Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
2004-07-15 08:31
by Alex Belth

Alan Schwarz (Baseball America, ESPN, the New York Times) is one of the most prolific and respected baseball journalists working today. After more than a dozen years in the industry Schwarz has written his first book, The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics. I was fortunate enough to catch up with Alan several weeks ago in midtown Manhattan to talk about the book. The following conversation took place on a warm June evening in Bryant Park, directly behind the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd street.

Bronx Banter: First things first, when did you start becoming a baseball fan?

Alan Schwarz: I came to being a baseball fan extraordinarily late. I was born in July of 1968. When Thurman Munson died in 1979 I didn't know who he was. That makes a lot of people gasp of course. I lived in London as a kid. When I was eight, nine and ten years old and returned in the summer of '79. I was never a baseball fan before that. It was must have been late August of '79--I bought my first pack of Topps baseball cards. They made me want to watch the games. Friends I made after returning from London were fans, so they showed me their baseball card collections and we watched games together and played catch. Next thing you know I was playing Little League and a baseball fan was born. But I was eleven, which was pretty late. What that has afforded me frankly is it means that I'm not overly nostalgic about the '77-'78 Yankees, which is a good thing, Bronx Banter's audience notwithstanding. Also, I'm really a child of the free agent era. So I do not resent the fact that players have rights -- I don't resent the fact that they even go on strike. I understand that's built into the game, it's built into the industry and work stoppages will happen every five or six years, and we'll get over it and move on. It's just the way it is.

BB: Are your parents American?

AS: Oh yeah, it's just that my father traveled. He was assigned to London for three years and we said what the heck. We're from New York, from Westchester County.

BB: As a kid were you more into playing baseball or studying it and getting into the numbers?

AS: Playing—I should say attempting to play—convinced me that perhaps I'd enjoy it more if I just stuck to the numbers. I was not any good. I tried. I tried so hard. But I was terrible. And I think like a lot of people who end up doing what I do, writing about baseball in any manner, I wanted to be involved in any way I could--and that wasn't going to be on the field. But I didn't plan on being a sports writer, or a baseball writer. Ever. I was a math guy in high school; I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania. I was a math major there. I had every intention of becoming a math teacher. The University of Pennsylvania newspaper is considered if not the best then one of the best three or four college newspapers in the country, and it seemed like a great kind of fraternity to join. It seemed like fun and some of my friends were already on it, so I joined it, did it, and eventually thought maybe I'd like to do this for a living.

BB: You were the sports guy. Did you do any other kind of writing for the paper?

AS: Just the sports stuff. Several of my friends were on the sports staff. Jon Wilner, who now covers Stanford sports for the San Jose Mercury News, was my editor.

BB: So there wasn't a writing background in your family?

AS: No. Not in the slightest. Everyone in my family is a teacher, which is why I walk around with this horrible residual guilt over my chosen profession. I went from the most selfless profession in the world, teaching, to possibly the most hedonistic, sports writing.

BB: Were your parents mathematicians?

AS: Nope. My father was in the business world, on Wall Street. So he had a facility with numbers. My whole family went to Harvard so I come from an educated family, and Scarsdale, New York is very scholastic-oriented. Come to think of it, my grandfather was fascinated by mathematics and Pythagorean triples. And it flowed from there. My dad taught me square roots when I was four. And I loved it. I just loved numbers.

BB: So did you play Strat-O-matic as a kid?

AS: Yup. I bought the 1981 set and it's still somewhere in my father's house. It had the 1980 statistics. I always remember having George Brett going up against Mike Schmidt, Dennis Leonard trying to get out Garry Maddox, when you played the 1980 World Series again. Nothing could ever compete with the Astros-Phillies championship series, though. I left that alone--that was too good the first time around for some kid to mess with.

BB: During your teenage years when you first got into baseball, did that include reading baseball literature?

AS: No, I was a terrible reader. I probably didn't read a book voluntarily until I was about twenty-three years old. I'm not exactly proud of that. I've since read hundreds. I just turned a corner. But I have terrible eyesight and it's difficult for me to focus on the print. So I found it difficult to read. I didn't have a reading problem per se, but it was just that numbers came a lot more naturally so I concentrated on that.

BB: So you didn't read the Bill James Abstracts when they came out during the eighties?

AS: Maybe I shouldn’t say that I didn't read any books. Yes, a friend of mine named Mark Sternman, who is now a foreign policy advisor for John Kerry, told me about this great book. It was the spring of 1983, and it was the new Bill James Abstract. It was the second one that had been published nationally by Ballantine and I was hooked, absolutely hooked. Because it merged my two favorite things: math and baseball. It was an epiphany for me, just as it was for so many other people.

BB: You've been a baseball writer for what, almost a dozen years now?

AS: Well, I graduated college in 1990. I was hired by Baseball America in 1991.

BB: How long have you had the idea to do a book?

AS: The idea for this project started about three years ago. Harvard Magazine asked me to profile a professor in their statistics department named Carl Morris. It's possible that your readers have since heard of him because he dabbled in baseball statistics. He had a lot of fun with baseball statistics and had lots of little ideas, and even big ideas about baseball statistics. So they thought it would be a fun profile. I went up and met professor Morris, up in Harvard Square. And I'm in a bagel shop, just talking with him about his ideas. And he told me about a method of looking at the game that I had never heard of. It's called the base-out matrix, where you look to see how many runs are scored in each of the twenty-four possible situations. There are three different out possibilities, zero, one or two outs. And then there are eight different configurations of bases empty, man on first, man on second, man on third, etc. So there are twenty-four different states. And if say, and this is off the top of my head, .57 runs are scored with a man on first and one out, and an average of .68 runs are scored with a man on second and two out, well then you know that the person who got a guy from first to second while making an out--say getting the ground ball and moving him over from the right side, or whatever it may have been--added on average .11 runs. It's just a way of looking at the Markovian states of the game. And I was like, "Wow, that's cool. I've never really looked at it that way." And professor Morris went out of his way to tell me that this was not his idea. This had been done for the first time by a man named George Lindsey in the 1950s. I had no idea anyone cared about this stuff back then. I had always thought that sabermetrics had begun pretty much with Bill James and computers. George Lindsey? Who is this George Lindsey guy? Well, I went and tried to read about this Lindsey person and his name wasn't anywhere. You couldn't find anything on George Lindsey. The more I talked with professor Morris, he gave me more names--Earnshaw Cook was one--the more I realized I didn't know anything about the history of baseball statistics--before Bill James, I knew nothing. Given that I'm supposed to be a well-informed baseball guy, I wanted to read a book about this. There wasn’t any. So I had to write it. I wrote it because it didn't exist. And was happy to find that there was as much great material and history as I hoped there would be. It was absolutely amazing how deep and rich the history of people's obsession with statistics is. It's been a part of the game since Alexander Cartwright. It was very reassuring to know that the mania I share with so many has been descended from a long line of others. Lindsey wanted to know how often a guy scores from second base on a single, so you know what he did? He scored 1,700 games over ten years to figure it out. That's insane. It's wonderful, it's inspiring, it's disturbing, it's enlightening--and it's worthy of a book.

BB: So after you learn about Lindsey from professor Morris, are you thinking about writing an article? Or are you already thinking, "I've got a book here."

AS: Oh, I didn't know it was a book until I bumped into enough great stuff…I still remember sitting on my couch--I was on sabbatical from Baseball America because I was completely burned out and needed to defrag my brain. And I remember at that time learning that the making of the Baseball Encyclopedia in the late 1960s, how it was the first conventional book in the United States that was ever type-set entirely by computer. I thought to myself, "There has got to be a good story there." And as it turned out, the guy most behind [the Baseball Encyclopedia] lived about ten blocks from me in Manhattan, David Neft. So I met him. After that, I found some articles about Earnshaw Cook, who was kind of a wacko, but an interesting wacko. Great stuff there. Henry Chadwick, of course, I had heard of. Bill James's story had not yet been told -- Michael Lewis ultimately did tell a lot of that story in his book, but at the time no one knew a lot of that history. I wanted to know, How did Stats Inc. start? As it turns out, it didn't begin as the data company that we now know -- it began as a hardware company, and a company that sold software to teams to allow them to keep their own statistics. When I learned about how Eric Walker, this NPR radio guy from the Bay Area, was the unknown father of modern on-base revolution--not Billy Beane, not Sandy Alderson, it was this NPR dude--I realized that somebody has to tell this tale. I wish it hadn't been me.

BB: Why is that?

AS: I wish I could have just read the book. That would have been a hell of a lot easier. But it didn't exist. You write it because it should be written.

BB: Had you ever had a desire to write a book?

AS: No. That's not to say that I actively didn't want to do it, it's just that I had no specific itch to. I was doing just fine as it was. But it just made sense. People always ask you, "Are you going to write a book?" And I always had the same answer: "If I have a good enough idea, I guess I will. Otherwise, I don't want to add to the cascade of mediocrity that's already out there."

BB: How did you go about getting it published?

AS: A couple of people I respect immensely--Rick Wolff at Warner Books, David Kaplan at Newsweek--told me to write a sample chapter, write a proposal, and see what happens. And I was lucky enough that David, my editor at Newsweek, is a client of Esther Newburg, probably the most prestigious literary agent in New York. He introduced me to her and she wanted to represent me— turns out she is a big fan of baseball statistics, too. You can never underestimate the amount of people that enjoy this stuff. It's crazy, but people love it. Esther was one of the very early Rotisserie League players--the original, Okrent-Fleder-Waggoner Rotisserie League. She wanted to be a part of my project. That's what I'm finding - as I predicted: people are rallying around the subject. I'm just a caretaker of it. This is one of the rare cases where being the messenger is good. You get killed for it a lot, but here, I'm getting the opposite. People all over are thanking me for writing the book, which was long overdue.

BB: I think one of the strengths of the book is that the prose is straight-forward and to the point, and you pretty much get out of the way and let the story tell itself.

AS: That was my goal.

BB: Are you trying to reach a wider audience than just baseball fans with this book?

AS: I was trying to write something that doesn't scare away the wider audience. If you look at the book cover, you might think, "Oh, it's a stat book." But it's not -- in the way that Dava Sobel's "Longitude" isn't about compasses or Simon Winchester's "The Professor and the Madman" is just about a dictionary. It's about people. It's about obsession and what drives people to answer longstanding, befuddling questions--that intellectual quest. And so if you look at my book, there are very few charts or formulas. They're used as illustrations occasionally, but there are very few. Sometimes they're just there to kind of mock the person who came up with it, like Branch Rickey's ridiculous formula. But the book is not about statistics--it's a book about people obsessed with them. So far reviewers have recognized that. They've seen that, hey, if you like baseball, if you're an intelligent baseball fan, you're going to love this book. It should appeal to the kids who used to memorize statistics off the back of Topps baseball cards, to the guy who played Strat-O-Matic or All-Star baseball, and haven't thought about it in 30 years. Or the people who loved leafing through the Baseball Encyclopedia. That's who this is for. I think it will appeal to anyone who keeps an open mind.

BB: In telling the stories of so many people, what did you find that connected them all?

AS: I think they are generally people who wished they could have played. I've heard it said that we are a nation of failed baseball players. People want to be involved--they want to feel a connection to the game. Generally, baseball can appeal to anyone: rich, poor, smart, not-so-smart. And that's wonderful. It does particularly appeal to people of a certain intellect, because of the numbers, because of the math. Because of the science.

BB: Because it's so quantifiable?

AS: Yeah. Because it begets equations, and mathematical relationships and numbers all over the place, that you just don't get in other sports. So you get people who are attracted to that. The people who are going to read the biography of Isaac Newton are going enjoy baseball in a way that they are not going to join basketball.

BB: Isn't that what Lindsey said about Hockey, which was his first love?

AS: George Lindsey was a Canadian Military officer who did some very early work in baseball statistics in the fifties. He wished he could have done it on hockey; he didn't want to do it on baseball. But hockey doesn't allow for the quantification that baseball does. The action is so fluid, you don't have definable states, like man on first and third with one out. Too much is happening at all times for an easy-to-assess snapshot.

BB: Did you have an idea of how to pace the book? You cover a lot of people and are economical in how divide your time. Was this something you were conscious of?

AS: I don't know how to say this without it sounding incredibly self-aggrandizing, but I'll try. People say that writers are "creative." "Oh, you are so creative," they tell me. I don't think I'm creative in the slightest. My job, as I look at it, is like that of a sculptor. A sculptor doesn't "create" anything. He chips away and removes all the stuff that shouldn't be there, to release what was always in that big block of marble. It was always there. But he or she saw it and made sure it emerged. That was my job--to see what mattered, and what worked and what fit together, and take away everything else. So in many ways I didn't determine the material. It was decided before I ever showed up. It was my job to see it, and then let it come to life.

BB: Do you feel that you had to cut a lot of stuff out?

AS: Oh sure. Goodness, there was all sorts of stuff that I couldn't put in there, little side stories explaining someone's idea. For example, Ted Oliver was this guy from the West Coast in the early forties who came up with the idea of rating pitchers not by win/loss or by ERA, but by looking at how their won-lost record differed from that of the team. You know, if Red Ruffing was 20-15 in the late thirties for the Yankees for instance, which is I think a .571 winning percentage, and his team had a .590 winning percentage, then why are we extolling Red Ruffing for being a twenty-game winner? It had something to do with his team. This was a very prescient approach. People didn't do this back then. And this Ted Oliver guy, whoever he was, wrote a book all about this idea, proposing a whole new way to rank pitchers. We all take this for granted now. And you know what? I think Ted Oliver got two sentences in my book. Because in the context of where I was in the story, there just wasn't enough time to go on that type of a tangent. I didn't ever want to spend more time on any given subject than was absolutely necessary. As Apollo Creed said to Rocky, "Stick and move, stick and move." And that's what I hope people feel me doing in the book.

BB: When during your research did you realize that you really had a narrative with this subject?.

AS: I don't know. It was just there. I didn't do it. I don't say that to be unnecessarily self-effacing. As I said before, I think my job is to recognize what was there and allow people see it.

BB: Are there any characters that you are particularly fond of?

AS: Yeah. F.C. Lane, who was the editor and main writer of Baseball Magazine from about 1908 to about 1930. This guy did sabermetric-type stuff that would blow people away today. Absolutely amazing to be done in an era where there was no data to be found. There was no Internet, there were no statistics published in his local papers barely. Nothing, nothing like we got used to in the fifties and sixties even. And he would write article after article saying things like, "Look, batting average is a joke. We need to find out a better system." And month after month, he would talk about new ways to refine that system, new ways to figure out, "How much is a double worth?" This guy kept track of hundreds of games. He assigned his staff to do this, to keep specialized scorebooks so that they could figure out how much a double is worth, and all sorts of other things. This is fifteen years before slugging percentage became an official statistic. They weren't just doing total bases divided by at-bats--they were trying to figure out, using actual innings, how often after you hit a double do you score, etc. Crude perhaps in the era of data, but my goodness, the stuff he did. In the last five years there have been so many articles written about how batting average is meaningless, and that a new day is dawning. This guy was doing it a hundred freakin' years ago. You read his articles doing that, and it absolutely blows you away. It's so cool. I have literally hundreds of pages of this guy's work. And anyone who wants to see it can come to my apartment. It will blow you away.

BB: You mentioned how one thing that connects a lot of the guys who were interested in numbers is that most of them had wanted to be players at one point. That is so reinforced today: It's the sabermetricians versus the Old Guard of baseball jocks.

AS: It has become an insider-outsider thing. Baseball was always very resistant to letting outsiders in. What we're seeing now is the acknowledgement that outsiders have something to offer--not a magic formula, of course, but something of value. This is in very large part attributable, I believe, to Sandy Alderson. Sandy Alderson was originally contracted by the A's as outside counsel in 1981 as a Bay Area lawyer. He ultimately was hired by the club and then became general manager in 1982. He was simply too smart for anyone to say, "You don't belong here." He won three pennants from 1988 through 1990. He drafted well. He utilized new approaches to the game: on-base percentage, the power of the walk, the importance of home runs. The fact that Dave Kingman wasn't nearly as good as people thought because he made so many outs. That Rickey Henderson is one of the greatest players of his time. He ran his club in a way that earned and commanded respect. His disciples started spreading across the major leagues--whether it was Walt Jocketty getting hired Colorado first and then St. Louis, Dave Stewart, Billy Beane, J.P. Ricciardi, Ron Schueler. Sandy's approach to the game spread through other people, "carriers," if you will. There had been outsiders before and there would have been outsiders after, but I think Sandy was the first one to earn the type of respect where people didn't care if he had never played the game before--he was just too smart. Ever since then it's been okay. Maybe not preferred, but okay.

BB: There is a real polarization between the old school and the new way of thinking. This was a central theme in Michael Lewis's book, "Moneyball."

AS: Michael's approach was to cast the situation as a holy war. It made for extraordinarily good reading. But rarely is any situation as black and white as the press is liable or tempted to cast it. Now, some people resent the encroachment of outsiders who believe in statistics. But frankly, as reluctant as so-called old-timers have generally been to accept the new statistics-respecting folks, many of those new statistics-respecting folks have been disgustingly contemptuous of the old time people. Each side is as responsible as the other for the polarization that does exist. If everyone would just relax and take the time to realize that each side has value, to varying degrees and in various contexts, then we'd all be better off. This isn't, "The world is flat, the world is round." In this case it really is somewhere in between.

BB: Do you think that the extreme attitudes are a result of the fact that you are dealing with very competitive people who are threatened by each other?

AS: You remember the line in "Risky Business?" When Guido the Killer Pimp takes Tom Cruise aside and says, "Joel, don't ever fuck with another man's livelihood." I think you are right--some people feel endangered. But that's the nature of any scientific advance. The people who feel they're about to be replaced try to protect their turf. Ultimately it's the value of the new idea that proves whether it will prevail. All the other stuff is really just noise.

BB: Do you feel that in five or ten years there will be more teams run in the mold of the A's, Jays and Red Sox?

AS: Well, it depends. Frankly, answering the question as everyone thinks I will only further the misunderstanding that already exists. Because it's hard for me to know what you mean by "the Boston Red Sox" and "the Toronto Blue Jays" and "the Oakland A's." Because your impression of what happens inside those rooms has been shaped . . . you haven't been in the rooms. I know more than you do just because it's my job to--I know these guys and I've asked the questions and I have the relationships and have learned more first-hand, but you know what? I haven't been in the rooms either. Gloria Steinem had a wonderful quote: "Being a writer keeps me from believing everything I read." One thing I cover in the book is that I think a lot of people will be surprised by how evenly run the Red Sox organization is. Yeah, they get a lot of attention because Theo Epstein respects statistics, and they have Bill James. But I think Bill James has a much lower impact on how the Red Sox run their club than people think. I'm pretty sure he'd agree with me. They respect statistics, but they also respect conventional scouting. You talk to Theo Epstein about Bill Lajoie and he'll go on for hours about how much he loves the guy and respects him and values his opinion. What's special about the Red Sox is that everybody respects both sides. That is what's interesting about them. I don't know to what degree the Blue Jays or the A's have done that. The Red Sox have a heck of a lot more leeway than those two ball clubs, particularly Oakland. They have more money. So they have more room to roam ideologically. But still Theo will tell you, and it's a very good metaphor which is his not mine, that only through looking through both lenses--conventional, tools-based scouting and statistics-based scouting--can you really get everything into focus. I think he's absolutely right.

BB: We are so inundated with numbers these days. One aspect of your book that I appreciated was how the Elias annuals in the 1980s helped create this sense of random statistics that didn't necessarily mean anything, though Bill James was often the target of those who criticized statistics.

AS: It's okay that you used the word, but I would not use the word "random." Every number Elias printed was a fact. They were undeniable, correct facts. The problem, and I don't mean to pick on them at all, was that the books that they printed didn't not foster a sense of understanding about the game that Bill's did. Just because George Brett hit .382 in July of 1986, did that mean he was a good July hitter? Turns out it's pretty much trivia. A lot of the splits that they did didn't necessarily tell you anything about a guy's ability - they told you about what he did, but not about what he might do. They didn't make it clear enough--they put these statistics in the hands of people who didn't know how to use them. Bill taught you how to look at the game. Elias didn't do that. That's okay -- I'm not sure they intended to. I think they did try in various ways, and did succeed in various ways. Their books were not just meaningless tomes of numbers. But Bill did a far better job of arming people with an understanding of what the numbers might mean, rather than their mere existence.

BB: Toward the end of the book you talk about women becoming more interested in numbers.

AS: Too late to help my college social life.

BB: Do you think we'll see a lot more women involved in the future?

AS: Absolutely.

BB: Are these women necessarily baseball fans?

AS: Well, it's hard to be into this stuff if you are not a fan. But because you are a fan doesn't mean you can do this stuff. People ask me all the time, "Would you want to work for a club?" Not at all. I couldn't do this stuff. Just because you write a biography of Einstein doesn't mean you can build an atom bomb. What you need is someone who is very smart, very adept with numbers, very adept at translating concepts into numbers, of getting along with jocks, getting along with very head-strong, hard-working, smart folks. Frankly, it doesn't matter what your gender is. It really doesn't. Women are unquestionably the next frontier in terms of baseball front offices.

Comment status: comments have been closed. Baseball Toaster is now out of business.