By-Hand Baseball Scorekeeping: A 'Dying Art' That May Never Actually Die

Sportswriters have been noting the ever-waning popularity of pencil-and-paper scoring at the ballpark for decades, but the hobby lives on for some dedicated fans.
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The baseball season has reached its midway point, so it's time once again for one of the history-minded sport's traditional rites of passage.

Not the All-Star Game, which celebrates its 80th anniversary Tuesday night (but which has lost much of its former sparkle in the era of interleague play, free agency, and eroded league identity and loyalty—as its plummeting television ratings attest). I mean that it's time for yet another report about the demise of the practice of keeping score at the ballpark.

Devised by pioneering statistician Henry Chadwick in the midst of the Civil War, its death was prominently featured on the first sports page of The New York Times a few days ago. "Who's Keeping Score? Not So Many," Times asked (and answered). After all, the Times's Harvey Araton wrote,

Today's fans go to ballparks that feature upscale restaurants, play areas for children and other attractions besides the game. Digital apps aside, there are also e-mails and social media to check, photos and videos to shoot, phone calls to make.

What chance, after all, does a pencil and paper—talk about obsolete technology—have against such competition? As a scorecard vendor Araton quoted said, "It's a dying thing." And what could be more crushing than the verdict of one completely uninterested 20-something fan: "It's my dad's thing"?

But that obituary was hardly breaking news of scorekeeping's supposed death.

Three years ago, Chris Erskine of the LA Times was ready to "clos[e] the book on baseball hieroglyphics," observing that "fewer and fewer fans keep a scorebook at ballgames." Prior to that, The Wall Street Journal proclaimed that "Keeping score is a dying art." "At tonight's All-Star Game," the Journal's Jonathan Eig wrote, "as at most Major League Baseball games these days, old-fashioned scorekeeping will be scarcely seen"—and that was back in 2001.

But even Eig was a latecomer to the death watch. "Few fans actually keep score," the Sporting News disclosed—in 1950. "In a recent survey of scorecards discarded by fans following a major league game," the so-called "baseball bible" reported, "only eight out of 100 purchasers knew the rudiments of scoring [and] less than half the fans bothered to even mark their cards with a pencil."

Having somehow survived these consistently gloomy prognoses for six decades and more, scorekeeping has proven harder to kill off than Rasputin. Keeping score is "dying, but not extinct," Araton concluded. When something has been "dying" for so long, that's a sign that there's still some life left in it yet—and I await the future send-offs that it will surely receive. In the meantime, all credit to the Washington Nationals for doing their best to encourage the practice. The Yankees may be charging 10 bucks for a scorecard buried in a glossy program, but the Nationals offer fans free scorecards at their home games.

To be sure, it's an uphill battle. But as I kept score during a recent game in Washington, I was happy to see that I wasn't alone in my section of the stands. There were all of two of us more or less diligently marking our cards—and trying to keep the "WW"s ("wasn't watching," the inevitably necessary notation devised by Yankee Hall of Fame shortstop and long-time broadcaster Phil Rizzuto) to a minimum. Hardly a mass movement, true, but you have to start somewhere.

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.

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