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Informationalizing Sports: Baseball, Football, and Basketball

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This chapter is from the book
The amount of information Americans have collected about baseball is so great that we have to think of that data collection and assimilation as a basic feature of how Americans approach baseball. James Cortada explores the American inclination to informationalize sports.

Informationalizing Sports: Baseball, Football, and Basketball

Americans began playing baseball before the American Civil War, and it became a hugely popular sport that could be played by kids, young men in informal pickup games, local leagues, and eventually by professional teams organized in national leagues. In fact, the game became so popular that people around the world think of baseball as pure Americana, as culturally identified with the United States as apple pie, hot dogs, and democracy. Americans couldn't leave well enough alone. By the end of the 19th century, they were doing more than simply playing baseball; they were informationalizing it. During the 20th century they ran the game through every major information technology that came along, from radio to TV, into computers, and then all over the Internet. The heart of this informationalizing process was not just a story of reporting in local newspapers who played, won, and lost games; it was the collection and dissemination of extraordinary amounts of information about the game that makes this a useful case study to look at.

We have all met boys, ages 10 to 18 or 19 years of age, and grown men (and increasingly women) in their 30s, 40s, and older whose knowledge about baseball can only be described as prodigious. They cut across all social and economic strata, come from every corner of America, range from high school dropouts to professors and professionals with advanced degrees. You find them in corporate boardrooms and in street gangs. But they all have one thing in common: mastery of information about baseball. They can rattle off who won the World Series in 1919, who pitched the winning game in that series, and recite a raft of statistics about the performance of individual players, often covering a period of more than a century. That is no mean feat, because the amount of information Americans have collected about baseball is so great that we have to think of that data collection and assimilation as a basic feature of how Americans approach baseball. What is even more startling is the fact that such intense fans are not rare in our society, we all know individuals who have that kind of command of the subject. Moreover, this is not a new phenomenon; Americans have been baseball statistical junkies since the last decades of the 19th century.

Go to the Internet and log on to ESPN Network (espn.go.com/mlb/statistics)—one of the more popular Internet sites for sports and a good example of a television channel also delivering content through the Internet—and you will see what is involved. On that Web site are two sets of statistics on baseball, one for the American League and the other for the National League. It presents information that also is routinely published in more than a thousand American newspapers every week. The same material is verbally presented daily in one fashion or another in sports news broadcasts on radio and TV in all 50 states, in each American territorial possession, and at U.S. military bases around the world. For each team there are statistics (such as team batting and team pitching), next a set of nine statistics for pitching leaders (ERA, wins, losses, saves, etc.), followed by 11 sets of data on batting leaders (home runs, doubles, triples, runs, etc.), and finally a raft of data on daily leaders in pitching (5 statistics) and batting (another 5 statistics). In short, if my math is correct, that is a total of 34 classes of information. In addition, Americans collect individual statistics on every player and every team. The act of collecting is done by reporters and "industry" watchers (e.g., coaches and academics), but also by spectators who often are even provided spreadsheets in their programs where they can record information while a game is being played. These classes of statistics drawn from ESPN have been collected for the entire 20th century by various organizations and reporters; many others exist for the last two decades of the 19th. In addition, other correlations and analyses of baseball statistics are done all the time to gain further insight into the performance of baseball players and teams. The data sets described in this paragraph also represent the classes of information that have often been collected as well for local leagues (intracity leagues, the old Negro leagues) and the Little League (the one children play in all over the United States).

In fact, Americans' fascination with the hard data of baseball even affected the use of statistics, compelling scholars to cite them too. Daniel J. Boorstin, the great American historian, acknowledged as much, but in the process became caught up in the numbers game himself. After citing The Baseball Encyclopedia's edition of 1969 (for the year he was writing The Democratic Experience), he noted that this book had 2,335 pages packed with tabulated statistics on 19,000 games. Information Concepts Incorporated pulled together the data and made money selling this information about baseball, using software to do the job of acquiring and organizing the material. Its information was of extraordinary value to reporters and news commentators, particularly on television where these facts provided fodder for commentary between plays about individual players and teams. The Baseball Encyclopedia has continued to be an important source to reporters on radio and TV.

Lest we become too enamored of baseball on television and the Internet, I should also note that this sport probably has the largest body of literature (books and articles) of any athletic pursuit in the world. In addition to these materials, there are statistical guides Americans have been buying since the 1870s. The leader of them all is the Sporting News' Official Baseball Register, the Bible of statistics, published in St. Louis, Missouri, since 1886 and still issued annually. By 1880, there already were at least four additional statistical guides being published annually.

Technological innovations helped the sport enormously. By 1850 reporters were transmitting sporting news of all types over the telegraph to such newspapers as the New York Herald and the New York Tribune. As baseball grew in popularity during the second half of the 1800s, news about games and players began traveling over the wires. The same happened with the telephone.

Baseball was first broadcast on radio on August 20, 1920, when the radio station owned by the Detroit News went on the air to cover the World Series. Baseball came early to television, as soon as that technology became generally available to the American public in the late 1940s. For most of the 20th century, broadcasting of baseball games on the radio and television have remained profitable staples in programming, strongly endorsed by the American public as demonstrated by their tuning in to these programs.

Americans were also quick to apply computers to baseball in a variety of ways. An early application was the collection and manipulation of all the statistical data that Americans had been accumulating for over three quarters of a century prior to the arrival of the computer. A second application involved playing baseball on computers by typing in plays, which then caused software to select counterplays to simulate the game. Americans were already doing this on big mainframe computers in the 1950s, a practice that became widespread by the mid-1960s. Use of computer-based games moved over to personal computers almost from day one of the new machines; baseball software has remained a staple in PC stores for over two decades. At one point in the 1960s, even managers at IBM thought that they might be able to make a business out of collecting and distributing sports statistics in the United States. Over time, simulations, data repositories, and other applications in support of the game and to improve its value as entertainment, popped up on computers, then on PCs, and most recently, on the Internet.

Part of the reason for numerical data and facts on the sport reflects American values. Americans use statistics to canonize information. Hard work, the notion of proven results, and belief in the benefits of progress and winning are all themes demonstrated and discussed in baseball literature and in statistical sources. Keeping score tells you who won and how good players are over the course of their careers. Local teams are always valued as the best because they reflect local energy and ability to compete successfully. Promoters of the sport have been very aggressive in publicizing information about baseball, linking it to the identities of local communities since the 1870s, and constantly keeping the subject in the public's eye. It was no surprise, for example, that the World Series games were broadcast on the radio and later, on television, along with thousands of professional and semipro games. These broadcasts represented teams from cities and regions across the entire nation, from high schools to local leagues.

Depending on whose statistics one uses, either football or basketball is the second or third most popular sport in America. In some years football is more popular than baseball (e.g., in the mid-1990s after the major league baseball strike). Basketball goes up and down in popularity, also depending on strikes and other activities going on in the other two sports. But we see the same phenomenon of statistical concern about performance and extensive coverage of events, game-by-game, also reaching over a full century, and with an extensive trail of documentation. Football commands almost as intense an interest as does statistical knowledge of baseball. This is especially so with the National Football League (NFL) and with college football teams.

Go back to the ESPN Web site and you will see a large collection of statistics for the AFC and NFC teams. Under the category of leaders there are 17 classes of statistics for both groups (e.g., passing accuracy, sacks, and interceptions). There are 7 sets of team statistics for each team (e.g., team offenses, ranking), and then other collections of statistics by team and player. The game is precisely timed, with exact numbers of seconds and minutes of play monitored. Precise rules governing such things as how far one must carry the ball in order to qualify for a first down are based on hard data which is collected and recorded while the game is in progress and then reported in considerable detail in the press. Statistical guides are also published and sell well, just as with baseball.

Basketball also demonstrates a similar pattern. It was not invented until 1892. Baseball had been around in the two decades before the Civil War, and American football since the start of the last quarter of the 1800s, but basketball nonetheless shares the distinction of also being an American original. As with the other two, very early in its history fans and reporters began collecting basketball statistics—carefully organized, publicized, and discussed ever since. Regular season and playoff versions of a core body of information are always collected. Eight classes of data are gathered on overall leaders (e.g., scoring, rebounding, and steals), while an additional three classes of information are tabulated for a set of team statistics (team-by-team comparisons, offense and defense statistics). For each of the two conferences (Eastern and Western) data is collected for each set of teams (Atlantic, Central, Midwest, and Pacific, each with a group of teams; e.g., Los Angeles and Seattle playing within the Pacific). These constitute 11 classes of data. Then for each player, additional statistics on performance are also gathered (e.g., scores, averages, rebounds, etc.). As with football and baseball, rankings are very important and are routinely published. In newspapers it is always after each game. On the Internet, some changes in ranking are posted within minutes of a game's end. As with football, specific times for play are prescribed, along with even subtimes (e.g., the amount of time a player has to shoot the ball). Results in performance are dutifully measured and reported on during and after the game to fans and players alike.

The American penchant for data and precision in sports even affected athletics that did not originate in the United States. The most recent example of this concern for specificity imposed on a game involved soccer, the world's most popular sport. Americans became interested in this sport in a substantive way in the 1970s, when local soccer programs for children were launched all over the United States. By the mid-1990s, American teams were beginning to play world-class soccer at international events. As the sport grew in interest, Americans began to impose their own penchant for precision on the game. For decades, for example, the game had lasted roughly 90 minutes, with referees deciding when, more or less, the game had been played long enough. During the second half of the 20th century they carried stopwatches with them to help make that determination. When the sport reached a level of popularity in the United States worthy of broadcasting on television, broadcasters insisted on precise times in order to plan their programs. Precise times were adopted and now are normal, as in basketball and football; we see how much time has elapsed in a game in the upper left corner of an American TV screen. With better data on timing, even the strategy for how the game should be played changed, affected by the clock as football and basketball had been.

With the discipline Americans had come to expect from baseball, football, and basketball, it would almost seem inevitable that they would want statistics on soccer, organized in a way similar to the other sports. If you went to the same ESPN Web site used for the other sports, you would see statistics on overall leaders (18 classes, e.g., scoring assists, and offsides), another set of 6 classes of data on goalie leaders (e.g., wins, losses, and saves), and yet another set of 11 classes of data on each team (e.g., goal-scoring totals, home and away standings, winning and losing streaks). These add up to a grand total of 35 classes of data dutifully reported and published after each round of games and accumulated for annual results.

For purposes of this chapter I have relied on the ESPN Web site. However, every major sports news service reports the same data both in print and on their Web sites (e.g., Sports Illustrated, and such TV channels as CNN). In addition, there are thousands of Web sites that offer similar or more detailed information. For example, it is now common for professional sports teams to have their own Web sites with thousands of "hits" per month by fans. American colleges and universities devote portions of their Web sites to the presentation of statistics and narrative coverage of their sports teams, just as they did in school magazines for decades. City newspapers with Web sites also have sports sections.

In short, the sports pages online or in newspapers and magazines are important ephemera of American culture. The phenomenon of the sports page was not lost on historians. Two of the first to study the history of American sports, Frederick W. Cozens and Florence Scovil Stumpf, both of the University of California at Berkeley (for decades a sports powerhouse in its own right), summarized their findings about the sports page:

Great numbers of Americans like the sports page: They buy it, read it, talk about it, and argue about it. Whether or not they actually sit through a game, listen to a play-by-play description on the radio, or see the show on television, they still want to read about it. Since each fan considers himself an authority, it seems an indispensable part of the fun to compare his own opinions with those of his favorite expert and to dispute the judgment of those who disagree with him.

They caught the essence of why Americans want and need so much information. Just as they require data at work, they need information to be independent, resourceful, and to take charge of and express their own opinions. They are prepared to act on their thinking and to take action, such as to voice their position on the performance of a team. It is a characteristic evident across American activities, fun, and part of playing. And they have been in the habit of reading their sports pages for a very long time.

The first sports pages appeared in the mid-1830s in such newspapers in New York as the Sun, Transcript, and Herald. In 1862, a leading early figure in baseball, Henry Chadwick, hired on to the New York Herald for the express purpose of reporting on the game. The first weekly devoted to sports in the United States began publication in 1831, the Spirit of the Times: The American Gentleman's Newspaper, which survived until 1901 when it merged with another paper. By the time of the American Civil War, it reportedly had a national circulation of over 100,000; no other paper in the country had that kind of circulation, not even the national press of the day. It took the Civil War to generate that kind of circulation for political and military news. Over the course of the 20th century, sports pages increasingly became a standard part of most newspapers, from morning and afternoon dailies to rural weeklies.

Almost from the beginning of radio, sports news was broadcast along with political and local news. The same happened with television. A standard segment in all news programs (e.g., such national ones as CNN Headline News or the evening news from NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox) is sports coverage. The same applies to the vast majority of local television broadcast stations. In addition to broadcasting games on television through the 1950s and 1960s, sports news programming came into its own. These programs were often in-depth reporting on the week's sports news, with extensive analysis and debate along the lines our historians said had occurred in newspapers. The other option was in-depth discussions with coaches. Today, most NFL coaches have some sort of a Sunday talk show on radio or television to pick apart Saturday's game. The same occurs with college football coaches from such leading schools as the Big Ten, Florida State University, or Notre Dame. Programs with college coaches come and go, but as a genre they are around and are popular. Baseball coaches and players, curiously enough, do not normally have regular radio or television programs. On the other hand, radio and TV sports commentators have become national celebrities. The case of the legendary Red Barber is a good example. He started broadcasting Brooklyn Dodger baseball games in the 1930s, then Yankee games in the 1950s. Eventually he retired, but stayed on the air with weekly sports analysis on NPR until his death in the 1990s.

A consistent pattern in American behavior has always been the use of new information technologies to get even more data. We have seen that process at work with sports. But one more example demonstrates the point again: sports cards. Children trade them, cherishing baseball cards and others for football, basketball, and cartoon characters. Baseball cards have been traded since the late 1800s; each with a picture of a player and biographical and statistical data printed on the back. Children trade, while adults collect them for fun and profit. And now welcome information technology. In 1999 the Upper Deck Card Company, which prints over a billion sports cards every year, introduced miniature CD-ROMs that captured the same information as the paper card but added additional data and video of players in action. When CNN Live interviewed kids about the arrival of new high-tech cards, their response was "Cool!" Why not? So many children have a CD player on their PCs at home.

As hard as it may be for some Americans to believe that there was something as interesting to others as baseball, there was, and often it involved books. America really is a diverse society.

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