Commentary: Finally, opening day! Play ball! Keep score!

By Joe Guzzardi

The 2020 Major League Baseball season is, in a manner of speaking, underway. Fans who can overlook the cardboard cutouts that have replaced them in stadium seats or tolerate the piped-in music and masked players will be fine. Those who can’t abide by the 60-game season’s new guidelines will have to fend for themselves.

COVID-19 baseball has claimed many sports-related victims. Perhaps none will be more missed than the traditional presidential opening day pitch, a custom that dates back to 1910 when William Howard Taft tossed out the first pitch at the old Griffith Stadium for the Washington Senators’ home debut.

Chief executives and first ladies have come and gone from the White House in the 110 years since Taft initiated the first-pitch custom. Some presidents, like Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon, were die-hard fans. Others, like Calvin Coolidge and Teddy Roosevelt, not so much. Roosevelt considered baseball “a mollycoddle game.”

The most passionate White House baseball bug was Grace Anna Coolidge, Silent Cal’s spouse. Cal couldn’t care less about baseball, and in 1924, was spotted trying to make a ninth-inning exit during the crucial seventh World Series game between the Senators and the New York Giants with the score tied. Grace grabbed the president’s coattails and jerked him back into his seat.

During her White House years, 1923-29, Grace was a regular at Griffith Stadium and, when Coolidge was Massachusetts’ governor, a fixture at Red Sox games. In the 1950s, Grace wrote to a friend, “I venture to say that not one of you cares a hoot about baseball, but to me, it’s my very life.”

Her friends often wondered how Grace became such an avid fan. Some think that Grace turned to baseball to assuage her grief after the untimely 1924 sepsis death of her 16-year-old son, Calvin Jr. Others who had known Grace longer said that her baseball enthusiasm could be traced back to her college days at the University of Vermont, when she was the Catamounts’ official scorekeeper.

Players and baseball writers acknowledged that Grace’s score card was, in their word, “perfect” in every respect — a flawless technique, completeness in detail and legible handwriting. Grace took her score cards back to the White House, so she could treasure them during her advanced years.

Since the score card first appeared in 1845, the art of noting each play as the game unfolds has fallen out of vogue. That so few fans today keep score is curious because, while there are guidelines that official scorekeepers recommend, really, anything goes. The score card chicken scratch has only to be intelligible to the scribbler. Remember: New York Yankee Hall of Fame shortstop-turned-team-announcer Phil Rizutto was famous for marking “WW” on his card, the “Scooter’s” shorthand for “wasn’t watching.”

Fans who want to resume the scorekeeping skills they developed earlier in their lives need only two tools. First, reject the flimsy, generally useless score card handed out at the gate before each game. Instead, buy a scorekeeper that has multiple pages, extra-wide lines, and ample space for substitutions, rolling pitch counts and extra innings. If possible, find one with a heavy cover that can be easily and safely stored. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin kept a detailed account of Brooklyn Dodgers’ radio broadcast games, so she could provide her father, Michael, with a pitch-by-pitch account when he returned home from work.

Second, buy a pencil that’s worthy of the task. There are even pencils specifically designed for scoring. Among those pencil’s most practical features are a soft eraser and dark, smudge-proof core. For a total investment of less than $10, scorekeeper plus pencil, fans will be set for the season to, like Grace, keep a “perfect” score card.

But remember this cautionary note found inside the Baltimore Orioles program/score card: “Warning! Scoring a ballgame can be habit-forming. Proceed at your own risk.”

Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association. He is published via Cagle Cartoons syndicate.