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The Evolution of Baseball Through Scorecards

        Baseball has been around for centuries and was considered America’s most popular sport for a very long time. References to games resembling baseball date back to the 18th century, particularly around the time of the American Revolution[1], where many variations were played on college campuses around the country. While the core mechanics of the game have stayed consistent since its creation, there have been many rule changes through the years. Using a collection of scorecards of organized baseball played from 1845 to 1945, it is clear to see how the game of baseball evolved through time and how these changes were reflected upon in these scorecards.

        In particular, I will dissect a collection of 19th century scorecards from the year 1872 to 1945 professional games. Due to the nature of baseball, a scorecard can serve as a great summary of a game. Typically on a scorecard, there is a large table divided into 9 lines for each team. Each player has his name on the left side of the line, alongside their position played for the game. Next to their names, there is a box for each inning one through nine, with one more box for extra innings. On the right side of the innings, there are offensive and defensive contributions - runs scored, base hits, stolen bases, put outs, errors and assists. The line-ups are pasted into the paper with black ink, and all of the boxes are filled in by pencil by whomever is keeping score of the game.

        One interesting thing is how much more developed scorecards are for baseball compared to basketball around the same time. Referencing the Springfield basketball game box score collection, it is surprising how much more advanced baseball scorecards are. The baseball scorecards have the players pre-written in ink, whereas it takes basketball much longer to do the same. This may be because people typically do not keep score in basketball the same way they do in baseball, due to the fast and unpredictable nature of basketball. In basketball, the shot clock for each possession is 24 seconds, meaning a lot can happen within any given minute of a game. Scorecards cannot offer the same level of detail in basketball as baseball on a single sheet of paper. Despite this, it was interesting to see the evolution of the box score for basketball as well. Similar to baseball, basketball has added categories such as assists, defensive and offensive rebounds, and minutes played.

Going through some popular baseball sites such as Baseball Reference and the official MLB site, I was able to find digitized versions of many of the baseball scorecards I looked at, even for ameteur teams in the earlier iterations of baseball in the 1870s. Doing the same for basketball games was quite difficult - it would be rare where I could even find the final score for some games. There were only two games in the basketball collection where I could find offensive contributions from certain players in a given game. While basketball has been quite rich in history as well, I found this to be one major difference through its archive collection.

        Like mentioned before, due to the structured nature of baseball, you can trace any given game through just the scorecard. It is easy to see who contributes the most on offense or who struggles to hold their own on the defensive end. Organized baseball lends itself to statistics to a greater degree than most other sports. This is because each play is quite discrete and has a finite number of possible outcomes. To follow each game, you can follow the batting order, and see how each inning develops. On the earliest scorecards, hits are typically represented with a dot, a walk with a diagonal dash, and an out by the number out that the batter hit. On the bottom of each inning, there is a total of runs that were scored in that inning. Even with just this information, no matter who the scorekeeper for a given game is, any box can show crucial at bats, and tense moments for both teams.

        Like most other sports, as the game was played among different leagues, gameplay began to see certain patterns, which introduced many rule changes. The first set of rules put together by the New York Knickerbockers in 1845 look quite different from games played under the MLB-era in the 1920s. Different leagues played by different rules, which altered the way the game was scored and officiated. For instance, the batting average was added to scoring in 1865, being walked on balls in 1888, certain team-first plays such as the sacrificial bunt in 1894, and substitutions being allowed in 1891[2]. Even today there are rule differences between teams that play in opposing leagues; only the American League teams in the MLB are allowed to use designated hitters, players that specialize in hitting only, in replacement for weaker offensive contributors (such as pitchers)[3].

        What is really interesting is the way that scorecards started to shift alongside these rule changes. Additional columns had to be added for each player for values. In the earlier scorecards, there would only be one pitcher on each side. It was unheard of for a while for a team to use a relief pitcher or a closer. However, when substitutions were introduced, and teams began to use a rotation of pitchers, additional space had to be made in the 1890s - 1910s. In earlier iterations of the rulebook, batters had the privilege to call for low or high pitches. Once this rule was taken away and many tweaks were made to the privileges of the catcher and home plate, strikeouts became much more prevalent. Scorecards began to utilize a K indicating a swinging strikeout, and a backwards K which symbolized a strikeout without a swing.

        When rule changes targeted offensive sequences - scorecards reflected these changes too. Hits began to see more variation, and infield and outfield hits were treated differently. Scorecards began using a symbol system to mark off areas where the ball was hit. To provide an example, C7 might have been a shorthand symbol for a scorekeeper that the batter hit the ball infield to the shortstop area as a fly out. Scorekeepers also began keeping track of the number of bases that a batter advanced for his team and for himself. In most scorecards post-1920, hits were distinguished by 1B, 2B, 3B, HR, by the number of bases the hitter advanced. With this, runs batted in (RBI) and batting averages began seeing more prevalence on the scorecard.

        The changes in scorecards and gameplay itself seems to reflect the idea of Foucault’s episteme. By digging into different eras of ball games, the values of each ruleset can be better understood. Earlier eras of scorecards seem to reflect upon the team values of the game, prioritizing winning over everything. In post 1920 scorecards, we see the rise of individual players, prioritizing contracts over team loyalty, and the rise in statistical analysis. In the early MLB era (around 1920-30s), new statistics put a spotlight on certain stars such as the earned run average (ERA) for pitchers. Batters were evaluated by their average (AVG) and runs batted in (RBI). This can also be supported by the emphasis of baseball player cards that often accompany MLB games. This shift shows the growth in the baseball market in terms of public interest and financial incentive - which we still see to this day.

        Even though it’s hard to say that baseball is still America’s most popular sport, it still has a relatively large and dedicated fanbase. Every professional game since the year of 1871 has been digitized on Baseball Reference, the main site for everything baseball, by the volunteers of the site. Even professional games outside of the MLB were recorded from (but not limited to) the Negro League (I and II), Negro American League, East Colored League, Federal League, and Players League [4]. While some statistics are missing from games that date back before the 1900s, it is surprising how much information has been transcribed from old newspaper clippings and old scorecards. Each player has a summary of their career with additional breakdowns for each game they have played in. One huge plus of a digitized approach to baseball scorecards is the way that games and players can be cross-referenced throughout the site. To find a recurring player’s performance throughout a season through the original scorecards would require one to look through each card and look for the name. To be able to cross reference a player through hundreds of thousands of games is truly spectacular. In fact, according to Baseball Reference, there have been 233,009 games played in the Majors, all of which have been documented by this site. To do this, a volunteer might simply scan through a scorecard and replicate the markings on the card into a database. Due to the structure of baseball, tools like MySQL and spreadsheet could allow people to quickly fill out each inning and trace plays to certain players.

        The ESPN baseball site also has an incredible archive of more recent games in the 2010s[5]. The technology on the field has gotten so great, each game can be traced down to any pitch a pitcher has thrown in a game. ESPN tracks a wide variety of statistics such as the following: where fair balls are hit, how deep a home run ball was estimated to go, and what match ups were the longest. It provides team statistics as well, providing insight as to which players contributed the most, which match ups had the most problems, and how the managers adjusted to certain opposing plays. As baseball used these tools, other sports began to turn to advanced statistics to provide better insights to performance.

        While it is clear that the use of technology has been an incredible plus to the game of baseball, in this process of digitizing this dataset and providing deeper insights using computers, there are some things that are lost. We lose the time period of enthusiastic fans that scored games by hand. We lose some of the insightful remarks that they provided in some games. Each unique scoring style used by each contributor, whether they used dots and slashes, or used a detailed charting system to mark offensive contributions, were lost. Even though these details might be small, these markings in each scorecard represent the true values and history of baseball.

[1] https://www.history.com/news/who-invented-baseball 

[2] https://www.baseball-almanac.com/rulechng.shtml

[3] https://www.mlb.com/glossary/rules/designated-hitter-rule

[4] https://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/

[5] https://www.espn.com/mlb/scoreboard