Security guards at the gates of Wrigley Field are adamant about not allowing re-entry. You walk out, you’re out. You need to buy another ticket to get back into the Friendly Confines, and no one wants to do that nowadays, given the inverse relationship between the quality of play offered and the quantity of cash required.
But at 1:05 p.m. on September 21, 2011, Closing Day of last year’s fifth-place season, I talked the guy at Gate D at Addison and Sheffield into letting me out—just briefly, and never out of his sight. It was an emergency.
I needed a scorecard.
A meeting at work kept me from arriving at my usual hour ahead of game time. By 1 o’clock, after locking up my bike on Alta Vista Terrace and heading in through Gate K by the firehouse, the scorecard vendors were out, selling nothing but the last of their over-priced programs. “None left, sorry,” my regular guy said. “Try Gate F.” I hustled over, but no luck there. I started to sweat.
I sprinted toward Gate D, fought the crowd, and begged the guard to let me out to ask the dealers in those green-painted kiosks on the street if they had a scorecard left.
No go. Bone dry. Long sold out. I was starting to lose my…grip. Of course they had no scorecards. This was the last homestand of what would be a 91-loss season. With tens of thousands of no-shows they surely printed fewer scoreboards. I should have seen it coming, should have cancelled that meeting, should have been in line before the gates opened…
I don’t remember who taught me to keep score. It might’ve been my Uncle Jimmy, but it was so long ago I honestly don’t recall. As a kid, I’d steal empty pop bottles off back porches in Rogers Park, return them to the National on Devon for the deposit, take the Red Line (then the Howard-Jackson Park/Englewood) to Addison and sit in the lower deck seats (then the grandstands) or bleachers. I wrote in “FO” for fly out and “GO” for groundout, until I learned the alpha-numeric codes that enable fans to track the game’s action in progress. Completed scorecards were kept at home with other invaluable treasures, like my comic book collection or the fossil rocks found at Albion Beach.
During a college-age move, I lost all of my older scorecards, but I still have a personal archive going back to the mid-1980s, plus older cards I’ve collected and researched for their artistic and historic value. They’re useful for settling arguments. Have I seen the Cubs win more than lose in person? Give me an hour and I can find out, but I think we all know the answer. Major league, minor league, spring training, college, whatever. I attend a game, I keep score.
Aside from the way scoring keeps you focused on the game, just think about something historic happening. A no-hitter or a four-homer game or an unassisted triple play? I want the scorecard to prove I was there; maybe even get it signed by the player who made history. I have a signed scorecard from the game on May 1, 1987, when I caught Andre Dawson’s 232nd career home run—8th inning, one out, off the Padres’ Lance McCullers. OK, I picked it out of the dead-center field basket, but it was a clean catch in the box score.
Scorecards are more than souvenirs; they are troves of knowledge. “This guy’s 0-fer-3, right?” someone seated nearby will ask, and there to answer is the scorekeeper. After the game, there is no better post-game show than perusing your own handiwork, recalling the game and its intricacies and oddities. Scorecards are art too: elegant and clean after a crisp 2-1 pitcher’s duel; a Rorschach test after a 14-10 slugfest.
Pardon the bias, but the Cubs have the best-designed scorecard I’ve ever seen. There’s no need for one of those expensive program magazines. What distinguishes the Cubs scorecard is that the grid for scoring both teams is on the same page, eliminating the hassle of flipping the card every half inning. The game’s full narrative is available with one quick glance.
As I made my way toward my seats in section 416 (upper deck box, once the upper deck grandstand, and in my youth closed most of the season except for the Cardinals series or Lady’s Days), I kept a sharp eye out for anyone who, as I do, bought two scorecards. The reason, of course, is insurance for a game that goes more than 14 innings (the scorecard provides a 10th inning column and the AB R H RBI squares another four). Were there any couples where man and woman each had their own? I figured I’d be willing to pony up $20 for my piece of cardboard if it came to it. I wandered up and down aisles and across rows.
I panted up the ramp toward my seats, gave a lackluster “Hey,” to John, our usher, and told my tale of woe to the friends I was meeting. I had spent all season arguing with one over his practice of keeping score on his iPhone. “Too high-tech for me,” I had said again and again. Though on this day I was struck by the wisdom of his way. He was once a vendor at Wrigley and, knowing the ins and outs of the place, he told me to check the press box.
I happen to know one of the Cubs’ beat writers—I’ll protect his identity to absolve him from the shame of associating with needy, freelance scorekeepers—so I ran over to the doorway that leads up to the inner sanctum of the ink-stained wretches who feed our baseball jones nightly and daily. I explained my existential dilemma to the two security guys, one an off-duty cop, the other one of those ancient guys that the Cubs give a radio and, I hope, really good health insurance.
Forty years of a pristine score-keeping record was about to be history. The stadium, no, the entire neighborhood was fresh out. I just need one. Can I run up and grab one? Can you? I can pay!
The cop sighed and asked, in that world-weary tone of voice cops use when directing citizens to not try something really stupid, if I’d checked the souvenir stand on the deck behind the press box. “They sell scorecards?” I asked. I scurried out there, greeted by a young bearded guy, who smiled quaintly. “Do you have any scorecards?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. “Last one.” I forked over the $2 (I felt like I saved $18), tipped him a buck, and wholeheartedly forgave that he was out of pencils. (I always bring a few pencils from past games, in case I get one too dull to write properly.)
I thanked the cop for his sage advice.
I was in my seat with my prize, the last scorecard in Wrigleyville. The last scorecard of the year. I like to have the starting lineup filled out before the first pitch but, hey, you can’t have everything. Matt Garza got Milwaukee right-fielder Corey Hart to pop up to Jeff Baker at second. I took a deep breath and penciled it in. My ex-vendor pal offered to grab me a beer to quell my shakes. I accepted, settling in to score the game.
Garza threw a complete game, striking out 10. Starlin Castro went 2-for-3 with two walks (he also let the Brewers’ only run score on an error), and the Cubs beat the playoff-bound Brewers 7-1.
This season I’ve already figured out my strategy to ensure I avoid the agony of another near scorecard miss for the last home game of the year. I’ll be at the first game of the Cubs’ last home series—Monday, October 1, 7:05 v. Houston. I’ll buy four scorecards. That should cover it.
SABR member BILL SAVAGE teaches American literature, including courses on baseball narratives, at Northwestern University and the Newberry Library of Chicago. He doesn’t have a scorekeeping problem; he can quit any time he wants.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house, photos by Solomon Lieberman.