Last Monday Nancy and Henry Kissinger arrived at a Manhattan restaurant at 8:10 p.m. and excitedly recounted what they had just listened to in their car: a Yankee rookie in his first major league at-bat had hit a home run off a fearsome pitcher--the Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson, who is 6 feet 10 and looks like a giant praying mantis with an attitude.
Before the Kissingers had time to examine their menus, some baseball commentators were reporting that this was the first time since 1986 that a player in his first major league at-bat had homered against a likely future Hall of Famer (Will Clark off Nolan Ryan) and the first time ever that a player homered in his first at-bat off a pitcher who the previous season won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in his league.
Who tells us such things lickety-split? The busy beavers at the Elias Sports Bureau.
On a Saturday evening last month the Devil Rays scored four runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Orioles, 6-4, thereby snapping a 15-game losing streak. The game ended just after ESPN's 10 p.m. "Baseball Tonight" went on the air. Soon Elias sent a message to reporter Tim Kurkjian on the "Baseball Tonight" set: this was the first time ever that an American League team had snapped a double-digit losing streak by scoring more than two runs in the ninth.
How do such nuggets of baseball history get mined? Here is how.
The Hirdt brothers, Steve, 51, and Peter, 48, both Fordham graduates, are the heart of Elias's batting order, which never sleeps, at least not all at once. This is a 24-hour-a-day business whose approximately 30 employees, when not in the office, are logged on and talking to one another at all hours from their homes. Elias, whose clients now include all the major professional sports leagues, was begun in 1961 by Seymour Siwoff, who is still a bundle of energy at an age he thinks is nobody's business.
Elias's business is to examine the statistical histories of the major professional sports using custom-written software that will retrieve the answers to the kind of questions Peter put to it when he returned home from dinner and saw what the Devil Rays had just done to the Orioles. Peter wondered: in baseball--sport of the long history and long seasons--has this ever happened before?
Learning from the Elias computer that it had not, Peter e-mailed the news to a researcher at the nation's central cultural institution. No, silly, not to the Library of Congress. To ESPN, an Elias client. The researcher sitting on the set of "Baseball Tonight" instantly e-mailed back: "Tim will cry when he sees this." Tim didn't. There really are thoughts too deep for tears.
Steve Hirdt says that when he and Peter were growing up they were "the only boys in New York City who, when our mother said, 'How many times do I have to ask you to clean up your room?' would tell her." A statistical literacy is part of being a fan of any sport, but is especially important to baseball fans. Big league baseball, now in its third century, produces a steadily thickening sediment of numbers, pitch by pitch, inning by inning. Elias sifts the sediment.
Today Elias is located in a building overlooking an almost-as-impressive storehouse of knowledge, the New York Public Library. But just as there was a McDonald's brothers restaurant in San Bernardino, Calif., before Ray Kroc came along and had a bright idea, there was something called Elias, a dormant sports-information bureau run by two brothers, before Siwoff had his brainstorm, while shaving one morning, about putting a (then) newfangled gadget, the computer, to work deepening our understanding and enjoyment of sports.
When Braves pitcher Tom Glavine recently went to 100 games over .500 in his career (as this is written, he is 101 over--235-134) he joined teammate Greg Maddux in that category, and it was the first time since 1908 that two teammates (the Giants' Christy Mathewson and Joe McGinnity) were at least 100 wins over .500.
The top three American League home run hitters in May were all Yankees (Jason Giambi, 10; Alfonso Soriano and Bernie Williams, nine each). This was the first time since September 1950 that three teammates had led either league in homers in a month (the Yankees' Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Mize, all now Hall of Famers).
It is incessantly said that pitchers do not pitch inside as aggressively as they did in the rough-and-tumble past. Elias says: oh? In 1941, one in every 309 batters was hit by a pitch. In 1951, one in 214. In 1971, one in 179. In 2001, one in 99. Mickey Mantle, a power hitter, was hit 13 times in his career. The Astros' Craig Biggio was hit 28 times last year. When asked if any pitcher faced both Babe Ruth and Mantle, Elias reported: Al Benton pitched against Ruth for the 1934 Philadelphia Athletics and against Mantle for the 1952 Red Sox.
Elias knows everything worth knowing.