Oh Scorecard, My Scorecard

Filling out a scorecard can seem anachronistic these days. (via Scott Ferkovich)

Filling out a scorecard can seem anachronistic these days. (via Scott Ferkovich)

On Sunday, June 5, I went to the Tigers-White Sox game at Comerica Park. And I did something I haven’t done in a long, long time.

I kept score.

It happened more or less on a lark. Soon after entering the gates, my friend and I passed the scorecard pusher standing at his booth, looking jaded and forlorn. Not a very brisk business these days, selling scorecards.

I elbowed my friend. “Hey,” I said, “have you ever kept score at a baseball game?”

He shot me a look as if I’d just asked him if he’d ever milked a cow. “Not exactly,” he replied.

“Well,” I said, “today I’ll teach you how.”

What fit of nostalgia incited me to fork over the dollar for the scorecard and pencil? And what made me think I would play the scorekeeping instructor par excellence to my friend? I hadn’t filled out a scorecard since before NBC pulled the plug on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Rather than giving any pointers, it would be the blind leading the blind.

Oh, sure, I’d done it enough times in the past. But scorekeeping was never something I was good at. It is a skill that rewards the patient and condemns the lazy. And I am often in the mood to be lazy at the ballpark. My idea of a relaxing afternoon isn’t scribbling “4-6-3,” or “F7” onto a scorecard.

Besides, not all baseball plays are that easy to put down on paper, even for the most experienced scorecard keepers. Lurking in the shadows is the dreaded convoluted kind involving so many players, so many lunges, feints, and parries, with so many follies and hijinks thrown in, that trying to codify it onto a tiny box with a fat pencil, all in the time before the next batter comes to the plate, becomes a high-wire act worthy of the Flying Wallendas. I know this, because I’ve been there. Precious space runs out, and the intrepid scorekeeper is forced to resort to those eternal cop-outs, the asterisk and footnote. The page resembles a rowdy, unintelligible mess, and all momentum is lost. By then, I am like Sancho Panza interrupted in his storytelling: There is no point in carrying on, and my scorekeeping venture comes to an end.

I remembered to ask the scorecard vendor for an extra pencil or two, since one of them always breaks, or rolls under your seat never to be found again. As far as pencils go, they weren’t much. More like the stubby freebies, sans erasers, they give you at the miniature golf course. And they are never very sharp to begin with. Of course, back in the day you could always just sharpen them with your pen knife, but you can’t bring a knife into the ballpark these days.

You can bring a screaming infant, but you can’t bring a pen knife to sharpen your pencil. Go figure.

The question, of course, is why should we keep a scorecard at all these days? Isn’t it an outdated activity reserved for the hopelessly quirky? Today’s technology makes it passé, right? Why learn archaic shorthand just to keep track of something that is right there on the video board for all to see?

We all know the scorecard-keeping types at the ballpark. They are rarer than a palm tree in Alaska, but you can sometimes spot one. There are the dyed-in-the-wool old guys, with their chicken legs and their team pin collections displayed on their floppy hats. They can remember a really dazzling 6-4-3 double play started by Ray Oyler in 1968.

Then there’s the elitist scorecard guy. He’s the one who brings his own custom-made scorebook to every game, along with a mechanical pencil more sharp and deadly than any pocket knife. I’ll give him credit, because it takes a lot of balls to be seen schlepping your own scorebook to a game. As for the mechanical pencil, it’s like bringing your own billiard cue to the pool hall: You’d better know what the hell you’re doing, or you’ll just embarrass yourself. No choking during the inevitable “DP 1-6-4-7-5-1-5-7.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

But he is a brave soul, the elitist scorecard guy. He catches a lot of undeserved flak, especially from the lumberjacks that he passes by in the overpriced “craft” beer line. “Hey, that guy brought his own scorebook! Haw haw haw! What a geek! Yeah, I’ll take the Raspberry Lavender Caramel Glaze Powdered Stout!”

Hipsters may mock, but scorecard keeping has been intertwined with the ballpark experience since the mid-19th century. We’re not sure if Abe Lincoln ever attended a baseball game, but if he had, he likely would have kept a scorecard.

It was Henry Chadwick, the early historian and statistician of the game, who pressed hard for a clear universal scoring system to be instituted throughout this great nation of ours. His Utopian vision never fully materialized, although what did take hold was a basic framework of symbols and signs that allowed any given scorecard, outside of the most blundering, to be basically understood from one fan to the next. But within that framework, there is enough freedom to allow for stylistic variations.

Scorecard keeping can be as easy or as complicated as you want it to be. I went to my first baseball game in 1977, when I was nine years old. My dad took me to Tiger Stadium. We bought a program, and I kept score. But mine was a very rudimentary record: A startled-looking “O” for any kind of out; “1B” for a single, “2B” for a double, an oversized “HR” for a home run. If a batter reached on an error, that was a simple “E,” specificity be damned. I didn’t bother with who scored or when or how. But what I lacked in sophistication, I made up for in persistence: I kept score of the whole game, a lopsided Tigers victory.

That was decades ago, but scorecards haven’t changed since then. The one I purchased at Comerica Park had a very minimalist, almost flimsy look to it. The cover featured a monochrome montage of current Tigers surrounding the old English “D” with “2016 scorecard” in red at the bottom. It was folded, medium-stock paper. Opening it, the left side revealed the slotted rows of boxes for both teams. As a general rule, these boxes are doomed to be sullied by indecipherable hieroglyphs, frantic scrawls, vague asterisks, erroneous etchings, botched batting orders, mustard smudges, and (if this was a National League ballpark) double-switch contortions. But for now the page was clean, white, and pregnant with misdirected hope and expectation.

On the right-hand page were the rosters of each team. It also featured a very basic primer on how to keep score. While not exactly useless, these sets of instructions were nothing if not brief. They were the baseball equivalent of a one-dollar scuba diving lesson. They listed symbols for players and plays, and drew up a sample inning for the completely uninitiated. The most difficult sample play was “FC 6-4,” with the explanation, “out short to second on fielder’s choice.”

The instructions deliberately avoided the more panic-inducing potentialities, such as “lined out to left fielder, ball juggled and dropped, runners advance a base, ball overthrown to catcher, ball retrieved, rundown ensued, 2-1-5-1-2-4-8-4-2-9-1-7, runner out **asterisk play reviewed overturned home manager ejected BW (brawl ensued) 5P2TL (five punches, two teeth lost) GPUP (Game Played Under Protest).” All but the most resolute scorecard keepers would throw up their hands in despair and chuck the card on the ground.

Also squeezed onto my Tiger scorecard were sections called Upcoming Promotions (although one of them occurred yesterday, and one the day before), and This Day in Tigers History. “On June 5, 1961, the Detroit Tigers acquired left-handed pitcher Hal Woodeshick from the Washington Senators for infielder Chuck Cottier.” That was worth the dollar right there. There was also an ad with the headline: “Get Your Tickets!” It had numbers to call, for the telephone-inclined, but also suggested a visit to the Tiger box office. What a revelation.

Before finding our way to our seats, my friend and I grabbed some hot dogs and brews. I wasn’t used to carrying a beer, a hot dog, AND a scorecard (not to mention two pencils). I didn’t want to simply fold the card and stick it in my back pocket, so I held my beer in my right hand, hot dog in my left, with the pencils and scorecard delicately wedged between some fingers. This made for some deft maneuvering through the crowd. I knew that the PA announcer usually rattled off the lineups too quickly, so I cheated beforehand: In the comfort of my seat, I stole them off my cellphone and wrote them down at my leisure.

The first play of the game was easy enough. Facing Justin Verlander, Adam Eaton hit a pop up to the third baseman, Nick Castellanos. The crowd roared approval.

“Ok, how do you score that,” I quizzed my friend.

“Easy. Pop up 9. P9.”

“Wrong,” I corrected. “P5. The third baseman is five. Nine is right field.”

“Oh yeah. I knew that.”

Next, a new guy by the name of Jason Coats, in only his second big-league game, struck out swinging. I wrote a big “K” in the box next to his name. Coats will never forget his debut the day before: He got bopped in the head when he collided with Eaton running down a fly ball and cut his lower lip. It could have been worse, but fortunately he was able to walk off the field with assistance. How would I have scored that play? F7Bop8?

Luckily, the first inning was a breeze to score. Jose Abreu homered (I drew a diamond in the square, and filled it in), and Todd Frazier was called out swinging.

It was a brisk game. Even though I’d been out of practice for years, the secret codes and symbols all came back to me, like the way you never forget how to ride a bike. After an inning or two, I felt like an old pro. I looked around the stands furtively, just to see if anybody else was keeping score. I counted one, a guy with a mechanical pencil a few rows away. Overwhelmingly, though, fans don’t want to bother with the minutia of keeping score at a game. There are too many other distractions going on. And I suppose that is how 30,000 people can collectively not notice when a batter runs to first base when it is only ball three. That actually happened in a game last year. Joey Votto was the batter, and nobody pointed it out.

This afternoon, however, I was the game’s caretaker, armed with scorecard and pencil. Indeed, I became a part of the game itself. While the players on the field had to succeed at their own given tasks, my job was to effectively transcribe those tasks onto a piece of paper for an unknown future posterity. Mistakes were not allowed, either on their part or mine (mainly because I didn’t have an eraser).

I settled in for the long haul.

Scorekeeping is a vanishing art. It is a necessity for the guys in the television and radio booths, as well as the beat writers who need to refer to their scorecard in order to compose a quick story. But for the casual fan, what is the point? We no longer need to look down at our scorecards to see who is due up next inning, or what a player did in his first three at-bats, or who has driven in the runs. All we need to do is peek up at the video board.

Maybe one of the reasons for the demise of scorekeeping is that you have to take the time to learn it. Sure, you can get by with a rudimentary knowledge, but the more you practice it, the better you get, and the more fascinating it becomes. There, I just wrote the word “fascinating” in an article about scoring baseball games.

For the fans who only attend a few games a year, filling out a scorecard is not going to be on their short list of things to do at the ballpark. Modern stadiums entice you to get up and wander the wide concourses, check out the food offerings, test your arm speed in the pitching booth, plunk down hundreds of dollars for an authentic jersey at the team store. You can’t do all those things and still keep score.

But for many baseball watchers, scorekeeping is right up there with peanuts and Cracker Jack. I have never been one of those people. But who knows, maybe I’ll keep at it and do it again the next time I go to a game. I may learn to appreciate it more.

Detroit scored four runs on four hits in the fifth, the big blow a two-run double by Justin Upton, he of the Young Jeezy walk-up music. Verlander went seven, giving up only five hits, two earned runs, one walk, and eight Ks.

In the ninth, Francisco Rodriguez got Avisail Garcia to tap weakly to shortstop Jose Iglesias, who made a nifty pickup and a quick toss to Cabrera at first to end the game.

“6-1,” my friend said.

“6-3,” I corrected him. “The pitcher is number one, remember?”

“Oh, yeah, right.”

Detroit Tigers 5, Chicago White Sox 2.

Brad Ausmus’s men had played a nearly flawless game, perhaps their best of the season.

My scorecard was equally error-free. No cross-outs, no scribbles, and no errors.

I signed my name at the bottom of the scorecard, and we got up and headed for the beer hall.

I would check out the highlights later on my smart phone.

Scott Ferkovich edited Tigers by the Tale: Great Games at Michigan & Trumbull, published by the Society for American Baseball Research. He is the author of Motor City Champs: Mickey Cochrane and the 1934-35 Detroit Tigers, coming in 2017 from McFarland. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_Ferkovich.
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7 years ago


Peter Jensen
7 years ago

“called out swinging.”?

7 years ago

“You can bring a screaming infant, but you can’t bring a pen knife to sharpen your pencil.”

So true – and so sad.

7 years ago

I taught my girlfriend how to keep score when we go to Brewers games because otherwise she would have no interest in what happens on the field. Now when we go we are both engaged in the game and it makes the experience so much better. I do wish more people appreciated the art of scorekeeping though.

7 years ago

Went to an Astros Reds Fri last and kept score in the 10 inning game…and a Rangers game when Yu came back this year- haven’t done that in a while- I saw one other person keeping score. It is still fun though.

7 years ago

I’d like to count myself as an “elitist scorecard guy”. As a little kid, I always kept score at games; I got out of the habit for a while, but got back into it a couple years ago. My favorite part is when other fans turn to me and ask things about the game like a pitcher’s pitch count, what happened on the last play, what they missed while they were gone, etc.

Side notes:
— Ballpark scorecards are almost always way too small. What kind of team expects there to be a maximum of 0 fielder substitutions and 4 pitchers in a game?
— I always keep score in pen, because I take this stuff WAY too seriously.

Pirates Hurdles
7 years ago
Reply to  Parker

Agreed, it is necessary to buy a score book and bring it with you if you want to be able to do a decent job of it.

Pirates Hurdles
7 years ago

Teaching my son (age 6-7) to score over the last 2 years has been an absolute joy. His first game that he helped score was the Bucs 4-5-4 triple play last year, the first one in MLB history. Sometimes the baseball Gods shine.

7 years ago

I taught my daughter at a similar age. 25 years later, it is still a treasured part of our shared experience when we got to games. Fans around us are always impressed that a young lady knows how to keep score.

7 years ago

In 2013 I wanted to build an update to the symbol scorecard. I took the valuable information the traditional method has always captured and applied numerical value to the Hieroglyphics.

I’m now in my 4th season of 4Base Scoring – with 900+ MLB games scored – and great feedback from people inside the game. Also won top award at STL SABR Conference.

Would be happy to have Hardball Times and other fans take a look at my prototype work on 4BaseScore.com. Thanks! @CMCycled on Twitter

Michael Peterson
7 years ago

It’s funny. I have 3 notebooks full of scorecards of the games I’ve been at. For the last several years, I use an app called IScore, which is more technical than pencil. I save my games and still score and enjoy the beauty of the game.

7 years ago

I somehow became the official scorer for our kid’s 10U baseball team. I’ve really enjoyed it, and as mentioned, there’s a lot that goes into it. Since they’re 10, I didn’t start tracking errors for example, just called everything a hit. By the end of the season I was actually assigning errors if I thought the kid should have made the play. You feel kind of bad assigning an error to a 10 year old, but it really does help show how effective a pitcher is being and how much defense plays a part. I think that’s helped the kids as well, because they’ve learned the difference between giving up runs, and giving up unearned runs. The defense became much crisper.

In addition to this, I’ve had three or four of the kids show interest in the scorekeeping and they actually want to score the game as well. I can’t let them, but I’ll let them help me track what’s going on while showing them how to write things down.

7 years ago
Reply to  AaronB

I volunteered as a Little League coach for my youngest brother’s team for three years. I was responsible for pitching drills and keeping score each season. Having had much practice from years of baseball scorekeeping at the ballparks, this was a breeze for me. The kids knew that I was keeping track of their stats (I would even spreadsheet them at home to share with the other coaches), and these kids would constantly inquire what their season batting average was, or how many RBI’s they had, etc.

My response nearly every time: “You let us worry about that. Just go out and get on base.”

Terry N.
7 years ago

There’s nothing like keeping score at a game that winds up being widely remembered such as a no-hitter or a postseason extra-inning marathon.

Peter King
7 years ago

Love this! I am a lifelong scorekeeper, the Scoremaster, then the BOb Carpenter scorebook, but hardly an elitist. Also no skinny legs or floppy pin studded hat! My wife and I share scorecard duties. She bought me the books!

7 years ago

First question:

“Are you keeping score?”

A: “Yes. That’s right.”

Second question;

“Are you a scout?”

Now, I just nod and watch them go “Oh! Really? For what team?”

I’ll say something like:

“Sorry, can’t tell you. There are three other pro scouts sitting in just this section and I can’t let it leak which of your guys we’re looking at before the trade deadline. The price is steep enough already.”

Michael Caragliano
7 years ago

I had a girlfriend about a dozen years ago who was from Peru. When I took her to her first baseball game at Shea, she saw me buy a scorecard (this was in 2005, and it was already a dying art then) and asked what I was doing. When we got to our seats ($9 jobs in the upper deck- man, a lot has changed since 2005), I gave her the scorecard and showed her how to keep score- what all the symbols meant, what numbers corresponded with what players, etc. At the end of the game she said she enjoyed it; she asked for her own scorecard when we went back to Shea a month later. I knew I had a keeper based on her ability to keep score- so much so that we’ve been married 10 years now. And yes, to add my two cents on another point, we don’t keep score now, but only because our two kids enjoy the bells and whistles in the kids pavilion and get those bored fits that kids get once in a while, so that we only actually “see” about two-thirds of the game.

7 years ago

I’ve filled two Gene Elston scorebooks, now using Rick Burke’s scorebook. The great thing about scoring is it gets you more involved in the game…..the more detailed you get – such as pitch tracking, 1st pitch strikes, hard hit balls,etc… – you gain a greater appreciation for the details of the game. And yes, I’ve been asked the scout question too…..my response “I wish . I’m just enjoying a ball game.”

7 years ago

love keeping score and have scoured the Internet looking for the best card I can come up with. Have finally found a couple of solid examples with spaces for 11 innings, diamond w/outcomes (1B, 2B) to circle, balls and strikes, 10 pitcher slots, 2 sub per 1-8 hitters and 6 for 9 hole. Will be modifying it to include a catchers and umpires section.

I love the precision and focus it takes. But we’re all human. Bathroom or food breaks where you ask a friend to take over usually lead to interesting notations or just blank boxes. Others I know have developed notation for lapses like that (NPA – not paying attention).

I always bring my book (previous user is right, besides roster info, ballpark cards are not great) and haven’t noticed anyone giving me the stink eye. have had people constantly ask what happened? how do you record that? etc. It’s a great way to watch and learn the game. would not be into it via an app. paper all the way.

Julie F
6 years ago

My favorite scorebook ever, the one I’ve taken with me to my first games at Wrigley and Chavez Ravine, is the now sadly-out-of-print (I think) hardcover edition from Chronicle Books. A thing of beauty. https://books.google.com/books/about/Baseball_Scorekeeper.html?id=XX-vcQAACAAJ&hl=en