Baseball and America: How Our Changing Passions Have Shaped the Game

John ThornGuest ColumnistMarch 18, 2011

Mariano Rivera, the active saves leader.
Mariano Rivera, the active saves leader.

See Part 1, "More Story, Less Sabermetrics" / Part 2, "Understanding Baseball Through Its Mysterious, Magical Words"

Statistics are something of a fetish. 

Like a shrunken head, a stat is an encapsulation of a power once alive. It serves to recall and revivify the past, and sometimes to transform the future. 

When David Neft's team that developed the landmark Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia unearthed 19th-century RBI and dead-ball ERAs, Roger Connor, Sam Thompson and Addie Joss won Hall of Fame plaques after years out in the cold because the areas of their great accomplishment had not yet been recorded.

Once saves began to be counted after 1960, relief pitchers gained prestige, were compensated differently and eventually began to be used differently (with indifferent results, I might add) so as to produce more save opportunities for a designated closer. 

What are the outcomes of sabermetrics on the field to date? As general managers and managers came to understand that outs and runs were the currency of the game, as they had been from the very start, they began to value on-base percentage. Pitch count was not merely a way to preserve your own pitchers' arms—it was also a weapon: By working the count a manager might force the hand of his opposing number and sooner get to the middle relievers, exposing the soft underbelly of nearly every staff.

Today it is probable that we overvalue walks where formerly they had been undervalued, and we scorn risky baserunning when once it was the prime delight of players and fans. The charm of the grand old game is that it appears to be the same as it ever was, or at least the same as in President McKinley's day, but of course it has changed radically.

In terms of strategy it is hardly about baserunning and fielding at all, though recent sabermetric work in these areas may alter the balance yet again.

This all holds interest for me still. I remain interested in statistics not as indices of merit but as artifacts of play to which story adheres. As the tangible—and, as opposed to narrative history, unmediated—remains of games contested long ago, records transform play into a common experience repeatable at fixed intervals...which is not a bad way to define a rite or ritual. “People preserve their thousand-year-old experiences in the world of play,” wrote philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. 

Baseball is a backward-looking game, in which every action on the field resonates against plays imprinted—in the mind's eye, in the collective memory and in the record books—long ago. 

The game came to the fore because it was adapted to the conditions of early national life; it changed as those conditions were altered. The taste of other days sustained a game marked by running and fielding; the taste of our day is for the contest of pitcher and hitter. It has been a long while since a home run usually involved running.

Baseball fans of earlier generations had fewer statistics at their disposal, but a simpler game perhaps had less need of them. Ultimately, the statistical fragments that were once saved in scrapbooks, or the new measures devised by ingenious fans, become relics that remind us at every moment that our youth was a wonderful if remote time. 

So, for me, “Farewell to Stats.” But maybe not to sabermetrics, whose definition has been disputed ever since Bill James coined the term. I believe in what Bill described in 1981 as a hallmark of the approach—to present new evidence from original source material rather than simply shuffling the existing data to make one's point. This seems to me to go beyond statistics to describe reasonably well the kind of work I do—though admittedly absent the metrics.

Apart from family, what now seems important to me is play, a more serious activity than work and one that reveals more about who we are or wish to be. And the work that seems most like play to me is rummaging around in history's attic, often emerging into the light empty-handed only to discover what was in plain sight all along.

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. 


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.