MLB History: Farewell to Stats? Baseball Needs More Story, Less Sabermetrics

John ThornGuest ColumnistMarch 16, 2011

Recently Major League Baseball named me its official historian, a great honor and an even greater opportunity. I hope to convince you that some knowledge of baseball's past enhances the pleasure in every present moment. I won't do it with one article, or even several, but perhaps in an extended dialogue into which you are cordially invited. So let's get started.

Many fans believe the game's useful history begins with when they first started playing it or watching it. In my household, as my three sons grew up in the game, there was always talk at the dinner table about Ken Griffey Jr. and Greg Maddux and Mike Schmidt—and Babe Ruth and Cy Young and Ty Cobb, too. They were all part of the game.

Indeed, they were all part of the family—more so than distant cousins and aunts and uncles. We talked about who was better than whom, what Cobb might do if he had to face Maddux, how many homers Ruth would hit today, what Griffey's OPS might have been against 1920s pitching staffs, that sort of thing. 

In those years I created, with Pete Palmer, Total Baseball, a 10-pound doorstop of a book that now, supplanted by the Internet, seems as quaint as the slide rule. Through 15 years and eight editions, it was the last word on historical records and sabermetric reconfiguration of the raw data.

Today my sabermetric writing lies behind me rather than ahead, and I think I am about ready to say, "Farewell to Stats."

For a whole generation of fans and fantasy players, stats have begun to outstrip story and that seems to me a sad thing. Even the unverifiable hogwash that passed for fact or informed opinion in baseball circles not so long ago seems today wistfully enticing, for its energy if nothing else.

Where is the pioneering broadcaster Bill Stern now that we really need him? His fabrications were outrageous and, to modern ears, hilarious. But he knew how to grip a reader with a ripping yarn.

OK, maybe Abe Lincoln did not urge Abner Doubleday with his dying breath to "keep baseball alive; America will need it in the trying days ahead." So what?

Frankly, in today's baseball writing I miss such Sternian balderdash: the wink and the nudge of a Barnum or the tall-tale bluster of a Davy Crockett. Amid today's mix of straight-on account and sabermetric analysis, I miss the fun.

For this I could blame Bill James, Pete Palmer and maybe myself a little too. The press has often termed me a sabermetrician, placing me in the company of my betters. In fact I never was a statistician. I just believed that in numbers one might uncover truths not visible to the naked eye, in the way that flying at night a pilot must trust the instrument panel rather than his senses.

Even early on, what interested me more than fiddling with formulas or lobbying for Ron Santo to enter the Hall of Fame was the web of illusion that stats created for fans and players alike, evading the interesting questions of why we measure, what we think we are measuring, what we are truly measuring, and most important, what the measurement means. 

Today I find those questions less gripping. To count the constituent parts of baseball is to run the gamut of the game's charms from A to B.

A decade ago, when counterintuitive strategy briefly was fashionable, someone thoughtfully provided a list of the all-time leaders in receiving intentional bases on balls with no one on base. This put me in mind of Thoreau's remark in Walden: "It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar."

Fixate on the particular and you miss the big story. 

While we're on a quoting jag, there's Einstein's "Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts." True, so true. Yet in an Abner Doubleday twist, there is no evidence that Einstein ever said this. The words were observed on a sign hanging in his office at Princeton and may first have been uttered by ... Bill Stern. Or Abner Doubleday.

John Thorn's new book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, debunks the myth of Abner Doubleday inventing baseball in Cooperstown and traces the game's real roots in the 18th century. You can buy it at Amazon.