The Baseball Posts: The Very First Baseball Nerd by Adam Bunch

This fellow is Henry Chadwick. He was the very first baseball nerd. In fact, he's pretty much the guy who made being a baseball nerd possible. He was born in England, but moved to Brooklyn when he was twelve years old. That was in the 1830s and it was perfect timing. It was right there in New York City that baseball's modern rules and first organized leagues would soon come together. Three strikes. Three outs. Nine innings. 90 feet between bases.

They say Chadwick saw his first game when he was in his early thirties, working as a newspaper writer covering his favourite sport, the most popular in America at the time: cricket. He fell in love with the newer, faster game. He started writing about it in the paper using his own new terms, like "strike out" and "single", calling the field a "diamond." Even more importantly, he started turning games into spreadsheets.

In baseball, things happened in distinct units. One pitcher faced one hitter at a time — one at pitch at a time. Each pitch was a ball or a strike. You got on base or you got out. You went from one base to the next. In order. Chadwick kept track of it all. He recorded it. Analyzed it. He made up scorecards with abbreviations for each event (like, say, a "K" for every strikeout) and then added up the totals at the end of every game. He'd publish the results in charts called boxscores and without even having been to the game, readers could piece together what had happened.

This, of course, was a huge freaking deal in the days before radio and television. You could follow a team in detail without having to live near the stadium. Boxscores helped spread baseball to every corner of the continent: from dusty farms in the Midwest to distant mining towns in the Wild West, and soon, to Civil War battlefields. A hundred and fifty years later, they still publish boxscores in the paper after every game. And people still fill out scorecards, too. There's one in the middle of every program they sell down at the Dome. Some adorable old men bring their own from home. And even every t-ball game has a mum or a dad who volunteered to scribble down the official record of their toddlers' exploits.

Having all of this raw data also meant that Chadwick could piece together more complicated statistics. He didn't just keep track of hits and home runs, he came up with the percentage of times a hitter got a hit and he called it their batting average. He figured out how many runs each pitcher gave up every nine innings and he called it their Earned Run Average (ERA). Chadwick's statistics are still the way most fans tell how well a baseball player's doing. Every time a hitter comes to the plate or a pitcher takes the mound, those numbers are displayed all over the stadium. And on TV.

Baseball is awash in a sea of numbers. Every moment in a game is thoroughly embedded in a context, not just in the count or the inning or the game or the season or the players' careers, but in an entire century and a half of scorecards, boxscores and statistics that have been building up ever since Chadwick fell in love with the sport. And that history makes every moment more exciting — whether you're amazed that Jose Bautista is hitting home runs at a faster rate than Babe Ruth did, or you're using super-hardcore newfangled stats like BABIP to figure out how much luck has to do with a pitcher's performance.

No one person invented baseball. It was a gradual evolution. But it was Chadwick who Teddy Roosevelt called the "father" of the game. That's what's inscribed on his grave in Brooklyn. It seems fitting: the father of baseball isn't a guy who invented the rules of the sport, or even played the game. It's the guy who did more than anyone else to invent the ways that fans enjoy it. Who helped give baseball its sense of history. And its spreadsheets.

The father of baseball was a giant nerd. And I like that.


You can learn how to fill out your own scorecard here. The Baseball Posts are series of posts about, um, well, baseball. You'll find them all here. 

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


EthanDR said...

Great stuff Adam.

I'm scared to think what baseball might be if this man never existed.

Adam Bunch said...

Yeah, I wondered about that while I was writing it: how much is stuff he alone could/would have come up with and how much was just inevitable given the game's whole "orderly universe" thang.

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