Baseball’s box score perfectly tells the story of each game

British-born sportswriter Henry Chadwick is credited with inventing the box score in 1859.
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Box score from 1876. (Wikimedia Commons)

Box score from 1876. (Wikimedia Commons)

“For half an hour every day, let the box scores have their way”
— From the song “Box Scores” by The Baseball Project

I made my first pilgrimage to Fenway Park, the home of my beloved Boston Red Sox, on July 12, 1975. It was 10 days after my 8th birthday, the trip being a gift from my parents.

We traveled by chartered bus, the excursion coordinated by the family of one of my sister Julie’s classmates. I remember the rain, and in my mind’s eye, I can still see Cesar Tovar, center fielder for the visiting Texas Rangers, splash landing on the sodden turf in an attempt to make a catch (not sure he succeeded).

But the particulars of the game, including the date, would have eluded me were it not for the website Retrosheet. It offers box scores for every major league game from 1914 to the present.

‘Showing the game’

Economical with words and numbers, a box score tells the story of each game, columns listing the participating hitters and pitchers for each team, their orders of appearance, and how well they performed (hits, runs, runs batted in). Simply put, zeroes are bad for hitters, good for pitchers.

No children’s book ever gripped my imagination the way a box score did. I would spread the Lewiston Daily Sun on the slate floor of our family room – I wasn’t big enough to hold it in my open arms while sitting in a chair the way my parents did – and, on my knees, pore over the sports section to find out how the Red Sox had done the night before.

Baseball might be America’s pastime, but British-born sportswriter Henry Chadwick is credited with inventing the box score in 1859, representing his account of a game between the Brooklyn Stars and the Brooklyn Excelsiors. From a 2009 NPR story about Chadwick, titled, “The man who made baseball’s box score a hit”:

“Back then, according to Chadwick biographer Andrew Schiff, ‘the box score was the only way of showing the game, there really was no photography. So the writer really was the person at the center between the fans and the player at the game.’ “

Online and real time

The box score, like baseball itself, has evolved. For many years now, expanded box scores have included end-of-game batting averages for hitters and earned run averages for pitchers. Real-time online box scores sometimes show the location of every pitch.

In a 2010 column, ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, who has reported on baseball since 1981, explained how from 1990 to 2009 he had clipped “every box score of every baseball game from the nearest newspaper” and taped “each one into a spiral notebook, a daily task that I’ve estimated, at roughly 15 minutes per day, has cost me 40 days of my truly pathetic life.”

He gave it up as newspapers cut back on the number of box scores they carried and he had to scramble to find them. Now he reads box scores online, saving time, saving money on tape, saving himself from having to lug around “a notebook as thick as a phone book” filled with box scores.

Like Kurkjian, I feel a certain nostalgia for box scores of yore found in newspapers. But no matter the medium, I have faith that the box score will survive, just as baseball has endured the eras of Astroturf and domes and steroids.

Sure, some whippersnappers have come along and purported to improve on the box score. In 2013, Fast Company gushed about a new take offered by a website called Statlas that the magazine described as “games beautifully visualized like transit maps.”

I found it confusing, superfluous and not at all conducive to a better understanding of a game. Statlas appears to be defunct; the box score lives on, ready to chronicle each day of the 2015 season.

The box score, like baseball, only ever needs minor tweaks because you can’t improve much on what’s already pretty perfect.

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