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NOTE: What follows is a true story; at least, it was true when written in 1971. But much has changed since then.

Every spring I do something my wife thinks is weird. Weirder than my appreciation of Harry Nilsson's music. Weirder than my devotion to Syracuse University football and basketball. Weirder than my fondness for applesauce sandwiches. Even weirder than taste in my vacation destinations. (See Sandy Pond.)

It's how I can't get along without the latest edition of "Who's Who in Baseball", my idea of the perfect summer book.

While others prefer a light mystery or a steamy romance novel, I'm absorbed by the cold numbers of Rico Carty's lifetime batting average. (The Who's Who contains endless statistics – plus photos, the cover proclaims – of more than 610 major league players.)

I do this because I'm honestly more interested in the fact Billy Conigliaro hit 13 home runs and drove in 81 runs for Louisville in 1960 than I am in what a psychologist has to say about human sexual response.

I've never analyzed why I enjoy these statistics – did you know Russ Snyder hit .432 during his first season in pro ball? – and I resent those who have.

All I know is there is something fascinating about any publication that so coldly documents a man's performance in his profession. I shudder to think what would happen if journalism had such a book:

Major, John Stanley.
Born: May 28, 1938. Height: 6 feet, 3 inches. Weight: 208 pounds.
Writes: right-handed.
Types: By touch, two-handed.
1970 record: 104 columns written, 34 factual errors, 29 typographical errors allowed, 16 misspelled words.
ERA (erroneous reporting average): 3.97.


But I must be one of very few people who finds it fascinating because I always have a difficult time locating the Who's Who, and after what I went through this year, I don't know if I'll bother again next year.

Few stores sell such books anymore. ("Do you carry the Who's Who in Baseball?" "Sure, fella, but we're all sold out ... it's the hottest thing we've carried since The Scenic Wonders of Erie, Pa.")

I had just about given up home of finding the 1971 edition until I happened to be walking past a . . . well, I guess you'd call it a magazine store in downtown Providence. I don't usually glance in its widow because it's the kind of place you wouldn't glance into for fear one of your friends would see you and say, "Ah hah! You're glancing in that window!"

But last week I did happen to glance . . . and noticed right away the distinctive red cover and black and white photos that are a trademark of the good ol' Who's Who.

I HESITATED before entering because I had to look around to see if anyone I knew was in the vicinity (if so, I'd sneak back later). Luck was with me. So I walked in and quickly grabbed a copy off the shelf. It was so close to the window and I had been in such a hurry that I really hadn't had a chance to notice other publications being sold. But when I turned and headed for the cash register, I had my chance. And I couldn't help but notice.

You don't know how ridiculous you can feel until you find yourself surrounded by photos of bare breasts and simulated sex acts (on magazines with names like Orgy, Superstud, Playing Around, etc.) and you're standing there with a copy of Who's Who in Baseball.

(My childhood had its share of similar experiences. Most of the boys in my neighborhood were at least two years older, so I was the only one who would excuse himself from a Saturday morning basketball game to go home to listen to "Let's Pretend" on the radio. I still remember the sponsor's jingle: "Cream of Wheat is so good to eat, yes, we have it every day! We sing this song, it will make us strong, and it makes us shout hooray!")

So I stepped forward and handed 75 cents to a fellow with a smirk on his face. I turned to leave, but he stopped me.

"Here, let me put that in a plain white wrapper," he said. "I'd hate to have anyone see you leaving here with that thing. It might give my place a bad name."

AS I SAID, much has changed. For one thing, the cost of the Who's Who in Baseball skyrocketed higher than the price of gasoline. The last edition I purchased was in 2005. It was a force-of-habit purchase that cost me $9.95.

Now you can find better and more current statistics online. Trouble is, there are far too many sports statistics these days, not only in baseball. Football, which several years ago replaced baseball as our most popular sport — yes, I am ignoring NASCAR because of its hypnotic monotony and sheer stupidity — has developed an incredible number of pointless stats, with "time of possession" at the top of my "you've got to be kidding" list.

Baseball has kept pace in the statistics department, thanks to a guy named Bill James. I read one of his books a few years ago, and much of it was entertaining, but he developed something called "win shares" in order to rate players. I was either too stupid or too stubborn to master the concept, deciding James simply was looking for justification for belittling the career of George Sisler, one of the best hitters and best first basemen who ever lived.

However, for a man with a lifetime .340 batting average (who in two seasons hit over .400), Sisler did not draw as many bases on balls, score or drive in as many runs as he should have . . . according to Bill James.

ANYWAY, I take responsibility for this explosion in sports statistics. I do this because of my belief in the curse of "Be careful what you wish for." Yes, during all those years I purchased Who's Who in Baseball I kept wishing for more statistics. More, more, more.

Oh, the young me was a hopeless statistics addict. When I was in high school I approached our football coach, Stanley Kishman, and offered to keep statistics for every game. He looked at me like I was crazy. He was interested in only one statistic — the final score.

But I wanted to know our quarterback's pass completion percentage, how many yards he accounted for; I wanted to know how many rushing yards my friend Bob Ranalli had each game, and if Solvay outgained their opponents.

So Coach Kishman said okay, but he never once asked me to show him the stats. (Because if he had I would have showed him that his team wasn't passing nearly enough.)

Now every football team on every level has statistics up the wazoo. But as Stanley Kishman knew 60 years ago, there's still only one statistic that really matters.

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