"numbers" (= baseball stats)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Thu Dec 9 18:08:22 UTC 2004

On Thu, 9 Dec 2004 11:51:05 -0500, Mark A. Mandel <mamandel at LDC.UPENN.EDU>

>Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU> writes:
>   >>>>>
>The earliest OED3 cite for "numbers" referring to baseball statistics is
>from 1986, with the more general sense of 'statistics' dating to 1973.
>It's possible to trace the usage of "numbers" for baseball stats over the
>course of the '60s
>New York Times, Feb 19, 1961, p. 181
>All clubs keep extensive statistical records but no one, it is generally
>conceded, has carried the numbers game to the recondite reaches ranged by
>Roth. ... "I don't have any interest in numbers outside of baseball," says
>Roth, who even delegates his income-tax computation to a professional.
>New York Times, Mar 12, 1962, p. 37
>"I'll tell you what's worse," said Garagiola. "It's having your batting
>average posted on the scoreboard. It ruins the bad batters. They become so
>embarrassed at seeing their averages exposed to public view that they want
>to get those numbers out of sight as fast as possible."
> <<<<<
>Those don't look particularly evidentiary for a special usage. The second
>cite is straightforward anaphora from "those numbers" back to "their
>averages [posted on the scoreboard]": literally, numbers, like ".183".
>In the first cite, the second occurrence, "I don't have any interest in
>numbers outside of baseball", clearly refers to numbers as numerals,
>computation, mathematics -- the everyday senses of the word -- or at least
>the reporter interpreted it that way, linking it to doing one's taxes.

Yes, I meant to make that point when I said that the development of the
usage could be traced over the course of the '60s -- early usage seems to
relate to numbers qua numbers as they appear on a scoreboard (as in the
Garagiola quote), in a box score, or in a record book.  Later, the
"numbers" were abstracted from their actual recorded appearance.  It's
difficult to say, though, when this semantic shift took place.

>The first occurrence, "the numbers game", has a better case but I'm not

A later cite I gave from 1969 refers to "numbers-gaming" (in the context
of how _Baseball Encyclopedia_ counted Babe Ruth's home runs).  And then
there's the recent book by Alan Schwarz, _The Numbers Game: Baseball's
Lifelong Fascination with Statistics_.  It seems like there's a history of
writers giving the phrase "numbers game" (previously associated with
gambling, i.e., "playing the numbers") a second meaning of 'playing with
baseball stats'.  This double meaning may have contributed to the
popularization of "numbers" in the 'stats' sense.

-- Ben Zimmer

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