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THE NUMBERS GAME

Facts of Life
By Murray Browne

It's a fact. The Billy Davenport Collection is the first set of baseball cards saved by a mother who had opportunities to dispose of her son's childhood memories. Other than that, the collection appears to be rather ordinary, especially since neighborhood baseball card experts had already cherry-picked the best cards before the collection came into the possession of my friend Billy Davenport. Billy was one of the two young men who had helped the aforementioned mother (who remains anonymous to avoid the media circus) clean out her basement. She paid them in sports cards—thousands of cards.

One day Billy and I examined the Davenport Collection in our employer's parking lot after work. We knew immediately that what it lacked in monetary value was more than compensated for in terms of evocative value. Billy even let me take the suitcase-size box of cards home for a while. "No hurry," said Billy. "Take your time."

And that's the way Billy is—generous—not only with his recent wealth, but with his time. Talking with him at work is like sitting in the dugout between innings—a welcome respite between the business at hand. He likes telling a story whether it be the tale behind the latest addition to his collection of Southern folk art or about growing up in Tullahoma, Tennessee. But Billy's a good listener as well. He remembered that I obsess about baseball, and when he came into the possession of this treasure trove of cards, he invited me to partake.

 

Collection Contents

The collection thoroughly covers the decadent baseball years of 1970 through 1979 in its entirety and the surrounding fringe years of 1968, 1969, 1980, 1981, and 1982. This era wasn't made for some black and white Ken Burns nostalgia-fest. This was a time of living out loud: AstroTurf and synthetic baseball uniforms in psychedelic yellows with elastic waistbands. The clinging polyester uniforms were designed for sleek, speedy outfielders like Omar Moreno, Bake McBride, and Garry Maddox, players well-suited to patrol the cavernous turf spaces of the Astrodome, Busch Stadium, and Olympic Stadium. If you had a body like Jim Fregosi (1976, #635), well, too bad.

While flipping through the Davenport Collection my initial reaction was that these were lean years for barbers and hair stylists. One hair stylist, Joe Pepitone, had to take a second job as a first basemen for the Cubs. At least that's what it said on his Topps card (1973, #580): "Joe is in the hair-styling business."

A few years ago, Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder admitted during his post-"Take Me out of the Ball Game" celebrity interview with WGN announcer Steve Stone that, as a kid in the Chicago suburbs, he wasn't really (and I'm paraphrasing) interested in baseball until he saw Jose Cardenal (1977, #610) trying to wear his hat and batting helmet with his Afro. Stone certainly understood the importance of major league hair: The former Cy Young Award winner changed styles (short and curly, mustached, Jimmy Buffett look-a-like) as often as he did uniforms (Giants, Cubs, White Sox, and Orioles).

Not unlike your high school yearbook, the Davenport Collection is good for a few yuks, but for someone like me—an information and numbers kind of guy—I am even more intrigued by the type and amount of information you get on the back of the card. Hair and bright uniforms are not the only ways we remember players.

On the reverse of each card are the critical statistics: height, weight, birth date (can players use their own cards to buy beer at the convenience store?), and birthplace, followed by columns of statistics—games and places played, hits, runs, home runs, doubles, triples, batting average (if you're a regular player) or games and places played, innings pitched, wins, losses, strikeouts, bases on balls and earned run average (if you're a pitcher)—all trashed-compacted into a slick piece of cardboard the size of a couple sticks of very hard, tasteless gum. Of course, all this miniaturization is made possible by the unbridled utilization of five-point type, which obviously is more readable to ten-year-old boys than to middle-aged Love-of-the-Game geezers.

 

Card Contents

In the visual display of information, a quasi-scientific subset of graphic arts, there is a term for cramming facts into a small space called "data density." Information Hall of Famer Edward Tufte devotes a section in his 1983 book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, to the importance of data density. He reminds us that "our eyes can make a remarkable number of distinctions within a small area. With the use of very light grid lines, it is easy to locate 625 points in one square inch or, equivalently, 100 points in one square centimeter." Tufte says that it's hard to beat a chart chock-full of numbers for conveying information clearly and accurately. He admires data-dense information graphics and abhors wasted space. He even has a specific measurement for data density.

For example, on Dave Winfield's card (1988, #510), there are fifteen categories of statistics (year, club, games, etc.) covering fifteen years of Winfield's career and then an extra year for Winfield's major league totals. Thus, fifteen categories multiplied by sixteen years yields a total of 240 data entries in a 3-by-1.25-inch space.

Data on the backs of cards also varied from year to year, apparently subjected to the whims of fashion—not unlike the uniforms that the players wore. The 1968 card of Detroit Tiger lefthander Mickey Lolich crammed 120 facts into a 1-by-2.25-inch space, but in 1971 Topps reported only the major statistics for each player's 1970 performance coupled with their lifetime statistics; a mere two lines of information with a paltry total of just twenty-four facts.

It's easy to become carried away with baseball data densities. In a randomly selected box score (the new kind, the ones that seem beefed up on androstenedione) from the New York Times, for example, Houston's 5–3 victory over Milwaukee on September 7, 2001, included 464 data entries encapsulated in 10.5 square inches of type. In the fourth edition of Total Baseball (1995), Harmon Killebrew's career stats are summarized by 552 entries in 16.53 square inches.

If data-thick backs of cards weren't a wealth of factual information as it is, there's also room for a simple, informative fact-a-blurb about the individual players (or sometimes some other player). This baseball information is written in short declarative sentences with the player often referenced by first name, thus attempting to establish a sense of familiarity between the player and the curious fan. For example, on Bert Campaneris's card (1966, #175) the fact is simple and baseball related: "Bert led the A.L. in stolen bases in 1965." But sometimes the fact is not sports-related, such as on the aforementioned Dave Winfield card: "Dave opened a Manhattan restaurant in Nov., 1986."

What I liked best about the Davenport Collection was that some part of each card, whether it be the face, the uniform, the name, or the fact on the back, instantly triggered my own set of facts about the player:

Ron Blomberg (1972, #203)—Ron was reviled by baseball purists. In 1973, he was the first player to be listed in the lineup as a designated hitter.

Mickey Klutts (1982, #148)—Despite his dubious last name, Mickey enjoyed an eight-year career as an infielder.

Bert Campaneris (1971, #440)—Bert played for eighteen years in the majors without people realizing that Bert is short for Dagoberto.

Terry Forster (1972, #539)—In the twilight of his career, comedian David Letterman referred to the rotund lefthander as a "fat tub of goo."

Al Downing (1971, #182)—Al doesn't like to be remembered as the pitcher who gave up Hank Aaron's seven hundred and fifteenth home run.

Biff Pocoroba (1982, #88)—Biff's nickname was the "Road Apple."

Al Oliver (1970, #166)—Al thought he belonged in the Hall of Fame with his .303 lifetime average over eighteen years, but . . .

Manny Sanguillen (1981, #226)—Manny swung at everything.

Phil Regan (1972, #485)—Sandy Koufax nicknamed Phil the "Vulture."

Dick Allen (1972, #240)—Dick was upfront about his feelings. He said about AstroTurf: "If cows can't eat it, I don't want to play on it."

Rick Mahler (1982, #579)—Rick proved you didn't have to be handsome to be a major league pitcher.

Dock Ellis (1973, #575)—Dock claimed he threw a no-hitter while on LSD.

Mickey Rivers (1981, #145)—Mickey is famous for talking as if he were on LSD.

Joe Charboneau (1981, #13)—Joe was the 1980 American League Rookie of the Year and liked to open beer bottles with his teeth.

 

Almost every card in the Davenport Collection emits these kinds of unchallenged, lightning-quick reactions. Most of the time in memory retrieval, a few minutes to several hours lapse from inquiry to results. (I love the experience of asking my brain for some trivial name or title and hours later the brain returning with the answer.) However, with baseball cards, that process is altered. Since you know the fact—the name, the player, or the team—memory adds another layer of information or history.

In other words, I'll admit that I'm not absolutely sure Ron Blomberg was the first designated hitter. Nor can I prove that Biff Pocoroba had such a dubious nickname. Or that Al Oliver actually raised a stink about not getting into the Hall of Fame. Yet, accurate or not, these are bits of baseball lore that have crept into my baseball psyche. And "truth" is always a relative term, anyway. For example, Oakland A's second baseman Dick Green's fact-a-blurb on his 1969 card states that he raised his batting average thirty-five points from 1967 to 1968. Impressive as that sounds—and factually true—it doesn't take into account that in 1967 Green hit only .198, an average so low that it had nowhere to go except up.

The Billy Davenport Collection reminds us how, over time, facts can migrate into factoids: blurbs of anecdotal information that sound good but are not necessarily true. And even when we find out that Leo Durocher (1971, #609) really didn't say, "Nice guys finish last," is it worth sounding like a baseball smart aleck to prove a point? Corrected facts are hard to insert once false ones have been implanted, especially when the anecdote is more entertaining than the truth.

If you ever met Billy Davenport, you'd understand how fitting that this collection is named after him. Not only is he the type of guy who will lend a helping hand, but Billy is the type of guy who appreciates the value of the add-on story. He understands how our own memories and experiences can embellish and transform things, how a baseball card—even as it ages, fades, becomes worn around the edges—remains recognizable, perhaps even more meaningful as the years go by. It seems part of human nature to weave these memories, to share these anecdotes that become part of everyday lore. Like baseball, they become a fact of life.

—EFQ

MURRAY BROWNE lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and pitches for the Sopranos in the Co-ed B City Softball League.

© 2002 Murray Browne

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