The Joy of Keeping Score by Paul Dickson

“The Joy of Keeping Score” by Paul Dickson, (Walker & Company, 2007), 117 pages.

There seems to be two distinct camps within the world of baseball fans: those who love keeping score and those who are mystified by its appeal. The former will find “The Joy of Keeping Score” to be a real treat, the latter should be warned that they too may catch the scoring bug after reading this book.

The process of keeping score, making a written record of each at-bat while the game is in progress, is virtually as old as the sport itself. The natural appeal of this pursuit should be more obvious to Brits than to most others. Many a cricket fan can be found scribbling away on the boundary and Dickson notes that the urge to score “borrows significantly from the book-keeping instincts of British cricketeers [sic]”.

Completed score cards/books offer a unique insight into the history of the game and Dickson emphasises this point by including many examples of scorecards spanning from 1845 to the 1990s (alongside some glorious photos, such as one showing a horde of fans sitting in the Polo Grounds in 1938, many of whom are diligently filling in their score cards).

The front cover of this edition includes a copy of the 1932 “World’s Series” souvenir score card, on which you can see a record of Babe Ruth’s infamous “called shot” in the fifth inning. The score card also reminds us that Lou Gehrig followed Ruth with a homer of his own (denoted in this example by a “4” in the bottom left corner of his at-bat box and a “1” in the middle showing that he scored 1 run) and the dark line underneath shows that these back-to-back jacks chased Cubs pitcher Charlie Root from the game.

The fact that a baseball fan in the Twenty-first century can easily decipher a score card from 1932 says a lot about how perfectly matched the process of record-keeping and baseball has always been. Dickson provides lots of examples of different methods of scoring during his guide on how to keep score, but (virtually) all are easy to follow.

Many of the basics have been in place for years, yet the scope for embellishing the process is a large part of its appeal. What you decide to record (just the outcome of the at-bat, where the ball was hit, each ball and strike etc) and how is all down to personal choice. Like handwriting, no doubt the way in which somebody scores a baseball game reveals a great deal about their personality. The same game can produce a minimalist, black and white record as well as an elaborate, multi-coloured ensemble depending on the whim of the creator.

While the trivia (including a time line of scoring rule changes) and pictures will instantly be devoured by scoring enthusiasts, everyone else will come to the book with an obvious question: why bother to score games anyway? Thankfully, Dickson addresses that question at the start, although not quite as comprehensively as I would have liked.

The main text of this book was written in 1996 and my 2007 edition simply includes a new foreword; therefore Dickson doesn’t address the present age in which all of the information a fan may record can be obtained, in staggering detail, with a few clicks of a mouse button. The Gameday feature on MLB.com (both in “classic” and “enhanced” versions) effectively scores the game for you, so isn’t doing it yourself just a waste of time? The answer is an emphatic no.

Due to the individual nature of keeping score, the record you end up with is very much your own personal account of what happened. You would hope that it tallies with the official version of events when it comes to the facts, but the quirks and idiosyncrasies that decorate the page will be your own.

There’s something extremely satisfying about looking at a completed scorecard, akin to standing back to admire the final brush strokes on your latest work of art. You created it and you will be able to leaf it out of a dusty folder in thirty years time and re-live the game in question as if you were watching it live again.

The main benefit of keeping score is that it brings you closer to the game and increases your understanding of what is happening in front of you. As a fan from the bleachers of Wrigley Field contests: “for one who has been a lifelong spectator, and never played real baseball, this is the best self-educational tool I know”.

From the point of view of a British fan, I can wholeheartedly endorse these sentiments. My knowledge of how the game is played improved immeasurable when I started to score them. Quite simply, it challenges you to understand every play. You may not realise how many gaps there are in your knowledge of the rules until you have to make a decision on how to record each play (I certainly didn’t!).

And more than anything, for some people the process of scoring a ballgame simply adds to the enjoyment of watching it. After punching the air with delight as your ace punches out the opponent’s star slugger to end an inning, nothing beats the feeling of marking that backwards “K” (to denote that it was a called strike three) on your score card.

Keeping score is not for every baseball fan, just as some football fans quietly absorb the game while others can’t help but shout and sing until they are hoarse. A ‘scorecard cynic’ may feel their money could be better spent elsewhere, but they will be missing out on a great little book. The Joy of Keeping Score provides an unbeatable insight into this wonderfully addictive activity.

Have you read “The Joy of Keeping Score”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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