By Jeff Polman
Take a trip back to July 18, 1958. It’s a Friday night in Los Angeles, and 10-year-old David Smith is at the Memorial Coliseum to attend his very first game, between the Phillies and Dodgers. His hero is Sandy Koufax, years before he became a great pitcher, and this is far from Sandy’s best performance. In the first inning, he strikes out two but walks four and gets yanked from the action. Maybe he is just under the weather, because he starts the next night and goes seven and a third innings.
The Dodgers won that Friday night 8-6, lost the next night, and for a long time, David Smith thirsted for the actual accounts of those games.
It was undoubtedly his inspiration for the birth of Retrosheet.
Fifty-four years later, Dave Smith’s non-profit Web site has researched and catalogued over 120,000 major league baseball games for our pleasure and historical use. In some cases you’ll just find box scores, in many others, detailed play-by-play. Because of Retrosheet, in less than a minute you can learn that the first batter Smith saw Koufax face was Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn; that there were 24, 532 other people at the Coliseum and the game took two hours and fifty-five minutes; that Chico Fernandez’s fifth inning homer off Johnny Klippstein went over the short left field screen; and that Shag Crawford and Jocko Conlan were two of the umpires.
Sean Forman’s staggeringly enormous Baseball Reference site can also get you this information, though as Smith relates, a lot of their game data comes from Retrosheet. A little over a month ago, Retrosheet released box scores for the 1916 and 1917 seasons, and play-by-play details for 1927 and 1947. Although their research is done on a volunteer basis, they have between fifteen and twenty people working on various projects at a given time, so you can expect a constant stream of discoveries ahead.
The first time a friend shared the Retrosheet link with me, I was immediately taken by the site’s lack of visual pizzazz—to be honest, it has no pizzazz whatsoever—but also by the easy-to-navigate passage into Retrosheet’s historical fact library. That the old school TextEdit look of the thing absolutely never changes is part of its charm. As Smith puts it: “Once we found a form that we thought was easy to navigate, we decided not to fiddle with it just for the sake of novelty.”
As a place to instantly find countless baseball facts, it is also one of the greatest Internet time sucks ever created. Dead of winter and you’re stuck at your desk on lunch break and feel like taking in a game? No problem. I’ll do it right now. Let’s see…going to their “link-block” of years, shutting my eyes and clicking my mouse on…1936. Dropping down to the yearly calendar to hit Saturday August 8th…Okay, the Browns and Tigers split a twinbill in Detroit, with St. Louis scoring seven in the 8th and two in the 9th to take the nightcap, with Jim Bottomley driving in four and Moose Solters three! That was easy.
How about just a quick check of the American Association standings on July 25, 1884? Ah yes, the Columbus Buckeyes are still in second place with a .684 winning percentage and a +114 run differential, but just a half game behind the second place Louisville Eclipse!
Naturally, the first thing I did when I discovered Retrosheet was locate the box score and play-by-play of the first game I attended, 1963 at Fenway Park with the Yankees. (As an aside, framed copies of first game box scores make great gifts for friends and family members.) Retrosheet doesn’t have play-by-plays for every season, but some of the earlier accounts from say, 1921, are a joy to read. Just so you know, on Saturday April 30 at the Polo Grounds, Giants catcher Earl Smith was ejected in the 6th inning after a called ball for “throwing his glove down.”
Of course, digging up minutiae like this is incredibly time consuming for the Retrosheet team. As Smith says, “The release of play-by-play accounts takes longer than I would like, but it is essential that files not be posted for the public until they have been rigorously proofed. I do not want to be in the position of making retractions.”
Retrosheet formally began in 1989 and was incorporated as a non-profit in 1994, one year after the site was launched. They have five board members and a “webmaster”, and hold their annual meeting at the SABR conference, a group that values the findings of Retrosheet like no other.
When I attended the recent SABR event in Minneapolis, I wandered by the small open room where Retrosheet was starting its meeting. I had heard Dave Smith’s lively presentation two days earlier on the dramatic rise and fall between leagues of stolen base attempts from 1947 to the present, and now he was chairing the modest gathering of Retrosheeters, dressed in his signature Dodgers jersey, his Santa Clausian features lighting up another room. But I wasn’t a Retrosheet member, didn’t really want to hear a “report from the treasurer,” and wandered away.
An hour later during a panel discussion, I was visiting them again—but back on my phone to look up a box score. For me, Retrosheet remains not just a great resource tool, but a trusty digital baseball Wonderland, a place to happily tumble into at any time. Thanks, David.
Jeff Polman writes fictionalized baseball replay blogs, his current endeavor being Mystery Ball ’58. His first such blog, “1924 and You Are There!” has been published by Grassy Gutter Press and is available on Amazon.