I was six years old the first time I saw a major-league baseball game. My Aunt Anne from Baltimore took me to a spring-training game in Miami. I remember few details, other than asking if each pitch was a ball or a strike. Exasperated, she explained it was a strike when the home-plate umpire raised his right arm.
From that day, my love for America’s pastime – and somewhat sadly, the Orioles – was fomented. My brother, Jeff, and I played whiffle ball in our backyard in South Florida. It was tiny with banana plants and a papaya tree in centre field, but seemed as big as Yankee Stadium.
Jeff loved the White Sox and Nellie Fox, a slick-fielding second baseman who always had a huge chaw in one cheek. I would pitch to Nellie, and pretend I was Steve Barber, a left-hander who had a few good seasons with Baltimore. He was the first player I followed. Later, I followed Mark Belanger, the Orioles’ shortstop. Like him, I was good-field, no-hit even in Little League.
In the afternoon, Jeff and I raced to get the sports section to read box scores in the old Miami News from games played the previous night. I learned to decipher baseball box scores before reading Dick and Jane. It taught fundamentals of math, too. If Belanger got two hits in four at-bats, his average was .500 for the day. (More often than not, it was .000.)
This is how, like many people of my generation, my enduring romance with the sports-results page, known as agate, began. Today, your phone delivers live scores. Then, you waited until the next day. Today, you can watch everything. Then, one game, usually involving the Yankees or the Dodgers, was televised on weekends. I grew up listening to the Ol’ Redhead, Red Barber, and Pee Wee Reese.
The more I learned the intricacies of baseball, the easier it was to read a box score and deduce what happened in any game. I loved box scores so much that I would create my own. The Orioles won every time.
Scoreboard pages have shrunk in newspapers for years, and are gone in the age of novel coronavirus. Without games, there is no agate.
If you are young enough, you may never have consulted sports scores the old-fashioned way. The print is small enough to make you squint. But you should. When sports are on, the page is a treasure trove of data: auto racing, baseball, basketball, bowling, football, golf, hockey, rugby, soccer, tennis, thoroughbred results, each team’s daily transactions.
For many older newspaper subscribers, it is the most widely read page in the sports section.
Stock-market tables have all but disappeared in newspapers, replaced by real-time digital data. Somehow, sports agate hangs on. Its fans are a passionate bunch.
Shawna Richer, The Globe and Mail’s sports editor, receives more complaints about sports agate than anything else.
“People get seriously exercised about it,” she says.
Matt Pepin, the sports editor of The Boston Globe, concurs.
“The biggest feedback I get is if something is incomplete on the agate page,” Pepin says. “One guy is on me every time the attendance from an NFL game is missing.”
Under usual circumstances, The Boston Globe prints one page of NBA and NHL stories and standings and box scores, allots another page to baseball, and dedicates a half-page of agate to everything else.
For a few days after leagues shut down because of the spread of COVID-19, it published a calendar showing games were suspended.
“After a while, we felt it was redundant,” Pepin said.
Space previously reserved for sports agate is being used for local stories written by his staff.
When the games resume, the agate and complaints will return.
“From an early time in the business, it was impressed upon me how important sports agate was to a certain number of readers,” Pepin says.
Agate was born when newspapers began to print horse-racing information in the 1830s. The first rudimentary baseball box score appeared in 1845 in the New York Morning News.
“It was a marvel and inspiration to more sophisticated record-keeping,” says John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball.
Henry Chadwick, who wrote for the Long Island Star and New York Clipper, created a more formal box score in 1859 that accounted for runs, hits, put-outs and errors. He also was the first to employ the letter ‘K’ to indicate a strikeout. Michael J. Kelly of the New York Herald is credited with improving upon Chadwick’s version in 1868.
In those early years, before game stories and photographs, agate provided data that allowed readers to visualize and understand the game.
“The charm of agate seems mysterious, but I learned to decipher it as a boy,” Thorn says. “For me, it was like learning a foreign language. I could reconstruct what happened and see things other people couldn’t see.”
Perhaps more than any other sport, baseball resides in one’s memory whether it was Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Hank Aaron’s 715th home run in 1974, or Joe Carter’s walk-off homer in 1993 – and so does the agate that tells the story. The same is true of the charts from Secretariat’s performance in the 1973 Triple Crown, the Raptors’ run to the NBA championship, and hockey’s greatest moments.
For many decades, The Sporting News was wildly popular as a weekly publication largely because it was just about the only place fans could get all of their teams’ box scores and statistics. USA Today replicated the formula when it launched in 1982.
“I sympathize with someone who grew up reading sports agate and misses it,” Steve Hirdt says. “Old habits die hard.”
Hirdt, the foremost expert on sports statistics, is the former senior vice-president of the Elias Sports Bureau and director of operations for Sports Perform, a sports analytics and data company.
At 17, he was hired to do research for the first edition of The Baseball Encylopedia, which was published in 1969. Fifty-one years later, he remains immersed in sports numbers.
“Right now, what fans are missing most are the games from which the statistics flow,” he says.
He says there is no greater reality show than live sports.
“It is unscripted entertainment, and it is sorely missed,” Hirdt says.
Sports fans are aware of world events, but the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic didn’t hit home for some until leagues suspended games.
“For a lot of people, I think it really brought home the gravity of the pandemic,” he says. “Sports fans have a great sense of history and to see something happen that has never happened before is striking.
“There have been wars and epidemics, and sports was played through them.”
For a long time, one of his greatest joys was reading the morning newspaper on his 40-minute commute to work on the train into Manhattan. For him, the experience was as important as the information.
“When newspapers went online, I never thought I could read them that way,” Hirdt says. “Little by little, I still got over it."
In 2006, the Detroit Free Press had a dedicated crew of four full-time and two part-time sports-agate clerks. It published more than two full pages of sports agate. Since 2010, it has run a half-page.
“The amount of space we spent on the tiniest type is mind-blowing to me,” says Ryan Ford, the assistant sports editor. “I feel bad. There is less and less information for readers.”
The type is small, but its importance is not.