by Steven Dugan
In The Joy of Keeping Score, author Paul Dickson says that “scoring a game is truly for the fan. Scoring will always bring you closer to the game on the field, giving you an understanding you cannot gain otherwise.” In his view, fans who keep score remember the game with more clarity, more excitement, and with greater detail than the fans who don’t. He shares an encounter with a neighbor who had a scorecard from the last game between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers to illustrate his point. “He recalled the whole game inning by inning, just looking at the scorecard. It was almost like watching a rabbi read scripture. Here he was recalling the whole game. It was kind of magic.” So how and when did scorekeeping in baseball begin?
Sportswriter Henry Chadwick (1824-1908) was an avid cricket fan in his native England. When he and his family moved to the US in 1837, he still enjoyed watching cricket and playing rounders, baseball’s English cousin, but things changed after Chadwick attended a game between New York’s best teams in 1856. He became a baseball fanatic. Chadwick tried to persuade the New York Times to cover baseball as well as they did cricket, even offering to write the stories himself. He got a job the next year as a writer at the New York Clipper, where he was free to cover baseball as much as he pleased. Up until then, newspaper stories about baseball games were more story than statistics. Chadwick believed that giving readers more specific details about a game would enable them to better understand the action—as if they were there.
Chadwick set out to translate what the fan was watching on the field onto paper. His first attempt at statistically covering a baseball game came in 1859 in a game between the Brooklyn Excelsiors and the Brooklyn Stars. He recorded the runs, hits, putouts, singles, and errors in what became the earliest known box score. He later refined the box score, and, with few exceptions, his box score is very similar to the ones we still read today. But it was his creation of the scorecard and scoring system that transformed how hard-core fans experienced the game.
Many scorekeeping symbols haven’t changed much since Chadwick assigned numbers to baseball’s positions (1-9), abbreviations to designate a walk (BB—for base on balls) or a strike out (K), and how to properly record a ground-out to the shortstop (6-3) or a fly out to center field (F8). With the exception of using “K” (the last letter in the word “struck”) for a strike out, Chadwick’s symbols were one or two letters long and made up of the first letter(s) of the action (i.e., AB standing for “at bat”), and, in the case of a defensive play, a combination of letters and numbers. The grid pattern with room for nine players and nine innings with totals at the right are still used in game programs today. Chadwick envisioned a uniform scoring system throughout the country; but, while there are general rules, many fans have their own symbols for scoring a game. For example, to help remember exciting plays, one might circle a play that stands out.
Scorekeeping isn’t just limited to fans. Many baseball announcers on radio and TV keep score to quickly refer to previous at-bats and defensive plays to help provide a narrative of the game. Retired Dodgers Hall-of-Fame announcer Vin Scully was even known to help out fans scoring a game at the stadium and at home when describing a play that had a lot of moving parts. He could condense a rundown play between bases, with four or five infielders attempting to tag a runner, into one sentence. He might say something like, “If you’re scoring at home, that play went 6-3-4-3-6, and the runner was tagged out trying to get back to first.” He simply described a crazy play in a language that serious fans understood: scorekeeping.
While scorekeeping isn’t as popular as it once was, there is a nostalgic charm to having a scorecard filled out from a game you attended. Maybe it was the first game your dad took you to see, or one where you witnessed a rare triple play. Former ESPN senior writer Jim Caple summed it up nicely when he said, “The beauty of keeping score is that it’s your scorecard, your account of the game, your version of the play-by-play.” Baseball fans everywhere have Henry Chadwick to thank for that.