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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 2004
I had relatively low expectations for Alan Schwarz' "The Numbers Game" given the unhappy trend in baseball publishing of covering every concievable topic. This trend has resulted in all too many books that cover small topic areas without much in the way of original research, insight, or entertainment value.

I was thus pleasantly surprised when "The Numbers Game" turned out to be a crisply-written book that transcends the apparently dry subject matter of the evolution of baseball statistics. Schwarz has chosen a somewhat episodic approach to his material, focussing as much on specific personalities responsible for the evolution of the use, abuse, understanding, and misunderstanding of statistics in baseball as any particular topic of this number or that. As such, it reads more as a social history of the game through the lens of the numbers as a tome on stats.

There are lots of delicious anecdotes here: the shenanigans of adjusting the Baseball Encylopedia to fit accepted conventional notions of stardom; manipulations of the 1911 batting race records made to deny the hated Ty Cobb a car; the nearly forgotten contributions of the Lindseys of Canada to the scientific study of the game; infighting between the old guard of the Elias bureau and the new Turks, STATS, Inc., and the internecine fighting between amateurs and entrepreneurs that has marked the history of the latter; the great contributions of amateurs and the muted responsiveness of the baseball establishment to the likes of home statheads ranging from Bill James to Voros McCracken.

The coverage of the evolution of baseball thinking since Bill James first appeared on the scene in 1977 is particularly good. Perhaps I'm biased because I know many of the parties mentioned and was a witness second-hand to many of the tiny, perhaps pointless, fights that lace through this period, but Schwarz did a pretty fair job at sorting out the fact from the self-serving fictive.

It's on this point that I think the book truly excels. There's an underlying theme about the nature of evidence and expertise, of the battle between those seeking a detailed truth and those in love with baseball mythology over the less smooth contours of reality, that has some lessons above and beyond the nearly literally-trivial world of baseball statistics.

Schwarz does a wonderful job at describing this process of change, and I highly recommennd this book for baseball fans, and give it a modest recommendation for those less interested in baseball but with an interest in the sociology of the use of evidence.

When one sees a sea-change in baseball's conduct because of the revelations about On-Base Percentage -- basic facts known a century earlier but studiously ignored because they did not serve the short-term interests of the players or owners -- it's hard to say there aren't even more surprises in store for baseball. Reliving this evolution makes for great Hot Stove League reading.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2004
Did you know that when RBI first appeared in newspapers in 1879, fans were so outraged by this new stat that the Chicago Tribune apologetically eliminated it? Or that range factor--supposedly invented by Bill James in the 1970s--predated fielding percentage by four years? Or that before shaking the sabermetric community with his DIPS theory, Voros McCracken was a punk rocker?
It's not just the history of statistics; it's the story of their inventors. So many of baseball's statisticians have been wonderful characters. Their stories are amazing--one soldier stationed in Norway made extraordinarily in-depth computations by hand from hundreds of box scores tracked and sent to him by his father.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the book for me was how analysts from all generations all too often came to the same conclusions. F.C. Lane developed run values in the 1910s that almost perfectly match Pete Palmer's Linear Weights system. George Lindsay created an expected runs matrix in the 1950s, long before The Hidden Game of Baseball was published. And it seems like every statistician has loathed the sacrifice bunt for over a century.
The discussion of errors in baseball's historical stats was remarkably disturbing. Averages could be off by 100 points, and many efforts to right these mistakes inexplicably met great resistance. You'll shake your head thinking about the all too many people who would rather Ty Cobb's hit total stay locked at the number they know than the truth.
Alan Schwarz writes a riveting history of our favorite sport's numbers. From the numbers themselves--RBI, DIPS, PECOTA, they all get a mention--to the people behind them--Henry Chadwick, Bill James, Voros McCracken, and everyone in between. They're all a part of a till-now unknown story. Schwarz even leaves us salivating at the end with his preview of what Tendu and MLB.com have in store for the future ("That's the slickest f---in' thing I've ever seen in my life.").
Whether you've engaged in heated arguments over an MVP award, debated Linear Weights v. VORP, or simply been engrossed by the back of a baseball card, this book demands a place on your bookshelf.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 12, 2004
This book is an absolute delight to read for the baseball fan regardless of how many histories of the game you've already read. Alan Schwarz has delivered a perfect blend of Baseball history and the evolution of statistics that we today take for granted as being integral to the game. In this book we learn that wasn't necessarily always true and Schwarz takes us inside the development and the arguments surrounding the relevance of various stats. At the same time the characters involved both in the statistical sense and in the game itself are colorfully described.

This was a wonderful book that entertained and educated on a subject that legions of baseball fans are absorbed in every day. The stats and their development are weaved into the history of baseball creating a unique historical view of the game we love.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
...who this book was meant for. I bet you do too. You'll need a copy too.

I read Alan Schwarz' "The Numbers Game" just before I read Michael Lewis' "Moneyball", and I'm better off because of it.
Schwarz was acknowledged by Lewis in his own book (while Schwarz was writing this one), and there are a few passages that are strikingly similar.

Lewis is a better writer; Schwarz is a little more "clumsy" I guess. Not as elegant.

But still, he tells a story of such breadth it's a bit staggering. He does so with deft, concise descriptions. They're often funny as all get out.

The two books work like two hands, interlocking. The depiction of "baseball" is more detailed after spending time with both. Schwarz places "Moneyball" in a bigger perspective; Lewis brings "The Numbers Game" down into every day baseball.

Here, Schwarz starts with the guy who invented baseball statistics, Henry Chadwick. He then leads us through decades of baseball theory, the development of baseball cards, Strat-O-Matic and Rotisserie (fantasy) baseball, computers, SABR, baseball reporters, fans, players, politics, coaches, the Internet and a whole host of wacky baseball enthusiasts who become hopelessly addicted to the world of baseball stats. Roth, Cook, Dewan, James, Podesta, Evans, Beane...

And this in less than 300 pages. This is nothing short of amazing.
While I raced through this book, I thought of two close friends of mine.

One, a man of about 60, who on occasion has waxed rhapsodically about the box score.

How he loved to simply peruse the newspaper and consider each game in it's two-inch square recapitulation...HE belongs in this book.

Another, a guy my age (41), shared my pre-adolescent love for baseball by going to Dodger games, watching the All-Star games together, playing Little League and collecting baseball cards. He continued on with his fascination by playing Strat-O-Matic, high school ball, and getting involved with Rotisserie leagues where I did not. HE belongs in this book.

Now that I think about it...they both already are in this book. These are the guys who fill every paragraph of this tome.

Baseball isn't just "baseball."

To those who do not "get it", that statement is simply moronic; to the rest of us, it makes all the sense in the world.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2005
This book is highly recommended for those either with an established interest in, or an emerging curiosity about, the subject of baseball statistics. Alan Schwarz succeeds in maintaining a high level of readability throughout this book, despite tackling what might generally be perceived as 'dry' topics. His focus on the personalities behind the various statistical developments allows for a more relaxed presentation of the history of this facet of the game of baseball.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2006
Other reviewers have done a good job with this book, but I wanted to add my opinion. I wasn't sure if someone could take the history of baseball statistics and turn in into a book even non-statheads could enjoy. However, Schwarz pulled it off. I am into statistics so this book was even more enjoyable for me. I found it interesting that so many intelligent people took time out of their days to work on baseball stats. A heck of a book, highly recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2005
This book will appeal to two types of baseball fans:

1) Those that are interested in learning about how statistics have been (and can be) used to interpret success on the baseball field;

2) Those that are interested in the history of the game and how the statistics we have grown up with as the indicators of success (e.g. Batting Average, ERA, RBIs, etc.) were kept and developed-- and by whom.

Note: this book may alarm baseball traditionalists. While I believe the author respects baseball's history and tradition (I don't know him), some readers may find that their view of baseball statistics challenged.

The discerning reader will discover that many of baseball's traditional stats did not spring from the head of Abner Doubleday-- perfect and fully-formed like some mythical greek god. The politics surrounding baseball's indicators of statistical success have been swirling for more than 100 years.

This book reminds us to not only respect the history that preceded us, but to also look carefully at some of the traditions that have been passed down to us. In this case, not all of our Sunday-paper stats are so valuable in measuring players' success.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 9, 2006
At first, the book starts with some talk about baseball statistics, but then it moves quickly (almost immediately) to a history of the people who have made contributions to the statistics. Since almost all of these guys were eccentrics (to say the least), this is fun.

And then the book ends on a rather profound note, i.e, a non-technical discussion of what statistics can do and what it can't do. The author identifies accurately the key problem: we are awash in data, and it is very difficult to distinguish "signal" from "noise." (For an explanation of this distinction, read the book.) I came away from the book thinking that John Henry was the smartest man in baseball; if you check Alan Schwarz's website (Goggle him), you will find a nice follow up essay on Henry.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 30, 2006
It's a book on the history of statistics in baseball, which makes a fascinating story unto itself. Scwarz has a fantastic writing style. A good intro into why baseball keeps the statistics that it does.

Not a book for a general audience. You'd need to have some familiarity with baseball and at least know who Bill James is before reading this one. But then again, if you were drawn to this listing, this probably describes you.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2006
This book was well researched and fun to read. I have always been fascinated by stats. In fact that is why I am a math teacher today. I highly recommend it for any baseball fan!
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