The Unofficial Scorer

For some, keeping score is as natural as talking or walking. (via Adam Fagen & Michelle Jay)

Almost 400 years ago, John Donne wrote the immortal words “No man is an island entire of itself.”  Easy for him to say; he was a metaphysical poet.  He never kept score at a baseball game.

Nowadays when I look up from my scorecard, I scan the crowd and discover that, more often than not, I’m the only fan in my section keeping score.  I glance over to the adjacent sections, and it’s the same story.  John Donne notwithstanding, I am God’s lonely man, a kinder, gentler Travis Bickle.

One day last season I noticed a little boy staring at me while I keep score.

“What’s that man doing?” I heard him ask his mother.

“He’s keeping score,” was the mother’s response.


The eternal question.  Why indeed.

A few weeks ago, the question arose again when I was attending a Frisco RoughRiders (Texas League, Rangers’ Double-A affiliate) game.  Inexcusably, I had forgotten to bring my scorebook.

There was a time when that wouldn’t have been a problem, since the Riders used to include a scorecard in the free program they hand out when fans enter the park.  The Frisco franchise, in business since 2003, has been handing out free programs since day one, but they eliminated the scorecard last season.

I remember the shock that overcame me on my first 2016 visit, when I immediately noticed there was no scorecard stapled into the gatefold.  Thinking I had somehow picked up a rogue program, I went back for another one.  Same thing, no scorecard included.  Obviously, a change of policy.  But for someone who is accustomed to – I hesitate to say addicted to – keeping score, it was disorienting.  Had I known, I could have brought my own scorebook – as I have done since then.  Instead, I had to go cold turkey.

Like most minor league parks, Dr Pepper Ballpark posts the starting lineups in a conspicuous place on the main concourse.  I paused to read the names, but deep down I knew it was a waste of time because without a scorecard, I couldn’t write them down.  Curiously, in this era of the iPhone, a number of passing fans stopped to take pictures of the lineup board.

Though I was disappointed by Frisco’s omission, I must admit I was not surprised.  I knew the day was coming.  I just didn’t want to admit it to myself.  Why should a baseball team provide a scorecard when so few fans are interested in keeping score?

It wasn’t always this way.  In truth, scorecards are almost as old as the game itself.  When I was a kid, they had been around for more than 100 years, and keeping score was an integral part of the ballgame experience.  Roughly half the fans, old and young, male and female, would keep score in some form or fashion.

The fundamentals of scorekeeping were set down by Henry Chadwick (Hall of Fame, 1938), a British writer and statistician who was credited with inventing scorekeeping and the box score.  Today almost every scorecard you purchase will have a section called “How to Keep Score” based on his original rules.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

It does no honor to Chadwick’s memory to disobey his rules, but there are no penalties for doing so.  You don’t have to submit your scorecard to a teacher for the red-pencil treatment and a final grade.  No need for a Notary Public to sign off on your document.

If you don’t want to score a groundout to the shortstop as 6-3, you can simply write in GO.  For a walk, you could write in W or BB.  The traditional K for a strikeout could be waived in favor of SO.  If you choose to stick with K, when denoting a swinging third strike, you can choose KC or a backwards K.

If you are a dyed-in-the-wool minimalist, you can simply write a big X in the appropriate box.  If you suffer from OCD, you can count balls and strikes.  If the left fielder catches a ball in left-center field, you can simply note F-7, or you can write F-78, indicating that the left fielder caught the ball but he was in left-center field.

So given the informal nature of scorekeeping, why have fans lost interest?  I have my theories.

First of all, if you want to keep score, you have to pay attention to the game.  It’s debatable how many people in the ballpark are actually doing that at any point in time.  Many find their iPhones more intriguing than the game.

Then there are those who just can’t sit still.  At any time during a game, one can look up and see a parade of fans moving up and down the aisles and concourses, and not just between innings.

Chances are, they’re on their way to a concession stand.  Despite inflated prices and long lines, many fans look at a ballgame as an opportunity to make like the Saturday Night Live coneheads and “consume mass quantities” of food.

Of course, there is also the problem of late arrivals.  Look at how many people are in their seats at the time of the first pitch, then wait an hour and see how many more people are there.  Even I wouldn’t bother to keep score if I wasn’t there from the beginning.

Conversely, there is the problem of the fan who leaves early to beat the post-game traffic.  Even if you’re there for the first pitch, why bother to keep score if you’re not going to be there to compile the final totals?

Then there are the hordes of people who view a ballgame as a chance to socialize.  This is particularly obvious with group outings.  Some attendees are just there doing face time, eating, drinking and mingling.  They are there to be seen, not to see a baseball game.

Then there are parental duties.  Thanks to relatively low ticket prices, many a minor league seating bowl resembles an open-air day-care center.  Since little kids have little bladders, parents are frequently enlisted for bathroom escort service.  Also, many minor league parks have playgrounds.  Can’t let the kiddies go to the bounce house unaccompanied.  At a minor league game, parents can babysit or keep score, but they can’t do both.

From personal experience, I can attest that consumption of beer has a deleterious effect on scorekeeping.  So does good conversation.  And if you’re drinking beer and conversing…well, the accuracy and legibility of your scorecard may deteriorate as the game progresses.  By the ninth inning, your scribblings may resemble a cartouche recovered from an archeological dig in Karnak.

Sobriety is a must if you ever find yourself scoring a game during the opening week of spring training.  The starting pitcher won’t go more than a few innings and at least one substitution per position is assured.  If you have a neat, clean scorecard at the end of a spring training game in early March you should be immediately inducted into the Scorekeeper’s Hall of Fame.

Neither the league nor the home team is paying you to be the official scorekeeper, so there’s no need to be a perfectionist.  Former Yankees player/broadcaster Phil Rizzuto was once asked what WW meant on his scorecard.  The abbreviation was Rizzuto’s own, and it stood for Wasn’t Watching.

Of course, if Rizzuto wanted to fill in the blanks, he could always ask somebody in the press box for help.  In his day, there was no information overload on the scoreboards.  The typical major league scoreboard would keep you apprised of balls, strikes and outs, and provide a line score for innings 1-9 with the total of runs, hits, and errors.  The batting order of each team was also included.  A lot of space was devoted to out-of-town scores, but they were of no use to anyone keeping score at the ballpark.

Today that electronic behemoth beyond the outfield fence tells you a lot more than the score.  Even a minor league facility like Frisco’s Dr Pepper Ballpark provides the pitch count for both pitchers, broken down into balls and strikes, the latest stats on batters from both teams, plus high-def video replays.  No matter where you sit, if the scorecard is in view, you are not suffering from a paucity of information.

Should questions arise while you’re watching a game, keeping score is a must.  For example, you might notice that the starting pitcher is racking up a lot of strikeouts or walks.  So how many?  If you’ve been keeping score, you can answer your own question in a matter of seconds.

Late in the game, you might wonder what a certain batter did his first three times up.  A glance at your scorecard will provide the answer.

You notice a particular batter is having a good day.  How many RBIs has he accumulated so far?  If you’re been diligently keeping score, the answer is right in front of you.

Granted, if you have a photographic memory, keeping score may be superfluous.  But my short-term memory leaves something to be desired, so I must document what I witness.  The final tally with all the rows and columns in perfect agreement can be a thing of beauty.  Unfortunately, as with filling out tax returns, the math doesn’t always work out satisfactorily the first time through.

Perhaps the ultimate ego boost of keeping score is the empowerment factor.  When Grantland Rice referred to God as the “Great Scorer” in a poem, he unwittingly evoked the godlike powers that the humble baseball fan has when he keeps score.  When a batted ball results in a play which could be dubbed a hit or an error, I don’t wait long for the official scorekeeper to rule.  I go with my gut instinct.  If the ruling comes down later and conflicts with my ruling, I stick with my ruling – and it is not subject to appeal.

Now that the scorecard is disappearing from minor league parks, will the day come when major league teams stop selling scorecards?  I wouldn’t be surprised.  Of course, there will always be an official scorekeeper in the press box.  But will the unofficial scorekeepers in the stands go the way of detachable collars, wooden bleacher seats, straw boaters, and Marlboro advertisements?

Given MLB’s virtue signaling about going green, killing trees to manufacture scorecards and pencils may be a no-no one day.  I suppose keeping score on a tablet is possible, but I haven’t seen anyone doing so yet.

For me, old-fashioned graphite-on-paper scorekeeping is like walking or talking.  I don’t remember learning to do it, or when I learned to do it, or anyone teaching me to do it.  It’s just something I learned to do early in life and have been doing ever since.  I can’t remember life before scorekeeping.  Will there ever be a time when I give up keeping score?  That’ll be the day!

The day they pry my scorecard and pencil from my cold, dead hands.

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Shane Tourtellotte
6 years ago

Frank, there actually are tablet apps for baseball scorekeeping. I saw my sister using one at her pre-teen son’s game several years ago. I couldn’t say how functional it is, but they’ve had time since then to iron out a lot of bugs. Now if you can only figure out a way to keep the battery from draining during an extra-inning game.

(There’s a conundrum for those who are concerned. Is it more green to save the paper from a scorecard, or the energy from e-scorekeeping?)

Here’s to hoping this art is not lost.

Ken Sheller
6 years ago

I’ve used an iPad for scoring and it becomes difficult to see in bright sun. There are probably fixes for that.

6 years ago

A long time ago I got the absurd image of a factory burning paper to create electricity stuck in my head.
I think of this most times I use an air dryer in a restroom, or when someone asks the question you did about green-ness.

Who knows what’s the greenest. But I think we can all agree there is something wrong with me.

6 years ago

When i was a kid my dad used to take me sometimes to our local minor league park. I would always keep score while he would laugh at me saying i was missing the game. We didnt get along in lots of other ways too but i still have some of those scorecards. They have notes about the game (stars next to great plays or big hits) and our day out (weather, food). They bring back good memories, more than any glossy brochures do.

Dennis Bedard
6 years ago

For most of us who lived in a pre digital age, I think keeping score was learned in Little League, Babe Ruth League, American Legion, and high school. Those leagues kept statistics but had to do so the old fashioned way as they could not afford to hire someone who transmitted all of this via wire. So if you wanted to know who was up next, whether or not your bloop single was a hit or error, etc, you had to consult the scorebook. And at 10-12, it was a real ego booster to see your name inserted into what looked no different from a major league scorecard.

6 years ago

Frank, I keep score (never in Spring Training though) and also notice I am one of the few in a section doing so. However, I enjoy on occasion looking through old score cards from games 20+ years ago and particular plays bring up vivid memories. I doubt the electronic versions of scorecards will still be around 20+ years from now.

Teaching my wife and children to keep score while I frequent the bathrooms, concessions, etc. has helped bond us and keep scorecards intact.

Keep it up and hope you inspire others to do so via this article.

6 years ago

I still bring my own scorebook to games and dutifully keep score. I always scan the crowd in search of others and I rarely see it anymore. Though I did see a kid who looked to be about 10 years old sitting in the section below me keeping score with his own personal scorebook. So there is hope.

I know there are “apps” for keeping score, but they are impersonal. I’d rather look back over my old scorebooks and see them in my own handwriting. It serves as proof that I was there and doing it myself. Anyone with a smart phone could have been responsible for a digital scorecard.

6 years ago

Went to a AAA game recently, bought a program, but now they don’t give out little pencils “have to go to the fan store” (or bring your own I guess), was very disappointed.

Tony M
6 years ago

I think that all of the reasons that you gave for the art of keeping score are true. Of course, folks don’t actually watch the game when they are there. The new ballparks are designed to keep up, moving around, and spending money. In this digital age “everything” is available at the touch of a phone or iPad. Box scores, photos, ticket stubs, everything is stored now and not collected. I have been a collector of old programs and scorecards for many years and have a few hundred in my possession. I have always been amazed at how many different styles of scoring were used, as you noted. But, they are each like a small piece of history unto itself, and although not all are completely scored (or not at all) Information can be found not only about the players and that day’s game, but how much tickets cost, available concessions and prices at the time, local ads and advertisements for products and businesses long gone, fashion styles, automobiles, beer and cigarette brands, American history pertaining to war bonds, blood drives, air raid warnings, etc. Although, many of these things have been replaced by slick glossy pages with most advertising for national brands and services. It would be a shame for scorecards to disappear completely. I could see a retro “Scorecard Night” used as a promotion in the future.

Sarah Opgenorth
6 years ago

I went to an Asheville Tourists game earlier this summer. I picked up their free program and was dismayed to find no scorecard inside. I started keeping score on the back of my print-at-home plane ticket, and tweeted the experience out to @GoTourists and #ScoreKeepersUnion and was pleasantly surprised to receive a reply from the team stating that they had free scorecards available at Guest Services. I was four innings in at that point, but I thought it was nice that they at least had some scorecards somewhere in the ballpark.

I teach a class called The Joy of Scorekeeping, and it’s one of my favorite parts about my job, especially teaching little kids how to keep score. I think it brings fans closer to the game.

6 years ago

I’m from Great Britain and keep score here as well as when I go to the states. It connects me with the game, particularly when I’m 3,000 miles away. I have hardback score book only with the games i’ve attended in – it is and will be a better memento than all the things ii’ve bought over the years.

6 years ago

Still love to keep score. Have tried the tablet but sunny days make it difficult so I have stuck to paper scorecard and a pencil or two. Good article

John H.
6 years ago

A friend of mine designed and had printed some real nice scorecard books. They are high-end and have alot of nice features. 24 games per book. He is selling them on-line.
I don’t like to advertise in the comment section, but thought their might be some interest here.

6 years ago

When my son played in Ontario the scoreboard in the parks was rarely maintained so I began to track the game on a small piece of paper (eventually graduating to a full blown score book). One sweet benefit was that I was continously consulted about what the score was…being regarded as a reliable source always felt pretty good!

6 years ago

Thanks for the article Frank and your passion for score keeping, my dad started teaching me the art when I was ~7 years old and I try to score every MLB game I attend (now 32).

With the digital age, scorecards feel like a relic of the past, but like many others, I have memories of times spent with family and friends, some of whom have died, these documents are priceless.

Tim Lemke
6 years ago

I have actually started to keep score at many games, after never doing it before. I find it helps me get immersed into the game, and there is something relaxing about it. A nice “analog” experience after spending much of the rest of my life on a computer or smartphone.

BUT, it’s nearly impossible to do when I have my kids with me due to the various bathroom breaks, requests for food, etc. (Though I was very excited to learn that my son had kept score at a game he attended with his grandparents recently.) And I tend not to keep score when the game is a social outing with a lot of friends.

Keeping score isn’t really necessary now, with all of the information you get on ballpark scoreboards. So it’s really more about whether you enjoy it. I find it can add to the enjoyment of watching the game, but I can see why others would not see the point.

6 years ago

I worked as a reporter for the AP for several years, and keeping your own scorecard was of course mandatory for me. Now I feel naked at a game without one, and I can’t follow the game as well as I’d like. When my daughter was younger, and I had to get up to take her to the restroom, there were just enough people scoring that I could tap on somebody’s shoulder and ask “hey, buddy, do you mind catching me up on the last inning?” I would of course return the favor if asked. I often hear people saying they aren’t really into baseball because it’s too slow, or they don’t always know what’s going on. Scoring definitely alleviates that, plus you start to watch the game a whole different way, noticing defensive shifts, anticipating who might bat for the pitcher, and when might be a good time for a double-switch.
When I was at a game with a group of people, I went ahead and kept score, and a couple of them asked what I was doing, and was completely fascinated by how well I could recall the previous innings off the scorecard.
I have several old scorebooks that I’m converting into an electronic form as well, but I don’t think i’ll ever completely abandon paper-and-pencil, especially in the seats at a game. Thanks for a nice, nostalgic article.

6 years ago

Thanks for your article. I enjoyed reading it! My mom used to keep score both at Cardinal games and of course for all my Little League games. She was a paper and pencil person (also a CPA), and had many lists that I have found over the years (summer vacations taken, types of cookies baked at Christmas, cars we owned, etc. etc.). Good memories!

6 years ago

My wife and I try to keep score (sometimes very difficult with a 2 year old) at every National game we attend. At it worst we talk about the scoring and discuss the game, at its best we see and have a record of some awesome events, Rendon’s 10 RBI game earlier this season and the 5 HR inning just last week are two games that stick out from this season. With the Rendon game, we knew he was having an awesome game with his 3rd AB and he was sitting on 6 RBI. We enjoy the process and I hope that the kids get into it with us.

Abraham Bowen
6 years ago

hi Frank this is Abe hope you’re doing well.i respect your knowledge on baseball I’m also a baseball fan and an avid baseball card collector my e mail address is please send me your e mail address if you can.thamks Abe

John R Rebillot
6 years ago

I’m an usher at the AA Richmond Flying Squirrels. We do provide a scorecard in our free program but I see a fair number of people, young & old who bring in their own scorecards to the games. I think so much of it is tradition for them. In particular on Sunday, day games (which have a lower attendance due to the heat) there are at least 3 guys that I can depend upon to be there with their scorecards. And they always sit in the same seats in General Admission. I have told them that they can move to a “higher level” seat out of the sun since we have so much extra seating available but they all decline. Those seats are THEIR SPOTS and that game wouldn’t be the same for them anywhere else. I find it reassuring for the sport.