“I was once described by a now-defunct publication as ‘the guru of statistics,’ and by Sparky Anderson as a ‘fat little guy with a beard who knows nothing about baseball.’ Actually, I’m about seven inches taller than Sparky is, but what the heck, three out of four ain’t bad, and it sure beats being described as the guru of baseball statistics.”

— Bill James,The New Historical Abstract

There are so many numbers rolling around in my head, all the time, day and night. As a baseball fan, you know what I’m talking about. If I give you a fraction, say, 39/100, that probably doesn’t mean very much to you. If I turn that into the decimal .39, it probably doesn’t mean much more.

However, if I add a pointless and valueless 0 to the end of that decimal, suddenly it’s .390, and suddenly it’s 1980, and it’s September, and George Brett is chasing .400. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan are battling for the oval office, but in Kansas City, the No. 1 bumper sticker says, “George Brett for President.” It has been the hottest summer anyone could remember, and Brett has stayed hot throughout, three hits one day, two hits the next, four hits, line drives in the gap, scorching grounders skimming the artificial turf like stones on a river, nobody on earth can throw a fastball by him.

Or, how about another fraction, say, 196/175? Well, wait, can you reduce that fraction? Hmm, let’s see, you can’t divide it by two or three or four. Doesn’t go into 5. Oh, wait, is this one of those trick ones where the numerator and denominator can be divided by seven? Yep, those evil math teachers.

OK, so reduced all the way down, it’s 28/25. So what?

Maybe if we turn it into a decimal… how do we do that again? Oh, right, there are lots of ways, you know, uh, let’s do some long division, haven’t done long division in a while, OK, 1, we carry over the 3, that’s 1, uh, OK, you know what, never mind, let’s get the calculator and the answer is…

**1.12!**

And now it’s 1968, and that’s Bob Gibson on the mound, and he’s staring down the hitter—he claims that this is because he’s not wearing his glasses, but we know better—and he goes into that windup, and he suddenly looks like he’s 20 feet tall, and the ball is by the hitter before he can blink.

Numbers fill the mind—262 and 5,714 and 1,815 and 6,856 and 3 and 191 and 511 and 4,256 and 130 and *762,* though that last one, for some reason, feels like a bit off, a number that doesn’t quite seem as straight as the others.

If you’re like me, you’re looking over those numbers right now and connecting them to a moment, to a player, to an era, and or at least trying to, and if you can solve the magic eye, you see the most wonderful things, you see Ichiro chopping an infield single over a third baseman’s head and Nolan throwing a high fastball that climbs like the Empire State building elevator and The Man churning out excellence every day, whether home or on the road, and King Henry crushing balls into the gap, and the Babe running pigeon-toed around the bases and Hack driving in three with a blast and Cyclone in his dirty wool uniform finishing another one and Pete diving head first into a base and Rickey doing what Rickey does and Barry hitting another ball into the bay.

See, this is what Bill James means when he talks about not caring one whit about statistics. It isn’t the numbers. It’s never the numbers.

And *that* is the thing we miss so often. We miss the forest for the trees? No. We miss the magic for the number.

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There are, at this exact moment, 270 player plaques in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Soon, there will be three more—Adrián Beltré, Todd Helton and Joe Mauer—but right now, there are 270 of them.

I decided to rank the plaques from No. 270 to No. 1.

Well, technically, I didn’t *decide* anything. I started looking at the Hall of Fame plaques in a casual way, because a Brilliant Reader wondered how many of them refer to a single event. For example, Pete Alexander’s plaque refers specifically to the moment when he struck out Tony Lazzeri in the 1926 World Series. For me, this was only meant to be an afternoon project.

But that afternoon happened to be when MLB announced that it would incorporate the most up-to-date Negro leagues statistics into the official record. Overnight, Josh Gibson had become the all-time leader in career batting average and slugging percentage.

Overnight, the modern top seven in single-season batting average went from this…

Rogers Hornby, 1924, .424

Nap Lajoie, 1901, .421

George Sisler, 1922, .420

Ty Cobb, 1911, .420

Ty Cobb, 1912, .410

Joe Jackson, 1911, .408

Ted Williams, 1941, .406

To this…

Josh Gibson, 1943, .466

Charlie Smith, 1929, .451

Oscar Charleston, 1921, .434

Charlie Blackwell, 1921, .432

Oscar Charleston, 1925, .427

Mule Suttles, 1926, .425

Rogers Hornsby, 1924, .424

Opinions flew all across the baseball universe. Some loved what was happening, some loathed it, many felt a plethora of mixed emotions, and all the while my phone was blowing up, interview requests, radio show requests, friends and acquaintances and people I’d met a time or two calling and texting and emailing wanting to know: How did I, as Buck O’Neil’s friend and a devotee of the Negro leagues AND baseball statistics AND the wonder of history, feel about all this?

And I suddenly realized that my best answer to that complicated question might just be in the 270 plaques in the plaque room of the Baseball Hall of Fame….

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