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.