Do they really know the score?

The decisions of the official scorers are almost always a hit with the home team, but the visitors feel that they often err
July 23, 1978

It was the eighth inning of a game on April 16, and Bob Forsch of the St. Louis Cardinals was pitching a no-hitter when Philadelphia's Garry Maddox slashed a hard grounder into the hole between short and third. Third Baseman Ken Reitz moved a couple of steps to his left, reached down—and came up empty as the ball slid under his glove. Baseball's rule book states that in a borderline situation a call should go in the hitter's favor, but in the late innings of no-hitters the custom has been to lean toward the pitcher. Sure enough, to the delight of the Cardinals, official scorer Neal Russo of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch signaled an error. Forsch then went on to pitch the first no-hitter of the 1978 season, and Russo went on to hear plenty of criticism.

This year, as in all recent seasons, the official scorer, that virtually anonymous but pivotal figure in the press box, has been under intense scrutiny. And for good reason. Though most scorers do a decent job under difficult circumstances, enough have been guilty of misjudgments, incompetence and home-team favoritism to warrant concern. Responding to a wide-ranging SPORTS ILLUSTRATED survey, players and sportswriters—many of whom score games—cited scorers in most major league cities for "homerism." Moreover, there was an almost universal feeling that some change is needed in the way the game is scored.

This is not merely an in-house baseball matter. Although official scorers do not determine the outcome of games, they do have a significant effect on something of almost equal significance: baseball's precious statistics. In no sport are statistics as meaningful as in baseball, and scorers have the power to determine some of the most important statistics, such as batting and earned run averages and no-hit games.

Sometimes the scorers make these determinations with one eye on the uniforms. "I've been involved in five or six no-hit games," says infielder Dave Johnson of the Phillies, "and all of them were suspected of being helped by hometown scoring." Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, official statistician of the National League, says, "There is great inconsistency. The most annoying things are plays that get called one way one time and another way another time. The criterion seems to be, 'I wanted to help this guy,' but that shouldn't be it at all. They should call them as they see them."

In some cities they call them as if they didn't see them at all. In Philadelphia this spring the Phils' Richie Hebner hit a line drive to rightfield, Pittsburgh's Dave Parker ran in a few steps, reached for the ball at knee level and dropped it. The hometown scorer gave Hebner a single. In Los Angeles two Dodger grounders bobbled by Pittsburgh pitchers were called hits. During the same game Los Angeles' Tommy John leaped high off the mound for a bouncer. He failed to make the difficult play, but his pitching stats did not suffer—an error was called by the scorer. Even Russo, who was kept busy defending himself after his crucial call in the Forsch no-hitter, admits, "I think some tilting toward the home team happens almost everywhere. It's human nature. You've got to live with the players."

The confusion arises partly because scoring is not easy—even for the best scorers. Russo, 58, has spent two decades as a writer for the Post-Dispatch and is also a correspondent for The Sporting News and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. At 5'8" and 190 pounds, he will never be mistaken for an athlete, but he knows baseball inside out. Indeed, his intellectual credentials are unassailable. As an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, Russo would walk down the street constructing crossword puzzles in his mind in Latin, French and Italian. In his spare time he writes sports crosswords for publication. Nervous and fast talking, he skips glibly and knowledgeably from subject to subject. Yet after scoring nearly 800 games, he still finds the experience disquieting.

Sitting high in the press box at Busch Memorial Stadium for the 25 or so games he scores each year, Russo must instantly decide if a pitched ball bounced before skittering by the catcher. Wild pitch or passed ball? Did a ground ball take a bad hop before being juggled by an in-fielder? Hit or error? And Russo's decisions on plays in the distant outfield are made more difficult by Busch Stadium's carpeted playing surface. The synthetic turf tends to make balls take bizarre, high bounces and accelerate after they hit the ground. Under such conditions, time-honored criteria for determining outfield errors do not apply.

The scorer's decision-making is complicated by a factor called "a reasonable effort." Ken Brett lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning while pitching for the White Sox in 1976 when a scorer ruled that a roller Third Baseman Jorge Orta failed to field was a hit. The scorer determined that a reasonable effort by Orta had not produced an out, even though an extraordinary play might have. Not everyone agreed, least of all Brett. An average outfielder who drops a fly ball after a long run will not be charged with an error; a Fred Lynn, who routinely makes difficult running catches, will be. In his pivotal decision, Russo determined that Reitz, an excellent fielder, was nervous and uncertain because of the no-hit pressure and normally would have made the play easily. Hence the error.

Sometimes even the rule book causes problems. For instance, there is no stipulation on how to score a ball that drops between two or more befuddled fielders. The scorer is free to give one of the fielders an error or to credit the batter with a hit. Many scorers feel a new category—team error—should be created for these occasions, and the Baseball Writers' Association of America has been studying the matter.

A number of scorers admit they seek help. When in doubt they will consult other writers, players or umpires, or watch an instant replay if a TV set is available in the press box. "We have no TV monitor," says Russo, "but we do have a direct line to the dugout. I'll call down there on passed-ball situations. The Cardinals also have a former pro pitcher sitting behind home plate to chart pitches. I'll call him from time to time. We have 24 hours in which to change our calls, but I don't do that very often. If I did, I'd have the snipers and vultures on my tail."

It is the presence of snipers and vultures among the players that gives the scorers their worst headaches. Players are all too aware of the game's celebrated reversals. In 1917 Ernie Koob of the St. Louis Browns was given a no-hitter when an early-inning hit call was reversed. In 1952 Virgil Trucks got a no-hitter in the same manner. The most famous of the reversals that should have been made—but wasn't—came on a bobbled grounder in 1959. By calling the misplayed ball a hit, Los Angeles scorer Charlie Park deprived the Giants' Sam Jones of a no-hitter. Most of the 60,000 Angelenos in attendance booed. Afterward, Park was subjected to innumerable phone calls, interviews and letters from fans who suggested that he drop dead.

Players often feel the same way about scorers. When the writer who has displeased them enters the locker room for his postgame interviews, the vultures and snipers are waiting. They have refused to talk to writers, yelled at them and even attacked them. Cincinnati writer Earl Lawson was punched by Johnny Temple. When Bob Considine of the Washington Herald denied Senator First Baseman Joe Kuhel a hit, Kuhel invaded the press box and inexplicably took a swing at Shirley Povich of The Washington Post. Kuhel was fined $100. A fan sent him $50 with a note reading, "I'd have sent you the full $100, but you missed."

Incidents of that sort have decreased since National League President Chub Feeney warned against scorer-baiting in 1974, but restraint should not be mistaken for good feelings toward scorers. If anything, players watch their individual statistics—and, thus, the scorers—more closely than ever now that their contracts are filled with potentially lucrative incentive clauses. Al Oliver of the Rangers, Graig Nettles of the Yankees and Steve Yeager of the Dodgers have been involved in notable confrontations with scorers.

Even a seemingly favorable call can sometimes arouse players' wrath. Earlier this season a scorer gave Reggie Smith of the Dodgers a hit on a ground ball to second base. Were Smith and his teammates pleased? Hardly. They were livid because Joe Morgan of the rival Reds, who might have been given an error on the play, was in the process of setting a record for most consecutive errorless games for second basemen. Smith would have gladly dropped a point or two in average to make sure Morgan did not break the record.

These constant skirmishes erode a scorer's patience. Even Russo, who has enjoyed excellent rapport with players, came unglued during the ruckus over his Forsch call. Snapped Mike Schmidt of the Phils, "I think Bob Forsch deserves all the accolades that go with pitching a one-hitter." Now Russo wonders if scoring is worth the trouble. "I've been doing it all these years because I need the 50 bucks a game. But I've always thought of life as a never-ending Italian wedding reception. This doesn't fit in."

There are other, more technical reasons to change the present setup. "When I was on the disabled list last year," says Willie Stargell of the Pirates, "I saw a lot of games from the press box. What struck me was how every ball that was hit looked like an easy out. It doesn't look that way down on the field." The dugout, of course, is not a perfect vantage point, either. Some observers feel that a midpoint, perhaps behind home plate, would be an improvement over both the press box and dugout.

But taking the scorer out of the press box would take the press box out of the scorer. This question—whether the writers should be allowed to double as scorers—is at the heart of the debate over scoring.

Baseball is the only major sport in which writers score, and they have been on the job since before the turn of the century. Chosen by the local chapter chairman of the BBWAA, candidates for scoring are submitted to the league office. Those accepted are paid $50 a game. For this stipend they make scoring decisions—mostly wild pitch-passed ball and hit-error determinations—and submit a voluminous report on each game to the league office. Because they inevitably have hassles over scoring with the players they are covering for their newspapers, there would appear to be a conflict of interest. Furthermore, since they are paid by the league to score they may be reluctant to criticize the game itself. Beginning with The Washington Post 20 years ago, many metropolitan dailies have been prohibiting their beat men from scoring. Among the other papers which ban their baseball writers from scoring are The New York Times, News-day, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Minneapolis Star and the Minneapolis Tribune and all the major papers in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia.

"There's no conflict," says Jack Lang, secretary-treasurer of the BBWAA and a writer for the New York Daily News, which allows its reporters to score. "The teams aren't paying us. the leagues are. But it's true there are problems with the players. In the old days writers didn't go into the locker rooms. They preferred to pontificate from the press box. Now everyone interviews players."

Another writer-scorer who defends the system is Dick Dozer of the Chicago Tribune. "I doubt anyone could be as qualified as a baseball writer who sees 100 games a year," says Dozer. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer do. Generally, writers who score at home travel less than in the past. Some work for suburban or specialty papers that do not send them on the road at all; neither they nor writers in recent expansion cities qualify under the BBWAA regulation that a scorer must have seen 100 big league games three years running. The result, almost inevitably, is a dropoff in quality and performance.

But problems would persist even if all scorers were experienced journalists. Consider the symbiotic relationship between writer and player. Although many baseball reporters are objective journalists, they still must make their living by maintaining daily contact with players; these writers will write sharply critical stories—that is part of the job—but, understandably, they hardly need the headache of making controversial scoring decisions. And some reporters have taken to collaborating with players on books; others even refer to their cities' teams as "we."

The result of all this is homerism, which is almost as traditional in baseball as a box of Cracker Jack. On the last day of the 1945 season a New York Writer called an error on a ball hit by Snuffy Stirnweiss of the Yankees, who was battling Chicago's Tony Cuccinello for the hitting title. The call would have given the championship to Cuccinello, so the scorer reversed himself and Stirnweiss won. Certainly, not all of today's writers are homers, but even the best seem to suffer from too much generosity, which translates into hits instead of errors. Too often they score as fans, not officials.

One possible improvement would be the creation of a salaried "fifth umpire," an official scorer who would travel with the regular four-man crew and take his turn on the bases. The BBWAA and the umpires have suggested as much to the leagues. But while pro basketball has announced that it will spend $600,000 to employ a third referee for each game, baseball is reluctant to ante up $400,000 for improved scoring. Less expensive alternatives would be to train officials who travel to only three or four cities or remain in one. The decrease in the number of qualified and available scorers has already produced something like this in Milwaukee, where a retired writer does all the scoring.

Surely, any change that adds professionalism and subtracts bias would be welcome. If any area of baseball ought to be above suspicion, it is the game's vital statistics.

TWO PHOTOSBob Forsch of the Cardinals got to celebrate his no-hitter after a controversial call by Neal Russo (with cigar) of the "St. Louis Post-Dispatch."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)