When America awoke on the morning of 15th December 1919, the world had changed irrevocably. Many read the news in stunned silence, few venturing to accept the headline in the New York Evening World: ‘Is Big League Baseball Being Run for Gamblers, with Players in the Deal?’ Thirteen words would forever change baseball, and for the author, highly regarded sports reporter, Hugh Stuart Fullerton, a place in baseball history secured, albeit at a price.
In the wake of his claims that underdogs Cincinnati Red’s win over the Chicago White Sox, in the World Series, was a fix, Fullerton was vilified; the conservative baseball establishment closed ranks, and even fellow sports reporters distanced themselves, some actively criticising him both personally and professionally. Ultimately, Fullerton’s accusations of players throwing the games proved true and Baseball Commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, placed eight White Sox players on the ‘ineligible list’, effectively banning them from professional baseball for life (Figure 1).
Whilst Hugh Fullerton’s name has become forever associated with the darkness of ‘The Black Sox Scandal’, his unique scientific and systematic approach to examining his beloved game of baseball, has received scant attention. Yet, Fullerton, in the decades spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, was highly influential, alongside other sports reporters, in the incipient development of sports notation, and the use of statistics to examine sports performance.
Although not widely acknowledged, sports reporters were engaged in statistical analyses in the early years of the 20th century. George L. Moreland, writing in 1908, as the ‘Statistical Expert of Pittsburg’, questioned the scoring system in baseball, and in doing so highlighted the important role of the sport writer. He argued that, ‘the present day style of baseball is considerably harder to score than when such noted writers as Morse, Crane, Foster, Murnane, Gruber, Richter, Flanner, and other old time writers started to score games.’ In the November 1912 issue of Baseball Magazine, M.V.B Lyons proffered, ‘at present, the official scorer is practically always a newspaper man’, and expressed concern that there was a high probability of bias, given the reporter was usually a paid employee of the home club. It is clear that, in baseball at least, it was common practice for journalists to receive financial recompense for providing game statistics to their local clubs, and it is likely that these ‘statistics’ became part of the journalists’ daily game reports. However, fundamental questions remains unresolved- who actually devised these scoring systems, and where is the evidence for their existence?
Whilst previous researchers have cited Hugh Fullerton as being instrumental in developing one of the earliest notation systems in 1910, his actually method of data collection has proved elusive. However, it does exist. The evidence for Fullerton’s notations appears in a book that he co-authored with former-baseball star John J. Evers – Touching Second: The Science of Baseball. In this 1910 publication, Fullerton provides not only an example of his own ideographic notation system (Figure 2), but also evidence of undertaking notations of baseball as early as the late 19th century. Such evidence is not overt; however, in a careful reading of his writing, a single remark by Fullerton is very revealing. He wrote that his notations enabled him to, ‘on long winter evenings, sitting near the cheerful sizz of a hard-working radiator… to draw out score books of long ago, and have another game with Anson, root for poor Mike Kelly, or get all worked up for fear Willie Bill Hutchinson will go into the air.’ Fullerton’s discussion of these players provides evidence that his notations of baseball must pre-date 1898, since all of them had retired by the end of 1897.
Whilst Fullerton was clearly interested in the analysis of the game of baseball, later writing, ‘The Inside Game; the Science of Baseball’ published in The American Magazine, and ‘Why Babe Ruth Is Greatest Home-Run Hitter’ for Popular Science Monthly (Figure 3), he modestly inferred that his use of notation was merely for recording the game.
To him, his scorebook notations was a method of reliving the games of long past and recalling players of an earlier era; the analytical aspects were secondary to him. He commented: ‘From the first the idea was impressed upon me that a score of a game should be a lasting record of that game, and going beyond the common rules. I evolved a system by which I can record every ball and strike pitched, every foul, every fly, every move made in a game.’ His passion for statistics was evident: in writing his article for The American Magazine, he used data from ‘a mass of scorebooks’ to classify 10,074 plays, a volume of work that highlights his passion for recording the game. It is clear that his ‘scientific’ assessments of baseball were fundamental to much of his work, although he argued that he initially developed his notation system in response to his wife’s frustration at his continued absence. ‘When the missus says she thinks you might at least stay home ONE night in winter… you can dig up the score [scorebook], and get up a big, easy chair, and just root, and root and root’, wrote Fullerton; clearly missing his wife’s point!
In addition to his ‘reliving the game’, Fullerton also used his statistical analyses from his ‘scorebooks’ to predict game outcomes, many of which appeared in the daily newspapers. Hence, when things started to look ‘fishy’ in the 1919 World Series, he approached former Cincinnati player and manager, Christy Mathewson, to assist him with his observations. Later, comparing notes, the pair outlined several suspicious plays, contrary to the ‘expected’ outcomes predicted by Fullerton. The result of his notation, and Mathewson’s ‘expert-eye’ were catalysts for the uncovering perhaps the greatest sporting scandal of all time.
In a bizarre twist to the story, in 1915, Fullerton had written a novel, which he had dedicated to White Sox owner, Charles Comiskey. Jimmy Kirkland and the Plot for a Pennant is a story of a left-handed pitcher, named Williams, who under the control of gamblers ‘threw’ a game (Figure 4). In the story, his manager, Clancy, warned Williams, ‘I’ve got men in the stands to pass circulars telling exactly what you have done.’ Fiction became fact, when Fullerton, sitting in the stands in 1919, pointed the finger of suspicion at White Sox pitcher, Claude ‘Lefty’ Williams. The rest is history!
Article © Simon Eaves