Rickey don't lose those numbers

The good news: I looked forward to appearing on a Sunday podcast for which the subject was to be Branch Rickey. The bad news: I didn’t get a chance to discuss the one thing about Rickey that nobody, seemingly, thinks about whenever his name arises in most baseball discourse. The mere mention of it inspires a sub-topic change faster than you’d try to elude a visible virus; the nostalgist wishes merely to hasten back to reminiscence, the troglodyte contingent wishes you quartered without drawing first.

Understood: Say “Branch Rickey” and the usual first response is “Jackie Robinson,” and that’s exactly the way it should be. After decades of hoping to do so, but lacking the opportunity so long as Kenesaw Mountain Landis dictated baseball, Rickey ended a wrong with an irrevocable right and chose the absolute right player to do it. If “Jackie Robinson” isn’t your first response to “Branch Rickey,” the lacking is yours, not theirs.

Understood further: If “the farm system” isn’t your second response to “Branch Rickey,” take a remedial crash course in elementary baseball history. Even the most free agency-conscious teams in baseball today still believe in their farm systems, even if not all of them operate them as acutely or with foresight as they should. Both the rich talent pool mined since Robinson plus the farm system’s continued if oft-compromised operation are Rickey legacies not to be dismissed.

If “sabermetrics” or “analytics” isn’t your third response . . . Aw, jeez, not that you-know-what again! I hear you shuddering. Hear me out.

Like it or not, however shallow or deep anyone looks, statistics are the life blood of baseball. Long before anyone spoke of sabermetrics, baseball fans obsessed over baseball numbers as much as over Hall of Fame prospects. Simple (and often misleading or short on vision) though they were, baseball cards did not live by handsome face pictures alone.

For better or worse, Rickey was as obsessed with numbers and their meanings as with anything else about the game he loved and changed. And, like almost anything upon which he cast his bushy-browed eyes, Rickey dove right into the deep end of the pool, when a Canadian-born, thirty-year-old number cruncher with a passion for tabulating sports statistics, baseball in particular, convinced the Mahatma (only one of Rickey’s nicknames) to hire him.

The hire was Allan Roth, who’d grown up loving baseball, hockey, and figuring out stats for both, before he was forced to forget his college plans when family issues compelled him to hire as a salesman. After trying but failing to get then-Dodgers president Larry MacPhail to hire him, Roth met then-National Hockey League president Frank Calder and got a job with that league. Enter World War II and a stint in Canada’s Army to interrupt Roth’s statistical career.

The Canadian Army leaned on his statistical analyses before discharging him in 1944, upon his diagnosis of epilepsy. Roth cast his eye upon the Dodgers again, with MacPhail long gone and Rickey running the Bums since. When a first meeting between the two went like “a disaster,” according to Tom Cronin of  Statliners, Roth managed to tell Rickey he wanted “only ten minutes of your undivided attention.”

Told to give Rickey’s assistant a detailed paper, Roth obeyed. As Roth’s Society for American Baseball Research biographer Andy McCue wrote, “Some of these were standard, but others, such as where the ball was hit and the count it was hit on, hadn’t been compiled regularly.”

Roth also proposed to break the statistics down into various categories that would reveal tendencies which the front office and the manager could use to win ballgames. Breakdowns such as performance against left-handers and right-handers, in day games versus night games, in the various ballparks, in situations with runners in scoring position, are all mundane to us now. But in Roth’s time, they were rarely compiled or used, and never part of the public discussion. The letter was intriguing enough to get a meeting with a still-skeptical Rickey.

It got Roth a second direct shot with the Mahatma: “The second meeting was the opposite of the first. Roth later stated that Rickey was intrigued with some of his ideas during the meeting, especially on how RBI’s are overrated.” This time, Rickey was more than intrigued. Once Roth solved his visa problems, and on the same day Jackie Robinson premiered with the Dodgers, Rickey finally hired Roth to be the Dodgers’ statistician, the first full-time such man in major league baseball.

Roth would do the job for eighteen years, recording every pitch the Dodgers threw, every swing they took, every base they reached or advanced, every ball they fielded. He was once somewhat renowned (and often mocked) for tabulating those on copious sheets of graph paper, apparently his favourite charting device.

Taking as long as five hours after each game to break down the game and the players, Roth also spent copious off-season time digging deeper into what we know long since as matchups, best- and worst-count performances, at home and on the road. He also developed a fine sense of humor about it; The Boys of Summer author Roger Kahn once credited Roth with inventing the game Silly Records. Except that some of those silly records weren’t as silly or meaningless as they probably sounded then.

Until he was pressured into selling his percentage of the Dodgers to Walter O’Malley in 1950, Rickey paid close enough attention to Roth’s charts and graphs to draw plenty of conclusions of his own in addition to what Roth himself enunciated. And in 1954, as if hiring Roth at all hadn’t been heresy enough, Rickey wrote and Life published “Goodbye to Some Old Baseball Ideas,” much of which was mulcted from Roth’s work. Including:

Batting average is only a partial means of determining a man’s effectiveness on offense.

The ability to get on base, or On-Base Average, is both vital and measurable.

The correlation shows that OBA went hand in glove with runs scored.

The next measurable quantity is Extra base power . . . My own formula computing power . . . is called isolated power, is the number of extra bases over and above singles in relation to total number of hits.

Runs batted in? A misleading statistic.

Fielding averages? Useless as a yard stick.

As Brian Kenny wrote, in Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution, Rickey “didn’t just say, ‘Hey, ever wonder why the Dodgers have been kicking your ass for the last eight years? Would you like to know the best way of quantifying talent and production? Oh, shoot, here ya go!'” Today’s sabermetricians were children when Rickey (and Roth) wrote the Life piece; baseball’s lords and princelings were all too ready to take it with a pillar of salt when not laughing hysterically over the Mahatma’s impudence.

The Dodgers kicked the National League’s ass for most of the rest of their Brooklyn life (the Boys of Summer were, after all, Rickey teams), and the Pirates finished in 1960 what Rickey began from 1951-55. (The nucleus of that world champion was Rickey’s nucleus: Vernon Law, Elroy Face, Bill Mazeroski, Dick Groat, and a talented minor leaguer he drafted from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 minor league draft: Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.)

Which was rather splendid for a number cruncher who didn’t consider himself a pure numbers man. Roth “didn’t do his own taxes. He couldn’t remember his phone number,” McCue wrote. “What he would do is record the numbers in myriad detail and then use his true talent, recognizing what the numbers meant, to provide value to his employers. He summed up his philosophy: ‘Baseball is a game of percentages—I try to find the actual percentage, which is constantly shifting, and apply it to the situation where it will do the most good’.”

(Was Casey Stengel eavesdropping a little on Rickey and Roth near the beginning? Baseball, the Ol’ Perfesser told anyone within earshot, is percentage plus execution. You thought the Dodgers kicked the National League’s ass? Stengel’s Yankees only had ten pennants and seven World Series rings in twelve seasons to show for his willingness to put old thinking, even old “traditional” Yankee thinking aside.)

Though such crustily visceral managers as Leo Durocher and Charlie Dressen spurned Roth’s analyses, Walter Alston accepted them. It took Alston one full season to get his sea legs managing the Dodgers after he was hired to succeed Dressen for 1954, and there were a few growing pains as he asserted his authority and learned his players. But in Alston’s second season? Dem Bums finally won the World Series.

Walter O’Malley could challenge you until you and he were the proverbial blue in the face, but the core of the Dodgers who finally made next year this year were still Rickey’s boys: Hall of Famers Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, and Clem Labine. We won’t suggest what we now know as analytics put World Series rings on the 1955 Dodgers’ fingers, but it didn’t hurt them to have the data, either.

Then they almost won the ’56 Series while they were at it. It wasn’t Alston’s fault that the Dodgers began showing their age in their final Brooklyn season. (The average age of the regular lineup: 32.) And even their 1959 pennant winner was still a team transitioning from the further-aging Brooklyn veterans.

During the Dodgers’ first serious pennant race in Los Angeles, facing a critical late-season doubleheader against the Giants, Roth convinced Alston, based on his tabulations, that Hall of Famer Don Drysdale pitched far better at night than during the day, while another Dodger righthander, Roger Craig, was almost the same pitcher day or night. Alston switched his planned doubleheader rotation, starting Craig in the day game and Drysdale for the night game.

The result? The Dodgers swept the Giants, helping them force the three-game playoff against the Braves that meant the pennant. By then even Dodger players received regularly updated Roth tabulations on their own performances and worked accordingly.

Seriously? You really thought that started with today's Astros? Or in this century, period? Anyone who knew the Dodgers well in those years knew Allan Roth’s role with the team, and that it wasn’t just rehashing or writing out their baseball cards. They could have told you the Dodgers had a lot more going for them than balls and strikes, runs and hits, and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s latest beyond-belief performance, right up to the day the Dodgers let Roth go in 1964.

And they really had Branch Rickey to thank.

“Rickey and Roth’s fundamental contribution to the advancement of baseball statistics,” wrote John Thorn and Pete Palmer in The Hidden Game of Baseball, “comes from their conceptual revisionism, their willingness to strip the game down to its basic unit, the run, and reconstruct its statistics accordingly.”

A man who evaluated character in hand with performance but wasn’t always the most astute judge of the former when all was said and done, Rickey died a year after the Dodgers lost Roth. He was foresighted and devious, compassionate and penurious, all at once. He was maybe baseball’s deepest thinker and one of its most pompous. “A man of strange complexities,” the New York Times‘s John Drebinger once wrote, “not to mention downright contradictions.”

For every one who canonises Rickey for elevating and supporting Jackie Robinson as a player and a man, appropriately, there’s another who broils him just as appropriately for the shifty penury that prompted his Hall of Fame Pirate Ralph Kiner to credit him with doing the most to seed the Major League Baseball Players’ Association.

“Rickey believes in economy in everything,” the New York Daily Mirror‘s Dan Daniel once wrote, “except his own salary.”

Roth’s Dodger days ended, McCue wrote, after O’Malley discovered his statistician, whose marriage was collapsing, had a romantic relationship with a black woman at a time when too many Americans, O’Malley included, yet quaked over the very idea of such interracial romance, never mind the scandal quotient still attached to it. That romance ended in a shouting match and Roth’s marriage itself ended, but so did his Dodger career.

He returned to free-lance work until ABC, then NBC, hired him to give announcers (including two former players he’d once analysed, Koufax and Pee Wee Reese) the same deeper analyses he’d previously provided the Dodgers and Scully, until his health failed in the 1980s. (He died in 1992.)

“Roth was a firm believer that you do not have to be an expert mathematician to record baseball stats,” Cronin wrote. “You just had to be an innovative thinker and have a passion for the game. He also realized that human element of baseball and numbers could only help aid the game, not run it.”

So did Branch Rickey. Sabermetricians aren’t the only ones who should thank him for his patronage of and further education from Roth, no matter how dearly baseball’s paleozoics would like to spank him for it.

Trending