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Thinking inside boxes

June 06, 2007|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

Here's what I thought I remembered about the first big league baseball game I attended:

The year was 1966, at shiny-new Anaheim Stadium, which would have put me at 8 years old in a game definitely involving the then-California Angels.

My sister won tickets in a local library raffle, but she was way more into books than baseball, so her little brother got the seats.

I can't recall who took me to the game.

I have no proof of attendance, only a recollection that the Senators' Frank Howard, a startling figure at 6 feet 7, hit a towering home run to left field that one-hopped into the giant "A" scoreboard that now resides along the 57 Freeway.

Ok, now for the kicker:

Did it happen?

Memory, like a knuckleball, can play tricks on you. Distant recollections tend to wobble and flutter.

A while back, though, I stumbled upon a baseball research Internet site called Retrosheet.org, which has unleashed an ambitious assault on every 6-4-3 double play ever recorded.

Retrosheet boasts box scores for every game played since 1957, plus selected years from earlier seasons.

Phil Rizzuto had two words for this kind of accomplishment: Holy cow.

Did I really, 41 summers ago, see Frank Howard knock one from me to you?

You bet I did.

All it took to prove was mouse-clicking to a game-by-game recount of the Angels' 1966 season.

There it was: May 11, at Anaheim Stadium.

SENATORS 4th: McMullen walked; Howard homered.

Holy cow.

The log doesn't say where Howard's home run landed, but he hit it off Angels lefty George Brunet, so there's a good chance the right-handed Howard pulled his moon shot to left, just as I remembered it.

One minor memory problem: Washington made two other trips to Anaheim in 1966.

On Sept. 2, a Friday night, in the top of the fifth, Frank Howard homered off Clyde Wright, another Angels lefty.

OK, maybe that was the first game I attended.

No matter, Retrosheet had validated for a memory that had been parked in my cranium for four decades.

Tooling around Retrosheet can be likened to a young boy losing track of time rummaging through a sporting goods store.

What about 1968, the year I swear I coaxed a "hi kid" out of Mickey Mantle as he trotted from his first base position into the visiting New York Yankees' dugout?

Mantle at first?

The Yankees made three trips to Anaheim that year and Mantle, a hobbled hero in the final year of his fabled career, played first base in all nine games.

Sometimes the memories and facts don't square up.

A friend of mine was sure the first game he attended was a Yankees-Angels matchup in the 1960s at Anaheim Stadium in which Jim Bouton, the future author of "Ball Four," pitched for the Yankees.

My friend said he and his dad often talked about that game in which Bouton's hat kept falling off.

Bouton as a Yankee never pitched against the Angels at Anaheim Stadium.

"Thanks for destroying some family folklore," the friend said.

No, thank Retrosheet, which has arrived to reconnect distant dots and separate fact from conviction:

"Most people are wrong on the details," says David Smith, a 59-year-old biology professor at the University of Delaware, who developed Retrosheet as a labor-of-love in 1988. "I think people fuse together things. People have different pieces of memory."

Smith is a confessed stat-oholic.

He was raised in Southern California and got hooked on baseball, Sandy Koufax in particular, after attending his first Dodgers game in July 1958.

What caught Smith's attention as he paged through his first game program were the back-of-the-book statistics offered by Allan Roth, baseball's legendary numbers cruncher.

That was it: Smith wanted to be Allan Roth.

Smith's dream of cataloging baseball's database began taking hold in the 1980s.

"It's possible because of the personal computer," he says.

Smith isn't in this for the money.

Retrosheet is free and listed as a charitable organization with the Internal Revenue Service.

"We're anti-profit, not non-profit," Smith jokes.

With the help of a small group of volunteers, Smith spends about 20 hours a week updating his site. Retrosheet's objective, according to its mission statement, is to make basic play-by-play information "publicly available for all interested researchers."

The jewels of this baseball diamond are the box scores and game logs, culled mostly from newspapers and personal scorebooks kept by sportswriters and fans.

Baseball has always sold nostalgia like soap, often producing too much frothy lather, but there has always been something DNA-foundational about box scores.

The appropriate click to a Retrosheet game log, in fact, can feel like opening an old letter.

Smith thinks he knows why people connect so deeply to game accounts.

"I don't mean to sound nasty," Smith says, "but everyone remembers their first game with their father, uncle, or grandfather. People don't have a memory of their first NFL or NBA game. It just isn't the same."

It also helps that fundamental baseball geometry has remained constant.

"Second base hasn't moved in 150 years," Smith says.

Once, Smith said, a man requested a box score and summary of the first game he attended with his father. The father was dying and the son presented the log as a going-away gift.

"It's a deep-down emotional thing," Smith says of the box score connection.

Retrosheet, to date, has logged about 100,000 box scores.

"It's so far beyond what I dreamed possible," Smith says.

The goal is to secure every summary ever printed or posted.

"We won't, of course," he admits.

The Depression Years in the 1930s are particularly tough because a lot of papers that carried daily box scores folded or merged.

Smith vows his battle for every HBP, like that open-ended game Yogi Berra loved to play, is not over 'til it's over.

So what if Retrosheet has to set your mind straight on a few of the details.

Facts remain stubborn things, yet, in the end, maybe the memories are all that really matter.

We dined with friends

We dined alone.

A tenor sang.

A baritone.

Ah yes, I remember it well.

--

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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