As television cameras scan the seats during the World Series, viewers at home will see fans dressed in the jerseys of their favorite teams, texting friends to let them know they’re at the game or waving wildly at the lenses zooming in on them. TV viewers likely won’t spot a once-commonplace baseball standby: fans with stubby pencils leaning intently over cardboard scorecards, keeping track of every pitch, hit, strikeout and run.
It was a universal ritual at every ballpark, major league or minor. Fans would buy a scorecard for as little as a dime when they arrived, and by marking up little boxes that demarcated each inning they kept a running account of the game.
The arcane system could look like hieroglyphics if you weren’t versed in it, but for many it quickly became as familiar as the alphabet. A series of hand-drawn lines approximating the shape of a baseball diamond with accompanying numerals described the flow of play. A grounder to the shortstop who threw the ball to the first baseman for an out, for example, would be entered as 6-3; a triple would be recorded with a truncated rendering of a diamond that stopped at third base.
In the midst of a crowd, it was an utterly private undertaking. It was a way of making a public ballgame personal—and to take that game home with you.
The system of scorekeeping still exists, but “I’d guess no one under 50 does it and even then only a few,” said
past president of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. There are so many ways to keep up with the flow of ballgames these days, including pitch-by-pitch summations and instantaneous metrics available on your phone, and so many purposeful distractions at the ballparks, from blaring music and between-innings contests to attention-grabbing gimmicks on giant scoreboards, that keeping score by hand is nearly a lost art. Mr. Sullivan said that he still does it, but “I’m a dinosaur, I guess.”
It’s too bad. Carefully keeping score while bathed in ballpark sunshine made you pay as much attention as the umpire. I’m looking right now at a penciled-in scorecard from a game between the Washington Senators and the Kansas City Athletics from 1956. In the third inning, when K.C. left fielder
hit a grounder to Senators pitcher
who then flipped the ball to first baseman
it might have been too small a moment to make it into the next day’s sports-page account. But someone sitting in Washington’s Griffith Stadium with that scorecard in his hands dutifully recorded it for posterity. And here it is in my hands now, a message in a bottle from baseball’s past.
What are those words that coaches and managers always say to athletes, reminding them to concentrate? “Keep your head in the game.” That’s what the dime scorecards did for the fans who used them. That was the gift.
Mr. Greene’s books include “Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights.”
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Appeared in the October 27, 2021, print edition.