For the record: Keeping score becoming a lost art

Baseball has long been known as the American pastime, as ingrained a part of the nation’s summer culture as Independence Day fireworks, backyard barbecues, and family picnics.

And documenting a baseball game with a scorecard and pencil or pen in hand, is, for quite a few fans, a pastime in itself.

Whether watching a major league game in person at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ majestic PNC Park or taking in an Eastern League Altoona Curve game at Peoples Natural Gas Field, a small but dedicated segment of the fan base just feels out of place if they’re not filling out a scorecard.

“I get antsy if I don’t keep score of the game,” said Hollidaysburg’s Susan Mielnik, arguably the Curve’s most devoted fan.

Mielnik has never missed a Curve home game since the team began play back in 1999. She customarily sits in section 311 of Peoples Natural Gas Field with her husband, Ken.

“It keeps you focused,” she said of her scorekeeping hobby. “I like to pay attention to what’s going on, and I think it’s fun. A number of people keep score of the games here, and they always come up to me and ask me about anything that they’ve missed. My husband doesn’t keep score. He likes to talk.”

During a recent summer afternoon at Peoples Natural Gas Field, just a handful of spectators were seen documenting the events of the Curve’s doubleheader with the New Britain Rock Cats. They were using either their own scorebooks or the scorecards provided in the Curve’s game program.

Their enthusiasm was evident and palpable.

“I enjoy it,” smiled Charlie O’Rourke, 47, of Warriors Mark, who not only keeps a scorecard but charts every pitch at Curve games and sends the data to a company known as Baseball Info Solutions – which, in turn, analyzes the information that he collects and sells it to various major and minor league baseball teams for scouting purposes.

“I started keeping score of games back in 1976,” O’Rourke said. “I remember vividly going to a Pirates-[St. Louis] Cardinals game on Huntingdon County Day at Three Rivers Stadium that year. Bill Robinson hit a single in extra innings to score Omar Moreno and win the game for the Pirates.”

Ron Vetter, 64, of Dunkirk, N.Y. – a town located between Erie and Buffalo – has quite a few scorecards in his collection and quite a few stories to tell.

“I’ve kept score of 1,873 games now – my first game was in 1957,” said Vetter, who was logging the play-by-play on plain notebook paper and planning to transfer his information to the scorecard in that day’s Curve game program afterward.

“I also try to get a photograph of every player that I’ve seen play,” added Vetter, who had a camera in tow. “And I keep index cards on every player that I’ve ever seen play. That’s how nutty that I am.”

Among Vetter’s career spectator/scorekeeping highlights was being on hand at Pittsburgh’s old Three Rivers Stadium to watch the late, legendary Pirate outfielder Roberto Clemente’s 3000th – and final – career hit, a double off the New York Mets’ Jon Matlack, on Sept. 30, 1972.

Vetter also made it to all seven games of the 1971 World Series, won by the Pirates in seven games over the Baltimore Orioles.

And he saw John Elway play baseball in a 1982 New York-Penn League game for the Oneonta Yankees. Elway would later become a National Football League Hall of Fame quarterback who played his entire career with the Denver Broncos.

“He was 2-for-5 that day with a triple,” Vetter remembered, but then deadpanned, “I think he made the right choice [by playing football].”

Like Vetter, Maine resident Mike Harris, 29, traveled a long distance by himself to see the Curve play at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

Wearing a Boston Red Sox cap and documenting the Curve games in his store-bought scorebook, Harris drove eight hours from his home near Portland, Maine, to Altoona to complete his cycle of seeing every Eastern League ballpark.

“This is my last Eastern League park, I’m very impressed,” Harris said. “This is a nice park.”

Harris started his scorekeeping hobby later in life.

“I started five years ago,” he said. “It’s not something that I grew up doing. My dad still doesn’t understand [the process of keeping a baseball scorecard]. It’s something that I picked up on my own when I wanted to have a record of games that I’ve been to.”

Harris, like most of the other scorekeeping aficionados surveyed, holds on to his scorecards.

“Yeah, I keep every [scorecard],” he said. “When I first started, I used the scorecards that were in the game programs, but then you end up with a pile of programs that’s a mile high.”

The scorebooks that he buys in stores enable Harris to keep dozens of games in one place, and they also offer pointers for the beginner on how to keep score.

“I basically taught myself,” Harris said. “It’s one of those things that everybody does a little bit differently.”

On any baseball scorecard, only the position numbers – 1 for pitcher, 2 for catcher, 3 for first baseman, 4 for second baseman, 5 for third baseman, 6 for shortstop, 7 for left field, 8 for center field, and 9 for right field – remain uniform across the board.

After that, styles of keeping score are as varied as each individual scorekeeper’s preferences and habits.

“If you look at scorecards, they’re all different,” said Ed Bowman, 59, of Philipsburg, who uses a pen to keep score of the 25 to 30 Curve games that he attends each season. “I grew up in Philipsburg, and I learned how to keep score from listening to [the late Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster] Bob Prince. When there was a groundout from second to first, he always announced that the play went ‘4 to 3.’ I think the older announcers did more to promote scorekeeping than today’s announcers do.”

Mielnik adds her own special touches to the scorecards that she keeps at Curve games.

“Everybody does it a little differently,” she said. “I fill in a whole diamond on the scoresheet for a home run. Then, when the third out is made at the end of each inning, I put a star on the sheet.”

Danny Wilson, 53, of Altoona, a long-time paid scorekeeper for the George B. Kelley Federation and Greater City Baseball League, said that the basics of the craft never change.

“If there’s a bouncer back to the pitcher, it’s [marked] 1 to 3, a pop-up to the catcher is P-2,” Wilson said.

When it comes to scorekeeping, simple was better – at least in the beginning – for Eli Nellis, 26, a sports writer with the Indiana Gazette, who attends about 60 Pirates games per season at PNC Park and makes it to Altoona to see 10 to 15 Curve games per season.

Nellis was preparing his scorebook for the Curve’s second game with New Britain when he divulged that he actually began becoming interested in keeping baseball scorecards at the tender age of 5.

Perhaps scorekeepers are born, not made.

“I kept it simple, just writing “Out” on my scoresheet for a play in which a batter was retired,” Nellis said of his original scoresheets.

Nellis – who learned the basics of scorekeeping from his father, Bill, and aunt, Louise – grew into the hobby, and as the years went by, it became second nature to him.

“I grew up doing it, and the last couple of years, I’ve been doing it pretty regularly,” said Nellis, who regularly uses baseball scoresheets in his job as a sports writer. “I always thought that when you went to a game, you just kept score of it. It was foreign to me not to keep score.”

That said, people with pencil and scorecard in hand at the average professional baseball game are still a minority. That’s something that people like Mielnik and O’Rourke hope will change, especially with the younger age group.

“I know people of the older generation who do it,” O’Rourke said. “Kids today don’t seem to do it. That’s disappointing.”

Mielnik believes that they don’t know what enjoyment they’re missing.

“I think it would be neat if some of the parents would teach their little kids how to keep score,” she said. “It’s fun to do. People should try it.”