Whither the box score?

As a kid, I can remember devouring box scores, with their encapsulated summaries of baseball games. Box scores became fancier in the early Nineties, with the rise of fantasy leagues spurring on extra columns for batters’ walks, Ks and up-to-date batting averages and ERAs. But they remained a staple of my newspaper reading, as much as the columnists and the crime reports.

Now, as newspapers continue to die, box scores seem to me to be dying too; at the very least, their importance to fans seems diminished.

That’s not to say that sports stats are less popular; quite the opposite. But the collection of stats inside a box score doesn’t seem to have the same pull it once did. Even on the Web, it’s easier to check a player’s most recent individual page or click on a quick game summary on MLB.com or check out a live update on any of the various sites. And that doesn’t include the overflow of stats included on the scrolling tickers on the bottom of ESPN and the MLB Network, or on the recap screen that follows each game’s highlights on Sportscenter, Baseball Tonight, and every other highlight show. It’s just not the same as an old box score.

Ironically, fantasy leagues, which fueled the boom in expanded box scores almost two decades ago, have helped contribute to their diminished stature, as much as the (largely self-inflicted) death of newspapers. Why check 15 individual box scores for 15 games when you can check CBS.com and see the stats for solely your fantasy team’s guys collected and summarized on a live scoring page?

(Disclosure: every morning since the mid-Nineties until about a year ago, I used to sit with the sports pages open, yellow highlighter in hand, and highlight the summary lines in the various box scores of the players on my Rotisserie baseball team. But I digress.)

I’ve come around to reading articles, columnists, etc. almost exclusively on the Web. I prefer reading on-screen so much that even if I buy the local papers, I still wind up reading that days’ news on their Web sites — the print version sits mostly untouched, at least until Mrs. Icepick picks it up. But despite that, I haven’t come around to reading box scores on the Web, where they do, in fact survive. I wonder if I’m alone in this, or if it is merely the way my reading habits have developed.

Will the box score form, developed by British-born journalist Henry Chadwick in (or around) the 1880s¹, survive?

Or will it go the way of old-time, pre-War sportswriting, which author Steve Rushin paid homage to in a segment of his 1999 book Road Swing, excerpted here in Sports Illustrated:

Pasted in various corridors are sports pages from the 1930s and ’40s with headlines such as ‘Blame Cub Slump on Slim Slab Corps.’ (Say it aloud. It’s poetry.) The stories themselves are filled with pitchers who “hurled cypher jobs,” batters who “collected clutch bingles,” base runners who “expired at the cash register” and visiting pitchers who — I swear to God — “toed the alien humpback.” There was a scribe in Pennsylvania who, describing the turning point of any contest, invariably wrote, “That’s when Mr. Mo Mentum changed uniforms.” This language is ridiculous and incomprehensible, of course, and I must say I love each and every word of it.

It seems to me a shame that it’s now as dead as Latin.

Steve Rushin, Road Swing, Main Street Books, 1999

For more on box scores:

With a flair for mathematics, (Chadwick) devised a system of recording every single play on a scorecard and then summing them up in a box score. To this day, no other sport has the variety of statistics that intrigue fans — wild pitches, stolen bases, errors. One of Chadwick’s symbols was “K” for strikeout, on the theory that K was “the prominent letter of the word strike, as far as remembering the word was concerned.” When today’s fans hang a series of K banner over the grandstand railing to denote a strikeout by the hometown fastballer, they have no idea the device comes from a historian born in Exeter, England, in 1824.

George Vecsey, Baseball, Modern Library, 2008 ¹

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