Seymour (Sy) Siwoff, who regards earned run averages and pass-completion percentages as so many rubies and pearls, has always had this real feeling for statistics. He had it, certainly, well before he went to work for a struggling New York baseball information bureau that sometimes had difficulty meeting its payroll. It happened three decades ago, yet to this day Siwoff hasn't forgotten one particular stretch of empty paydays that ran to 13 in a row. But then, he's always had this real feeling for statistics.
Happily, Siwoff has come to know better times. Although he still works at the same place that used to have trouble paying its help, he does so as the boss rather than as an employee. And he has become, as it was his heartfelt mission to become, the sports world's No. 1 professional answer man. Although primarily a statistician, Siwoff traffics not only in the bare bones of figures and fractions but also in that somewhat fleshier matter that is sometimes called, redolent of a quainter day, dope. "My job isn't just figuring out batting averages," he says with an uneasy grandiloquence. "I'm in the business of problem solving, you might call it. I suppose you might even say that I'm running a think factory."
Siwoff's forte is not the things he can tell you off the top of his head, in the manner of your barroom know-it-alls, but the things he can find out for you quickly, accurately and cheerfully. As president and owner of Elias Sports Bureau, Inc., he is one of two great founts of information at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, the other being the New York Public Library across the street. His desk, on an upper floor of one of those mid-town office buildings that command unobstructed views of one another, has three phones on it, so that anybody who calls him for information is right away batting .333. Sometimes a question can arise even while a ball game is in progress, as with a call from Chicago earlier this season concerning the Cubs' Ernie Banks.
Banks was having a big afternoon—seven runs batted in—and the boys in the Wrigley Field press box were groping for their statistical bearings. Promising to get right back to them, Siwoff put down the receiver and hurried into a large, cluttered room with a sign over the entrance: ETERNAL VIGILANCE IS THE PRICE OF ACCURACY IN STATISTICS. Inside, looking as vigilant as could be in front of electronic calculators and outsized ledger sheets, Siwoff's four full-time employees (he also has several others as temporary summer help) were fast at work, a group of like-minded men with whom Siwoff interacts like the cheerleader with the crowd. He is nominally their leader, yet the current of enthusiasm running between himself and the others seems to flow in both directions.
August 17, 1969
"Look it up even if you know the answer," he urges them. "Don't trust your memory."
Or: "Wow, how do you like that? Willie Mays once appeared in a game at shortstop. It's unbelievable the things you come across just leafing through these sheets."
Another time: "Hey, there's a strikeout missing here somewhere. Let's find it. Where are your controls?"
Now Siwoff was exhorting his men to comb the records for Ernie Banks' personal single-game high in runs batted in, and they were responding with exuberance. Out came large volumes containing sheets laced with forbidding rows of figures, including a day-by-day compilation of the 2,300-odd games the 38-year-old Banks had played. Each man, Siwoff included, took one of the volumes and scanned the columns quickly and silently.
Moments later the phone rang back at Wrigley Field. "Banks has had seven RBIs in a game twice before," Siwoff reported breathlessly. "On August 4, 1955, and again on May 1, 1963." This intelligence went out immediately over the ball park's public-address system to the crowd on hand and, via the press box, to the outside world. "If Seymour says it's so, then it's so," testified Chuck Shriver, the Cubs' publicity man. "He's my bible."
A small, angular, dark-haired man of 48, Siwoff has about him an earnestness that seems rather at odds with the impish Groucho-style mustache he wears, the latter a luxuriant affair that looks as if it might have been brushed on in response to one of those matchbook-cover ads directed at smokers with untapped drawing ability. It is the face of a man anxious to please but not at all sure whether he is succeeding. "When somebody calls to find out something, I try to get it for him like that," says Siwoff with a snap of his fingers. "I want to do all I can for him. Maybe it's because I'm so friendly, I don't know. But when they call me, it's flattering."
His dedication to his work has earned for Siwoff vast reserves of good will and, in the last few years, even some modest riches. He busily compiles and certifies averages, percentages and totals in his capacity as official statistician both for baseball's National League (plus the International and Eastern Leagues) and for the pro football leagues. He also feeds statistics on demand to magazines, newspapers and such varied clients as the Topps bubble-gum people, who put players' records on baseball cards to give kids something else to chew on. And he publishes The Little Red Book of Baseball, a compendium of records and marginalia that baseball writers have used in their work for four decades.
There are some people, Siwoff among them, whose idea of bringing order to a bewildering universe is to assign numerical values to everything and then to add, multiply and otherwise scramble them into supposedly meaningful patterns. Sports are especially susceptible to such exercises because, unlike the ebb and flow of daily life, they take place in a self-enclosed world in which most things—games, seasons, careers—have precise beginnings and ends. Statistics, of course, have been particularly pervasive in baseball, so much so that the game's detractors often complain of being inundated by gray masses of agate type. Pro football, on the other hand, is said to have flourished for the very reason that it is not so enveloped in statistics, it being a more fluid and interdependent game, one in which it is more difficult to isolate individual performances and so forth.
All that aside, the fact is that pro football's upsurge in popularity has been accompanied by a rapid increase in the statistics that surround it, a phenomenon that Siwoff has openly aided and abetted. Until 1966, for example, individual field-goal records were confined largely to the number of goals and total attempts. Siwoff has since amplified those records to reflect the number of field goals and attempts according to distance—one to 19 yards, 20 to 29 yards, etc. Similarly, statistics on punt and kick-off returns were maintained separately until the St. Louis Cardinals' Chuck Latourette had a big and busy season in both last year. After research by Siwoff, two new categories have been added in the 1969 NFL official record book:
Most Combined Kick Returns, Season 74 Charles Latourette, St. Louis, 1968 (28 punts, 46 kickoffs)
Most Yardage, Combined Kick Returns, Season 1,582 Charles Latourette, St. Louis, 1968 (345 punts, 1,237 kickoffs)
In encouraging the proliferation of statistics, Siwoff has had the good sense to realize that they are valuable only insofar as they reflect what happened in yesterday's game and generate interest in what might happen tomorrow. They thus are tools primarily for the historian and the public-relations man, an insight that eludes the fetishist who indiscriminately collects meaningless statistics for no apparent reason but to talk to them, little caring that they often have nothing to say in reply.
"Statistics can be cold and trivial," says Siwoff. "But they can also be alive and full of drama. When a batter hits three home runs in a game and then comes to bat for the fourth time, and if you know that only a few people have ever hit four in history, what could be more dramatic? The excitement in the air is unbelievable. It's electric. And what about a no-hitter? That's a statistical thing. But, wow, what a thrill when the pitcher keeps retiring the side and the crowd starts buzzing in the seventh and eighth innings. It's unbelievable.
"But what I enjoy most about statistics is the chance they give you to relive the past. When Ernie Banks gets seven RBIs in a game or when Reggie Jackson gets 10, it brings back memories of when Jim Bottomley drove in 12 or Tony Lazzeri drove in 11. In looking up things like that, I can see those guys in my mind as clearly as if they were playing again. And to think that when Jackson got his 10, he struck out one time at bat with the bases loaded. How do you like that?"
A troubled expression clouded Siwoff's face. "My son Ronnie, he's 18, and it's unbelievable. Why, he never even heard of Mel Ott until last year. It stabs you when something like that happens. He looks at the record and says, 'Hey, Dad, who's this Mel Ott? Wow, 511 home runs, he must have been quite a player.' How do you like that? Well, it pains you to hear that from your own son. But, you see, those statistics serve a purpose. They help describe what kind of hitter Mel Ott was. They provide the historical continuity that enables us to compare one generation to the next. They tell a story."
The job of fashioning sports statistics into story form is widely shared. Siwoff is the National League statistician, while his chief competitor, Chicago's Howe News Bureau, handles the American League and eight minor leagues. And rather than use any outside bureau, the pro basketball and hockey leagues, as well as most college conferences and associations, compile their own statistics. Individual teams maintain some records, as do sportswriters and news media. There are also a few freelancers, notably Leonard Gettelson, a retired grocer in Fair Haven, N.J. who has been compiling statistics for The Sporting News for the past 44 years and who collaborates on several of that publication's annual guides, including One for the Book. The attic in Gettelson's home contains 200-odd cartons crammed with newspaper accounts and box scores of every major league baseball game since 1917. Says his wife Fran: "if he'd devoted the same time to stock-market statistics, we'd be millionaires."
Keeping statistics is a hobby with some, a crusade with others. Around the country is a small army of number addicts whose second greatest thrill is to check the official statistics against their own; their first greatest thrill is to catch a mistake in the official ones. "People like Seymour live in a fishbowl," sympathizes Don Weiss, the NFL publicity man who works with Siwoff on league statistics. The existence of amateur statisticians poised to pounce helps provide a constant check on official records, but some show signs of overreaching.
The pathology of the condition at its most acute is illustrated by a Times Square denizen who maintains, on small scraps of paper, meticulous records on such matters as the number of home runs yielded by Cleveland pitchers during May. His homing instincts bring him to the Elias bureau, a memorable visit having occurred during the seventh game of the 1960 Pirate-Yankee World Series, the one eventually decided by Bill Mazeroski's ninth-inning home run.
Siwoff and the others were watching the game on TV. Without so much as a glance at the screen, their visitor walked in and announced that his records on regular-season grand-slam home runs seemed to conflict with the bureau's, and wouldn't everybody help him sleuth out the discrepancy? This was too much even for Siwoff. "I threw him out," he recalls sadly. "The seventh game of the World Series. How do you like that? He keeps all those baseball statistics, and he doesn't like baseball."
There is not such a shortage of quirkiness on his own staff that Siwoff has to go around importing it from outside. One of his employees, Bernie Levy, has a particular weakness for statistics on minor league ballplayers, in whom he is whispered to lose interest as soon as they reach the majors. Levy was introduced to a onetime journeyman minor league ballplayer named Rocky Tedesco at a baseball luncheon a few years back, whereupon he numbed everybody, Tedesco included, by saying, "You're Rocky Tedesco? The one who played for Salina in the Western Association in 1946?" The 36-year-old Levy has maintained statistics on almost every player in the higher minor leagues—from triple A as far down as some Class B leagues—for the past 23 years, and he updates his records every Tuesday and Friday night while his wife plays mahjongg with friends.
Siwoff shares with Levy and the others in the bureau a fascination with sports oddities, conundrums and knotty problems. In sports' equivalent of the trivia game, they might ask you the one about which brother combination won the most games among big-league pitchers and then answer, after you've made a silly of yourself over the Dean boys, that it was the Mathewsons with 373 combined wins (Christy's record, 373-188; brother Henry's, 0-1). They'll also tell you that baseball's foul lines really ought to be called fair lines since, unlike the situation in football or basketball, any ball touching them is still in play—all of which is probably as fruitful as arguing that life insurance really should be called death insurance.
At the heart of such exercises is an absorption with cold, chiseled fact that manifests itself in other ways. For instance, when Siwoff drives past one of those highway signs reading SERVICE STATION 3½ MILES, he actually checks the distance against his odometer. Then, too, he has little patience with any form of fiction. "You wouldn't catch Seymour reading Valley of the Dolls," says Al (Rocky) Avakian, another bureau employee. "He'd only wind up counting the number of pills."
Any suggestion that fiction and statistics spring from incompatible impulses, though, ignores James T. Farrell, the novelist and an inveterate baseball fan who can tell you, without looking it up, that "Eddie Collins played 25 years, batted .333 and was one of eight players who made over 3,000 hits—and he didn't do it on booze." Says Farrell: "I was figuring batting averages before I could read."
Unlike most boys, Siwoff enjoyed the rare good fortune of having his youthful passion converge with his adult profession. A native of Brooklyn who rooted variously for the Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox, Tigers and not more than eight or 10 others, he graduated in 1943 from St. John's University with a degree in accounting. In his freshman year a college friend introduced him to what was then known as the Al Munro Elias Baseball Bureau, and Siwoff got a job there during summer vacations computing minor league statistics and running errands. The free baseball passes that he received helped compensate for the long delay in collecting his $12-a-week salary.
The bureau had been founded in 1916 by South Carolina-born Al Munro Elias, who shortly afterward became the National League statistician. Elias knew his stuff—Damon Runyon called him "the figger filbert," a term that came into general currency—but the bureau was never on solid ground financially. A few months after Siwoff joined the bureau, Elias died and the business passed to other members of the family. Siwoff, after serving with the 88th Infantry during World War II in Italy (and suffering shrapnel wounds in the stomach), took a fling at accounting and then returned to the bureau in 1948, although he was newly married and had serious doubts about whether there was any future in the business.
Those doubts intensified in 1952 when, first, the Elias bureau lost some of its biggest newspaper accounts to a competing statistical service recently launched by the Associated Press and then, a few months later, the last active member of the founding family died. "As bad as the business was I couldn't let go," recalls Siwoff. "It was like an infection." So he picked up the pieces, reorganizing the bureau but keeping the Elias name. Over the next few years the rapid expansion of professional sports and the growing influence of public relations combined to keep the bureau afloat. But not until Siwoff became official statistician for the NFL in 1960 (he got the AFL after the merger agreement in 1966) was the turnaround complete. The football account enabled the bureau, which hitherto had languished after the baseball season, to develop into a year-round operation with a permanent staff.
The impetus for football's growing statistical sophistication has come not only from Siwoff and league headquarters but from the ranks of the coaches, many of whom put almost cabalistic faith in the value of numbers. Pro coaches use computers to measure how many times an opponent hits a particular hole in the line, and they can tell you that St. Louis Offensive Tackle Ernie McMillan once received a near-perfect 96% rating on execution of his pass-blocking assignment. "Our computer use has come through 100% for us" says San Francisco 49er Coach Dick Nolan, typically using a statistic to make his point.
Siwoff has experimented with computers on a limited basis, but he has dim hopes for any system that could possibly program all the statistical information he deals with daily and yet be within his reach financially. Still, he is very much a stickler for accuracy, riding herd on official scores in both football and baseball to make sure that the raw score sheets they send him are correct in every respect. Siwoff once went searching for a baseball official scorer, a newspaperman who had failed to submit any score sheets for several days, in a bar that the fellow was said to frequent. As it turned out, he wasn't there but his scorebook was—stored for safekeeping in the bar's refrigerator. "I finished filling them out and went up to the guy's apartment," Siwoff says. "He was soused, but I had him sign the score sheets as best he could. When I got out in the street, I said to myself, 'Seymour, only you would put up with this.' That's my biggest fault—sometimes I'm just too nice to people."
Nowhere does Siwoff's exuberant nature get a more thorough workout than at the ball park, where he tries to show up during the baseball season—either Yankee Stadium or Shea, depending on which team is at home—at least once a week. Before the game he is everywhere. "Hello there, Jerry Coleman," he says, greeting the Yankee broadcaster in the press lounge ("A prince of a guy. They don't make them any finer"). "Hello there, Bob Sheppard," he says on the way up a ramp ("The greatest public address announcer in the world. Unbelievable diction"). "Hello, there, Joe Pepitone," he says outside the clubhouse ("A nice kid. A little flaky, but nice").
During the game Siwoff sits in the press box, keeping score and chattering with the baseball writers. "When you've been around as long as I have," he says, "you can't go anywhere without having everybody say hello to you. It's flattering."
For all that enthusiasm, though, Siwoff knows enough to keep his statistics—and himself—in proper perspective. "There's more to sports than just data," he acknowledges. "You have to look at the broader picture, too. In football a guy might gain a lot of yards rushing. But it could say more about his blocking or the other team's defense than it does about his own ability. And look at fielding figures in baseball; they tell you tragically little. Even an outfielder's assists don't mean much. If he has a really good arm, he might not have too many assists because they're all afraid to run on him.
"Or take slugging percentages. A guy slugs .800, wow. But what's that really mean, to slug .800? Not much. And the way people can sit there and throw statistics at you all night about how the Baltimore Colts were the best team last year, it's unbelievable. All the statistics in the world don't change the fact that on January 12, 1969 the New York Jets won the Super Bowl 16-7. It's as simple as that."
So, there you have it—Seymour Siwoff is somebody who knows what the score is, no small accomplishment even for a sports statistician. "No, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that what I'm doing is the most important thing in the world," he allows. "It's a business and it's got its headaches like any other business. I don't wake up every morning and say, 'whoopee, I'm going to work.' Some days I'd just as soon stay home.
"But I do happen to believe that statistics, if used properly, are of value in telling you about the game. And if your statistics aren't accurate, what good are they anyway? Maybe an extra double here or a missing walk there aren't so important. But I can't stand being slovenly. I guess it's something I have right here." He pointed in the general vicinity of his heart and then continued in his best cheerleader's voice. "Pride, that's what it is," he said. "It's nice when somebody tells me, 'Seymour, I know I can count on you.' I mean, it's flattering, don't you think?"