This article was written by Andy McCue
This article was published in the Spring 2014 Baseball Research Journal
Henry Chadwick, baseball’s first historian, tried to capture a game in a chart for his newspaper readers. It was called a box score, and as it evolved over the years, it offered the raw material for the statistically minded to analyze, understand, and appreciate the game. There were dozens who followed, from Ernie Lanigan, longtime baseball writer and editor, to fans sitting at their dining room tables with pencils and, maybe, a mechanical calculator.
Allan Roth pushed the analysis of baseball statistics to a new level. He promoted himself into a place those other analysts only aspired to. Roth was the first to be employed full time by a major-league team, “the only zealot lucky enough to work for a major league team and to get to test his theories first hand.”1
Abraham Roth was born in Montreal on May 10, 1917, the son of Nathan and Rose (Silverheart). Nathan, a tailor, had emigrated from Galicia (which straddles the current Poland/Ukraine border) in 1899 at the age of 15. Rose probably came from Bucavina, an area then part of Romania, but now in Ukraine. She arrived about 1910.2 Abraham had an older brother, Max, who became a leading Canadian architect, and a younger sister Sylvia.
Nathan worked as a tailor and the family moved around Ontario province before returning to Montreal during Abraham’s high school years, when he attended Strathcona Academy, playing all the major sports. He also spent many free hours from ages 13 to 16, compiling statistics for the International League and his home town Montreal Royals. He passed the entrance examination for McGill University, where Max was already studying. Family circumstances, however, prevented paying for a second college student, so Abraham took a job. He worked as a salesman, first of magazines and later of men’s ties, suspenders, belts and mufflers.3
In July 1940, Abraham married Esther Machlovitch and the following winter, changed his name to Allan. Later that year, he began his pursuit of “the type of work that I wanted to do.”4 From an early age, he had been mathematically oriented, entertaining himself and his family at age three by counting backwards from 100 by twos.5 In his spare time, he had done both hockey and baseball statistics, developing the breakdowns which would characterize his later work.
In December 1940, Roth wrote to Leland “Larry” MacPhail, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, seeking an appointment to discuss work as a statistician. He tried again in June and August of the next year. He met MacPhail in the Mount Royal Hotel in Montreal and explained his ideas. MacPhail was, at best, non-committal.6 But, Roth decided to take the plunge, quit his job in men’s clothing and began to compile statistics on professional hockey. In October 1941, Roth showed his work to Frank Calder, president of the National Hockey League, who hired him to be the league’s official statistician and to write for the league’s publicity sheet. His progress was interrupted three months later, when he was drafted into the Canadian Army.7
The Army at least recognized his talents and he was put in charge of all the records and statistics of the unit charged with organizing reinforcement contingents for Canadian Forces in Europe. In January 1944, Roth was discharged due to epilepsy, which was of the petit mal variety, and not likely to affect his work.8 He began to write sports features for the Montreal Standard and to compile statistics for the Montreal Canadiens. But, he kept his focus on the Dodgers because he considered Branch Rickey, MacPhail’s successor as Dodger president, the most innovative man in sports.
In April 1944, three months after his military discharge, he wangled a meeting with Rickey at the Dodgers spring training site in Bear Mountain, just north of New York City. It was a disaster, Roth said. The dinner included Mrs. Rickey and was in the main dining room of the Bear Mountain Inn, the premier hotel in the region. Rickey was constantly being interrupted by well-wishers. Roth despaired of making a coherent presentation. Finally, Roth told Rickey he didn’t think he was getting a fair shake. Asked what he wanted, Roth responded, “Ten minutes of your undivided attention.”9
Rickey asked that Roth send Ed Staples, his assistant, a detailed outline of Roth’s ideas. The four-page letter contained proposals to track a wide range of statistics. Some of these were standard, but others, such as where the ball was hit and the count it was hit on, hadn’t been compiled regularly. Roth also proposed to break the statistics down into various categories that would reveal tendencies which the front office and the manager could use to win ballgames. Breakdowns such as performance against left-handers and right-handers, in day games versus night games, in the various ballparks, in situations with runners in scoring position, are all mundane to us now. But in Roth’s time, they were rarely compiled or used, and never part of the public discussion. The letter was intriguing enough to get a meeting with a still-skeptical Rickey. The conversation turned positive, Roth said, when Rickey asked him about runs batted in. Roth said he didn’t think much of runs batted in unless they were correlated with the chances to drive them in, and differentiated again by which base they’d been drive in from. This meshed with Rickey’s own beliefs and the conversation flowered. Roth was offered the job.10
But, with World War II, and then the U.S. government’s fears that returning servicemen would have a hard time finding jobs as military production was cut back, Roth couldn’t get a visa until 1947. Even then, Rickey had some difficulty persuading his partners, Walter O’Malley and John Smith, to approve a $5,000 salary.11
The Roth era began on Opening Day, April 15, 1947, with the Dodgers hosting the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. Braves shortstop’s Dick Culler’s ground out to third base was the first plate appearance to go into Roth’s specially designed 17×14 inch sheets. Beginning that day, Roth would record virtually every pitch in a Dodger game for the next 18 seasons. The game itself was only part of his day. He estimated he spent another five hours daily, at a minimum, updating the breakdowns on the Dodgers and their opponents. In the offseason, he would refine the numbers further, seeking longer term trends and finding the outliers. Everyone knew right-handed hitters generally performed more poorly against right-handed pitchers and vice versa. Roth would look for, and find, the left-handed hitter who broke the mold and could provide a manager with an unexpected platoon advantage. He tracked bases advanced, a metric that encompassed baserunning statistics as well as the ability to move runners along with outs. He recorded what happened at each point in the count, what happened in bunting situations and differences between night and day games, home and away games, and in individual stadiums. No other team had access to such analysis at that time.
Unlike contemporary statistical analysts, Roth generally ignored higher mathematics. “The figures concerned in baseball statistical work don’t call for integral calculus or even advanced algebra,” he said.12 And he also recognized their limits. “I know perfectly well that baseball cannot be played one hundred percent according to figures, and that the human element is even more important. I realize that certain sets of figures on players and teams will change from time to time, but nevertheless, by a deep and systematic research into the detailed statistics which I have in mind, there is bound to come to light numerous facts which were previously unknown, and which would prove of great value.”13 His records would become voluminous. When the team moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles a decade later, newspapers reported Roth’s data took up more space than the rest of the Dodgers’ archives.14
In fact, outside of baseball, Roth wasn’t much of a numbers guy at all. He didn’t do his own taxes.15 He couldn’t remember his phone number.16 What he would do is record the numbers in myriad detail and then use his true talent, recognizing what the numbers meant, to provide value to his employers. He summed up his philosophy: “Baseball is a game of percentages — I try to find the actual percentage, which is constantly shifting, and apply it to the situation where it will do the most good.”17
In his first season, for example, Roth used another of his innovations — spray charts showing the location of all of a player’s batted balls — to show that Dixie Walker’s hits were going to the opposite field more and more frequently. Rickey, following his own dictum that it was better to trade a player a year too early, sent Walker to the Pirates. “The People’s Cherce” hit .316 in 1948, but was down to .282 the next year, and became a player-manager in the minors.18 A year after his Walker revelation, Roth’s numbers showed that in 1948, Jackie Robinson drove in a higher percentage of baserunners than any other hitter in the lineup. Manager Burt Shotton moved Robinson, who had barely broken into double digits with 12 homers, into the cleanup spot. He hit only four more home runs in 1949, but drove in 124 and won the National League Most Valuable Player Award.19
Roth’s major league debut was missed in the tumult surrounding Jackie Robinson’s that same day, but reporters soon began to notice the latest addition to the Dodgers’ traveling party. By June 1947, The Sporting News contained a note that Allen (sic) Roth, a “slide-rule expert,” was providing Rickey with numbers to analyze the team.20 In those days, Roth’s numbers were considered proprietary and not made public, adding to the mystery. But he would generate awed publicity — the “flesh-and-blood electronic brain” or “Mechanical Brain Can’t Match Roth’s” and some fear on the part of players, who saw him as Rickey’s hatchet man, especially after the Walker trade.21
In looking for meaning in the numbers, Roth’s methodology was much like that of Bill James and later members of the Society for American Baseball Research — take a piece of accepted baseball wisdom and analyze whether it was true. “Some fellows have mentioned that batting average increases of ten or 12 points would result from the sacrifice fly rule,” Roth said during a 1953 discussion of scoring rules, “The figures on the Dodgers for the last two years don’t come anywhere near such figures.”22
Rickey’s departure from the Dodgers after the 1950 season meant changes for Roth. The new owner, Walter O’Malley, was dedicated to the business side of the organization. The new manager, Charlie Dressen, managed by the seat of his pants and, after receiving Roth’s work politely, would quickly deposit it in the trash can.23 The new head baseball man, Buzzie Bavasi, cottoned to Roth slowly.
Roth’s working position was moved from a seat behind home plate to the press box. To Roth, the move felt like a demotion, and he felt unappreciated.24 He quit classifying the pitches because he didn’t feel he could do it accurately from his new perspective. O’Malley moved him to the press and public relations operation, a department the new president understood. Roth’s tidbits began to appear regularly in the newspaper columns and he was put in charge of a publication called Press Box Pickups. Distributed to reporters each game day during the season, the magazine was filled with Roth’s statistics as well as promotional material. He provided extensive statistical sections for the team’s yearbooks and media guides.
In 1954, he was moved into the radio booth to feed timely material to the Dodger announcers and quickly struck up a strong friendship with Vin Scully, who was becoming the team’s lead announcer. “If you had some question that came to you in the middle of a game, he would reach down into the bag, and next thing you knew you’d have your answer. It was marvelous,” said Scully.25 This partnership had an additional benefit to the team’s bottom line — the broadcast sponsors began to pay half Roth’s salary.26 A few years later, Roth’s spot in the booth included a link to the press box P.A. system, where his choicer items could be relayed live to reporters. He was always available to reporters looking for statistics to back up an angle or ideas for something to write on a slow day. The Dodger switchboard directed all queries of a statistical nature to Roth’s desk, and he settled a great number of bar bets. He even tried to answer queries from long before his time or his statistics, such as why Dodger pitcher Henry Schmidt, who went 22-13 for the 1903 Dodgers at age 30, never pitched in the majors again. Schmidt, a Texas native, had decided he didn’t like living in the East and returned his 1904 contract unsigned.27
Roth kept up his interest in the more analytical side of his statistical work. As the only full-time team statistician, he became a magnet for others working in the field and an inspiration to many young men who would write him for advice about how they could get into his line of work. He corresponded with Nathan McFadgen, Charles Mercurio, Paul Simpson, Tony Johncola, and others, all researchers with a statistical bent who were self-publishing their findings.
In 1954, Roth’s work hit the big time — with a heavy coating of Branch Rickey. Life Magazine, one of the largest-circulation magazines in the country, ran an article titled “Goodby [sic] to Some Old Baseball Ideas.” The article said it had been written by Branch Rickey, whose picture graced the first page. Roth’s back is visible in the background of that photo, and he is pictured on the article’s third page, along with a multipart equation. That equation was clearly Roth’s work; Rickey called the equation, “the most disconcerting and at the same time the most constructive thing to come into baseball in my memory.” Thirty years later, John Thorn and Pete Palmer, in their seminal book, The Hidden Game of Baseball, wrote “Rickey and Roth’s fundamental contribution to the advancement of baseball statistics comes from their conceptual revisionism, their willingness to strip the game down to its basic unit, the run, and reconstruct its statistics accordingly.”28
In many ways, “The Equation” was years ahead of its time. Its first two terms were what we today call on-base percentage and isolated power. It would take the book Moneyball half a century later to cement the importance of on-base percentage. The equation, which contained eight different terms, including pieces devoted to run-scoring efficiency, pitching, and fielding, was vastly complicated for contemporary baseball organizations. In his history of baseball analytics, Alan Schwarz summarizes the impact of Roth’s equation: “No evidence exists that anyone took it seriously.”
While Roth may have felt unappreciated within the Dodger organization, it could not have been completely unexpected. Roth’s 1944 letter to Ed Staples outlining the benefits of employing him had suggested exactly the kind of press and public relations work Roth was now performing. More significantly, it is clear the Dodgers didn’t see him merely as a producer of press releases and statistical tidbits.
As the 1951 season tottered to a close, the Dodgers felt they had an insurmountable lead — 12 1/2 games on the morning of August 13. So, they detached Roth with scout Andy High for a two-week tour to follow the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians, the two leading contenders for the American League flag. High would make the traditional scouting report, while Roth would add his statistical insights. These two weeks encompassed the only Dodger games Roth missed from 1947 to 1964. The Dodgers’ pennant hopes succumbed to an unbelievable charge by the New York Giants. O’Malley sent Roth a note of thanks.29
It wasn’t just game statistics where Roth’s opinion was sought. That same year, O’Malley sent Roth a pamphlet titled “American Baseball Needs Four Major Leagues” and asked for his opinion of the arguments. The book dealt with questions of population shifts, markets and the structure of major and minor leagues. Roth responded with some mostly statistical comments on the work.30
O’Malley turned to Roth again after the 1954 season, and it’s clear that he was concerned about Walter Alston, who had just finished his rookie season as the Dodgers’ manager. Each year, Roth produced a book which summarized the team’s just-ended season. There were only four copies made — for O’Malley, Bavasi, Alston, and Roth. In mid-December 1954, O’Malley queried Roth on when he’d be able to see the report.31 Roth delivered the report two weeks later, discussing reasons for the Dodgers poorer 1954 performance. He noted some pitching and hitting declines but also suggested Alston wasn’t conducting as aggressive a running game as had Dressen.32 In reply, O’Malley posed additional questions about the number of “hit and run” and “run and hit” plays called, as well as stolen base attempts. “There was a change of managers,” O’Malley wrote, “Is there any significance (to that)? Was club direction less enterprising?”33
Roth began assuming again more of the role he had played under Rickey. But now his analysis was not going just to Rickey, but to the manager and directly to individual players. On Friday, September 18, 1959, the Dodgers arrived in San Francisco for a key series against the Giants. The team was two games behind the Giants and tied with the Milwaukee Braves. With only eight games left in the season, they need a sweep to have any realistic hope of making the World Series. Friday night’s game was rained out and Alston announced that Don Drysdale, who’d been scheduled to start Friday, would pitch the first game Saturday afternoon. Roger Craig would start the Saturday evening game. When Roth saw that Saturday morning, he went to Alston and pointed out that Drysdale’s night-game record was substantially better than his daytime performance while Craig showed little difference. Alston switched the pitchers, Los Angeles won both games, and Sunday as well. The Dodgers finished the season in a tie with the Braves, won the tie-breaker playoff and the World Series for an improbable championship.34
After the move to Los Angeles, Roth started to attend spring training in Vero Beach, something he hadn’t done early in the Brooklyn years.35 Now he met with each player, along with one of the coaches, and went over their performance the previous year, emphasizing positives as well as negatives and suggesting changes that could improve the player’s statistics. Sandy Koufax would credit such sessions in the early 1960s with helping him learn to emphasize first-pitch strikes and taking something off the ball.36 In the dugout, coach Pete Reiser had a set of Roth’s 5×8-inch cards with summaries of player performance keyed to the opposing pitching staff.37
Roth also began a campaign that would ultimately result in the creation of the statistic for a reliever’s “Saves.” In 1951, Roth began to keep track of such situations and began sharing the number with reports several years later.38 By 1964, pushed by sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, major league publicity directors approved the version of the save that we’re familiar with today, although the formula is a bit different from the one devised by Roth.39
A few months after the coronation of his invention, Roth was fired by the Dodgers. It was done very quietly. The team made no announcement and it wasn’t until reporters asked about Roth’s absence from a late-season road trip that the team announced he had resigned because he was tired of all the travel.40 He may have been tired of the travel, but that wasn’t why he was fired. Walter O’Malley hated negative publicity and also had a fear, born in the early years of baseball’s integration, that any news of inter-racial sexual relations could cause an outcry. 41 Bavasi said Roth had developed a relationship with an African-American woman who traveled with him, and then gotten into a screaming match with her in a Philadelphia hotel corridor.42
Roth’s marriage would end in divorce a little over a year later. But he still needed to provide a living for his wife, children, and himself. He began to expand his already extensive freelancing.
Roth’s first article in The Sporting News had been published in 1946, while he was waiting for his visa to join the Dodgers.43 There was a long hiatus until the next one, when he got his first byline in 1959.44 Within weeks of his firing, he was contributing regularly.45 He revived a monthly column he’d written for Sport magazine from 1952 until 1960.46 He continued to edit the annual Who’s Who in Baseball, which he’d done since the 1954 issue. He contributed statistical data for Koufax, by Sandy Koufax and Ed Linn, and the publisher felt it important enough to be included in advertising for the book.47 He collaborated with Harold Rosenthal on the spring training magazines from MACO publishing.48
In 1966, NBC came calling with its new contract for the Game of the Week, the All-Star Game, and the World Series. The Sporting News column disappeared and for the next decade, Roth would sit between Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek, feeding them the kind of statistical nuggets he’d supplied to Scully for years. A few years later, he moved to ABC to provide the same service. As always, Roth traveled heavy. On his weekly flight from Los Angeles to wherever the broadcast was originating, he was accompanied by several suitcases stuffed with his notebooks, charts and graphs.49 As he did all his life, his calculations were made with pencil, paper, and often internal calculation.
In the offseason, Roth attended meetings of the Los Angeles chapter of SABR, which was named after him. He’d usually speak, presenting some of his recent findings and answering questions, which often ranged far from his current work.
While spending his time providing statistical nuggets for the broadcasters, Roth continued his exploration of ways teams could use statistics to improve performance. He consulted for 20 major league teams and identified Joe Morgan as the league’s most valuable player long before voters did.50 Harking back to his early talks with Branch Rickey, Roth focused on Morgan’s on-base percentage, power, and stolen base success. In a discussion with the San Francisco Giants, he made a case that the tactic of guarding the lines late in games wasn’t as effective as believed. The Giants changed their practices.51
Ill health forced Roth to retire in the late 1980s and he died of a heart attack in Brotman Hospital in Culver City on March 3, 1992.
Roth was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010. “He was the guy who began it all,” said Bill James. “He took statisticians into a brave new world.”
ANDY McCUE has been a SABR member since 1982, winning the Bob Davids Award in 2007. He served on SABR’s board for nine years, finishing with a term as president in 2009–11. He won the SABR-Macmillan Award for “Baseball by the Books: A History and Bibliography of Baseball Fiction” and the Doug Pappas Award for a presentation on Dodgers ownership. His biography of Walter O’Malley, “Mover and Shaker,” was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2014.
1 Alan Schwarz. The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004), 55.
2 Immigration and family information courtesy of Alan Greenberg of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Montreal. Much of the material about his youth is contained in biographical handouts produced when Roth was with the Dodgers and included in his papers, which are housed at Case Western Reserve University. C. David Stephan and volunteers such as Chuck Carey and Sam James, who preserved the papers after Roth’s death. Thanks to Alain Usereau for pointing me to the Genealogical Society.
3 Roth to Edward Staples, Brooklyn Baseball Club, April 4, 1944, Allan Roth papers.
4 Roth to Edward Staples, Brooklyn Baseball Club, April 4, 1944, Allan Roth papers.
5 Schwarz, The Numbers Game, 56.
6 L.S. MacPhail to Roth, December 19, 1940 and June 6, 1941. Roth to L.S. MacPhail, Aug. 4, 1941, Roth papers.
7 Roth to Staples.
8 Roth to Staples.
9 Harold C. Burr, “Dull Statistics Alive Under Magic Roth Touch,” Brooklyn Eagle, January 11, 1953.
10 Burr, and Harold Rosenthal, ed., “The Statistician,” in Baseball is Their Business (New York: Random House, 1952), 140.
11 Branch Rickey, Memo, April 23, 1947, Branch Rickey papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Also, Murray Polner, Branch Rickey (New York: Atheneum, 1982), 210. Interestingly, in his letter to Staples, Roth had proposed a salary of $30 a week, or $1,560 annually.
12 Rosenthal, ed., Baseball is Their Business, 139.
13 Roth to MacPhail, August 4, 1941, Roth papers.
14 Los Angeles Mirror News, July 21, 1959; Los Angeles Times, August 11, 1963.
15 New York Times, February 19, 1961.
16 Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1958.
17 Los Angeles Times, June 28, 1960.
18 Schwarz, Numbers Game, 54-5.
19 Rosenthal, ed., Baseball is Their Business, 140.
20 The Sporting News, June 4, 1947.
21 People Today, July 2, 1952: 28 and New York Herald-Tribune, clipping in Allan Roth papers, probably from late 1952. Schwarz, Numbers Game, 57.
22 The Sporting News, November 25, 1953.
23 Schwarz, Numbers Game, 57.
24 Interview, Michael Roth (Allan’s son), March 4, 1997.
25 Schwarz, Numbers Game, 58.
26 Los Angeles Mirror News, July 21, 1959.
27 Richard Goldstein, Superstars and Screwballs (New York: Dutton, 1991), 79.
28 John Thorn and Pete Palmer, The Hidden Game of Baseball (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 42.
29 O’Malley to Roth, October 30, 1951, Roth papers.
30 Roth to O’Malley, November 1, 1951, Roth papers.
31 O’Malley to Roth, December 14, 1954, Roth papers.
32 Roth to O’Malley, December 28, 1954, Roth papers.
33 O’Malley to Roth, January 7, 1955, multiple handwritten notes, Roth papers.
34 This anecdote is contained in a three-page document in the Roth papers that is clearly a draft of an updated biosheet for Roth after the 1959 season. It is undated, and has the number 1. Centered at the top of the page followed by Roth’s name, birthdate, birthplace, and the rest of the material.
35 Rosenthal, ed., Baseball is Their Business, 137.
36 Sandy Koufax with Ed Linn, Koufax (New York: The Viking Press, 1966), 148 and Jane Leavy, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 106.
37 Walter Bingham, “Dodgers in Mufti,” Sports Illustrated, August 15, 1960: 69.
38 The Sporting News, January 30, 1957: 8.
39 The Sporting News, December 21, 1963: 10; April 18, 1964: 34; and May 2, 1964: 6.
40 Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, September 2 and September 3, 1964. Los Angeles Times, September 12, 1964.
41 Frank Graham, Jr., A Farewell to Heroes (New York: The Viking Press, 1981), 253.
42 Interview, Buzzie Bavasi, August 30, 1994.
43 The Sporting News, January 31, 1946: 15.
44 The Sporting News, January 7, 1959: 11.
45 The first appeared October 10, 1964:16 and others appeared sporadically through February 1966.
46 Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1965.
47 The Sporting News, August 27, 1966: 10.
48 Rosenthal to Roth, September 7, 1964 and December 11, 1964 in Roth papers. From the letters, it’s clear even as close a friend as Rosenthal didn’t know the real cause of Roth’s firing.
49 The Sporting News, April 18, 1970: 28.
50 The Sporting News, October 25, 1975: 3.
51 The Sporting News, January 22, 1971: 42.