The Vanishing Art and Subtle Beauty of Keeping Score at Baseball Games

It was early springtime a year ago when I was filling out my scorecard at LECOM Park in Bradenton and another fellow came up beside me to do the same.

I felt for a moment like we should exchange a secret handshake, because I fear keeping score at baseball games is getting to be as rare as selling beer after the seventh inning.

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Scorecard from LECOM Park, Boston at Pittsburgh, March 28, 2017.

Perhaps this wasn’t the biggest problem facing America last March. Perhaps it isn’t our biggest problem now. It still gives me a passing wistful shiver, because keeping score at a baseball game is, in its own way, an American art form.

Each position on the field is assigned a number, starting with “1” for the pitcher and ending with “9” for the right fielder. Or, if you’re playing slow-pitch softball, “10” for the short fielder.

You keep score by recording the results of each at-bat, with a well-established set of symbols. These symbols enable you to track each baserunner and record which fielders were involved in each play.

At the end, your scorecard enables you to recount each play for the entire game.

The fact this is not something you often need to do is not the point.

Keeping score has an ongoing value. It enables you, in the eighth inning, to pinpoint what the present batter did in the second, fourth and sixth innings. Those of us who can barely remember whether we are right- or left-handed find this a useful reference.

Moreover, there are reasons for keeping score that go beyond being able to say, “No, he’s grounded out to second base three times. He can’t get around on lefties.”

Keeping score reflects the orderliness of the game. Baseball is a beautiful chess match, and keeping score frames the moves. Personally, I’ve also found over the years that a scorecard helps keep me in the game, the same way driving a stick shift car keeps you more alert to the road.

I’m not sure exactly when I started, beyond remembering that when I was 7 or 8 I kept score for games I was watching in the living room on our 15-inch black-and-white television.

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I still have the scorecard from my first live game, the Brooklyn Dodgers hosting the Cincinnati Reds at Ebbets Field in August of 1957.

I look at that scorecard now and it conjures one of life’s most magnificent sights: walking up a shaded corridor into the sunlight and seeing a baseball field unfold.

It took my breath away. It still does.

After 60 years, this particular scorecard doesn’t call up every play in that game, which the Dodgers won 8–0. It does summon a clear image of Don Newcombe shutting down Ted Kluszewski, Wally Post, Gus Bell and the rest of the those Cincinnati sluggers on five hits — three by Frank Robinson — and Gino Cimoli sparking the Dodgers with a three-run homer.

Because that was my first game, other scorecards I’ve saved through the years tend to be less evocative. Because I remember less of everything these days, I surely have forgotten all sorts of wonderful baseball moments that even a prompt from a scorecard can’t retrieve. Such is an aging RAM.

No matter. Keeping score doesn’t need to do more than connect you to the game you’re watching, the game right in front of you.

I found myself explaining that last May to a pleasant young woman at Coors Field in Denver.

She said that after seeing me repeatedly scribble on this piece of paper for two or three innings, she was curious what all the numbers and symbols meant.

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From Coors Field.

I tried to give her the brief version of scoring. I suspect she still didn’t quite understand why anyone would do it. In any case, it was clear that while she had been to a number of baseball games, she had not previously run across anyone keeping score.

I recalled, but did not mention, a Mets-Dodgers game a couple of years ago where I was sitting with three other guys and all four of us independently were keeping score.

Perhaps in some other time or world, that would be as embedded as the seventh inning stretch. In this one, I don’t see it. Later last season I went to a Hartford Yard Goats game and could barely even find a scorecard.

Once upon a time, the scorecard stand was the first thing you saw in any ballpark after you showed your ticket and flipped the turnstile. Every ballpark had stands inside every entrance selling programs and scorecards. The program was three to five bucks, the scorecard maybe a dollar or two. Sometimes there’d be a combo with the scorecard in the centerfold of the program. Pencils were a quarter or maybe 50 cents with the team name.

Dunkin Donuts Park in Hartford had no sign of programs or scorecards. I did the full loop in the arcade, past every concessions stand and finally asked at the souvenir counter. I was directed to guest services.

Guest services is where they keep lost umbrellas and give the prizes to kids who beat the mascot to third base between the fourth and fifth innings. The very pleasant fellow there said sure, here’s a program, and gave me one. I asked about a scorecard and he gave me one of those, too.

I was happy to get them. I didn’t mind not paying. But the real takeaway here is that the Yard Goats don’t think enough fans care about programs and scorecards to make it worth selling them. Which makes me the random straggler from “Oh, you still do that?”

Now it’s spring training season again, praise the Lord, which means that a half hour before gametime each day at LECOM Park, where the Pirates train, an employee will walk to the big white board just inside the main entrance and write in the lineups with an erasable marker.

And old guys like me will stand in the warm wintertime Florida sun and write down nine names on each team’s side of their scorecards. Secret Handshake, National Anthem, Play Ball.

Written by

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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