The nexus between baseball and numbers has a rich and long history. Baseball statistics seem to form a timeless connection between the past and the present – from Honus Wagner at the turn of the twentieth century to Nomar Garciaparra of today. More than any other sport, baseball, with its myriad performance metrics - batting average, slugging percentage, earned run average – allows an observer to slice and dice the plays and the players and often make comparisons across ages. It is many a boy (and girl!) who has learnt his arithmetic through baseball statistics. Michael Lewis’s fine book, Moneyball, put baseball numbers front and center when it made a plausible case for the continuing success of the financially challenged Oakland Athletics. Bill James, the professorial-looking numbers man, is often credited with remaking the Boston Red Sox to a championship club.
The current book is obviously a labor of love for editors Pete Palmer and Gary Gillette. This voluminous compilation goes back to the late 1800s, when organized baseball began to record statistics, albeit in a haphazard and non-standardized way, and ends with the 2004 season. Organized into sections for batting average, pitching performance, team records and Hall of Fame votes, among others, the book contains extensive records categorized for quick viewing. Each section is introduced by highlighting quintessential success stories in that category (Ted Williams in hitting and Christy Mathewson in pitching) followed by alphabetized records.
Palmer and Gillette have not just compiled baseball records in this volume. They have painstakingly gone through the records of players in the past whose statistics have been inconsistently reported and made corrections based on sound rationale. Thus, Ty Cobb’s number of lifetime hits was mistakenly reported at 4,191 when Pete Rose first approached and later passed it. Examining source documents, Palmer and Gillette make a compelling argument to change Cobb’s record to 4,189. While this may seem trifling to some, the authenticity of baseball records is sacrosanct to legions of rabid followers.
This book belongs in the shelf of every baseball enthusiast. It is the definitive collection of the game’s statistics, both past and present. Perusing it, it becomes clear why Ted Williams was a first-ballot Hall of Famer (career batting average of .344) while the beloved Brooklyn Dodger, Gil Hodges (a career .273 hitter), failed to get into the Hall in fourteen attempts! The next time you are in an argument about the performance of a ballplayer, you can resort to that timeless repartee, “You can look it up!”