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For This Baseball Fan, Numbers Are the Game

SUNDAY SCENE

September 20, 1998|DIANE PUCIN

David Stephan will start out a sentence by saying, "It was 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon on Sept. 26, 1956," or by saying "(302) 555-5555," which might be the phone number of somebody he met 20 years ago.

This is how important numbers are to Stephan, of how lovingly he captures numbers of all kinds-- phone numbers or dates, heights and weights, and especially baseball numbers--into his brain and then how Stephan caresses these numbers, thinks of them as living things.

Stephan, 65, is a mathematician, of course. What else could he have been?

On a hot afternoon, Stephan will step off a city bus in downtown Los Angeles and before he has reached to shake your hand is asking if you know how to keep a box score, telling you that he went to his first Indiana University basketball game in 1941, that he moved to Los Angeles for good in 1965, that he is just the hugest Ted Williams fan, that he lost all respect for Bob Knight at the Collegiate Coaches Assn. basketball tournament in 1974 because Knight threw a tantrum, that he was downsized out of the aerospace industry in 1990 and that Alexander Cartwright invented the baseball box score in the 1840s.

Whew.

Take a breath quick because Stephan is nowhere near done talking.

He has come on the bus from his Culver City home to speak of his life's passion, the Retro Sheet. He is wearing a bedraggled safari hat pulled low over his ears, a wrinkled, white long-sleeved T-shirt, khakis, white socks, black shoes. This is a man not concerned with fashion, and it is a man looking exactly as you'd expect a man who is constantly searching for baseball play-by-play sheets.

The Retro Sheet is a homey production, printed out of people's houses, compiled by people around the country who love the numbers of baseball and who spend as much time as possible searching for baseball numbers, box scores, yes, but more important, baseball play-by-play accounts.

Play-by-play accounts of what games, you ask?

"Every game in this century," Stephan says, as if that is the most normal thing to say. That would be about 145,000 games, Stephan says. He and his Retro Sheet pals "already have 95,000 play-by-plays in our possession," Stephan says, "and 75,000 of those are already recorded," in the Retro Sheet data bank. "We have 85% of the games played after World War II, but we're lucky too because many of the missing games are in the era when newspapers printed play-by-play of every game."

Stephan became fascinated by the play-by-play keeping of baseball when he became acquainted with Alan Roth. Roth was a fanatic Dodger fan and is called by Stephan and others the father of play-by-play keeping. David Smith, a University of Delaware biology professor who is the inventor and keeper of the Retro Sheet, says he got his own love of baseball statistics and play-by-play when he attended, as a 10-year-old in 1958, a Dodger game at the Coliseum and read the biography of Roth, who was employed by the Dodgers and eventually by NBC television, in the program.

It was Stephan, who upon Roth's death, went to the Roth family and asked to become the librarian for all of Roth's 3,000 or so play-by-play accounts. Roth had started his detailing of Dodger history the same year Jackie Robinson arrived and kept up his work until August 1964. Every pitch, every ball, every strike, it was all written down. "You can't imagine how valuable those were to us," Smith says. "David Stephan gave those to us."

Somewhat to Stephan's embarrassment, five missing play-by-play sheets involve the Dodgers. The games were played from Aug. 16-20, 1968, three in Pittsburgh against the Pirates, two in Houston against the Astros. "The Dodgers were so bad, none of the Los Angeles papers sent anybody on the road," Stephan says.

From these play-by-plays people like Stephan gather records. Of course, everybody knows about Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and the great home run chase, a chase by the way that Stephan isn't particularly wrapped up in--"if you look, every expansion year the pitching is terrible so I'm not surprised at this"--but Stephan has been lately searching for such things as all the players who have had 50-hit months and all those who have compiled 30-game hitting streaks.

Stephan would talk all day about what is to be found by searching the accounts of every professional baseball game played this century and he can be, some who know him say, a pest. Stephan is disgusted that Bill James, who has his own business of publishing baseball statistics, will not take his calls. And Stephan is also disgusted that Bill James makes a profit off this data that is out in the world for anyone to find. "The Retro Sheet doesn't charge anybody," Stephan says.

As it grows dark outside and Stephan gets ready to take the bus home, he has one request. Would anybody who might have accounts of those five missing Dodger games, please give him a call at (310) 280-1111 or write him a note at 11824 Beatrice, Culver City, CA 90230 or send him an e-mail at ? "I know somebody out there can help me," he says.

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