it stand for? “Wasn’t watching,” of course.

You Might Also Like:
The Rise and Fall of Baseball Cards
Will Big League Baseball Survive?