Alan Schwarz's book The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics is an entertaining, though at times self-contradictory, history of the mathematical side of the American national pastime. Particularly resonant are sections that discuss early (pre-computer era) simulations of the sport. I never played the dice-based "Strat-O-matic Baseball" (1961), but I remember many enjoyable pre-teen hours with its flick-the-pointer predecessor "All-Star Baseball". As Schwarz describes it:

... All-Star Baseball gave each major league player a disk whose circumference was divided into segments that, when placed under a spinner that came to a stop like a roulette ball, would mimic the real-life skills of the player. If Joe DiMaggio hit doubles 10 percent of the time and walked 4 percent of the time, then the appropriate slice of circumference was laid out accordingly. Kids marveled at the large home run areas for sluggers like Ralph Kiner and Hank Greenberg. They watched in suspense as the spinner neared those longballs, which were, of course, tantalizingly sandwiched in between "flyout" and "strikeout". Each spring a new set of cards came out reflecting the statistics from the previous season. ...

Schwarz also offers good reviews of baseball's early quantitative analysts and the relative strengths (and weaknesses) of their work. And he presents arguments, both pro and con, on the still-relevant conundrum of when to "alter history" by revising certain carved-in-stone records. How much of a change in the rules (or other contexts of the game) are necessary before old and new become truly incomparable? There's no single "right" answer — but that doesn't make it any less fun to debate.

Sure, The Numbers Game could have been more consistent in its criticism of bad baseball math; it could have included more equations and applied more tests of statistical significance before telling just-so stories. But as a history book it's quite good, and as an introduction to some fascinating challenges of practical decision-making it shines.

(cf. TotalImmunity (24 Oct 2005), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicRecreation - TopicScience - 2005-11-22

(correlates: TotalImmunity, PlanWorkLearn, SpellCheck, ...)