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Leonard Koppett’s “The Thinking Man’s Guide to Baseball”

Summer 2017 marks the 50th Anniversary of Leonard Koppett’s groundbreaking book, “The Thinking Man’s Guide to Baseball.” In this essay Dave Kaplan describes Koppett’s influence on baseball from the press box and how his writing introduced analysis to the game both on and off the field.

By Dave Kaplan, June 28, 2017
“The Thinking Man’s Guide to Baseball” is just one of 15 books authored by Leonard Koppett.
Courtesy of Dave Kaplan

Before the age of sabremetrics, which spawned new statistics and the current high-tech Statcast Era of exit velocities, catch probabilities, and launch angles, there was a cultured and scholarly sportswriter who analyzed every aspect of baseball, on and off the field, enriching his readers with his astute and brilliant observations for over six decades.

So it seems important today to re-appreciate the genius of Leonard Koppett. If data-driven advances are the rage in baseball, and statistics are the lifeblood of the sport, Koppett was ahead of his time, a pre-Internet pioneer of analytics. He used uncommon statistics in his baseball stories and columns not to explain what happened, but why it happened.

Yet shortly before he died in 2003, Koppett warned that “the excessive use of statistics, if not checked, may turn out to be a fatal malady.”

It’s hard to argue with such a sophisticated thinker and graceful writer. Koppett was the only sportswriter to be inducted into the writers wing of both the baseball and basketball Halls of Fame. He authored 17 books. He graduated from Columbia and taught at Stanford. He was a connoisseur of art, classical music, and theater, and he even produced the musical numbers in the annual New York baseball writers dinner.

He was a roly-poly man who wore a three-piece suit to the ballpark, an ebullient eyewitness to the game’s significant changes and moments. And his brilliant observations will not be easily forgotten.

“Lenny lived an intellectual life and I loved to listen to him talk about almost anything,” recalled George Vecsey, who met Koppett when he started at Newsday, then joined him at the New York Times in the late 1960s. “He was so smart about baseball and basketball to us younger guys; he was a teacher, a mentor, a rabbi. Coming up I was one of the Chipmunks (a group of young New York sportswriters who liked to jabber in the press box), but Lenny wasn’t really part of that pack—he called himself a Badger.”

Koppett made unorthodox use of statistics in his articles for three main New York dailies—the Post, the Times, and the Herald Tribune, where he started on the baseball beat in 1948. He moved to the West Coast in the 1970s, where he continued writing for several dailies and was a columnist for The Sporting News from 1965 to 1984.

Koppett’s stories often had a light and whimsical touch, but his fondness for figures didn’t always resonate. When Jimmy Cannon, perhaps the most distinctive sportswriter of his time, saw Koppett leaving the Yankee Stadium press box with his trusty satchel, he famously asked, “What’s in your briefcase, Lenny, decimal points?”

Truth is, Koppett brought into the mainstream what Allan Roth, baseball’s first statistician, brought to the Brooklyn Dodgers front office in 1947. And he was a welcome source of analysis before Bill James revolutionized the use of statistics in evaluating players.

Koppett was one of the first writers to use statistics in his articles. He had a way to analyze the game and bring a new perspective to it. 
Courtesy of Dave Kaplan

Koppett took accepted baseball wisdom and found ways to analyze it as if it was true. Never preachy or pretentious, he challenged people to see baseball from different perspectives—and the historical implications.

As Marty Lurie, who often had Koppett as a guest on his Oakland radio show, remembered, “He would compare how many home runs were hit in the 1930s with the kind of ball they used, and how they changed the height of the mound in the ’40s and ’50s. He really broke it apart and was great at comparing the eras.”

Koppett always saw baseball as more than bats and balls. He looked at the big picture, delving into the game’s social and economic issues.

He did become an early member of SABR, but he wasn’t exactly a cheerleader of advanced metrics. “The Bill James approach of cloaking totally subjective views (to which he is entirely entitled) as some sort of ‘statistical evidence’ is divorced from reality,” he wrote. “The game simply isn’t played that way, and his judgments are no more nor less accurate than anyone else’s.”

Koppett also disdained USA Today’s stat-laden expanded box scores in the early 1980s. He feared the oncoming data revolution might be going too far and expounded on it in his last book, The Rise and Fall of the Press Box.

Perhaps Koppett’s true genius was his lively ability to understand and interpret baseball better than anyone. Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball, written in 1999, exemplifies that talent.

Yet in bringing a new level of awareness of the sport to fans, his most enlightened work remains A Thinking Man’s Guide to Baseball, which was published 50 years ago this summer.

Until then, no baseball book had such an insider’s grasp of the game, especially behind the scenes. It was borne from Koppett’s work on the beat in more innocent times, well before salaries resembled a Pentagon budget, when writers intimately got to know the players, team officials, and owners.

Unlike The Glory of Their Times—the firsthand accounts of baseball in the early days written by Koppett’s good friend Lawrence Ritter a year earlier in 1966—A Thinking Man’s Guide to Baseball is not remembered as classic baseball literature. But it did educate and rock the way people viewed the sport, as Koppett told readers what goes on in the dugout and what a manager really does. He provided insights into the game’s biggest personalities and “why not one fan in a thousand has any clear idea of baseball’s financial structure” (ironically, the players union was just being forged and would change the construction of the game forever). The book is an in-depth picture of the National Pastime as it existed in the mid-1960s, when the sport was gradually losing appeal to football.

Certainly the original publication is quaintly outdated (the average salary in baseball then was $15,000). But it has been revised twice by John Thorn—a former publisher and now baseball’s official historian—most recently in 2001. The title was subsequently changed to the gender neutral The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball.

Glenn Stout, an author and series editor of The Best American Sports Writing, says Koppett may not have been the first sportswriter to take an analytical look at the game. But his work carried sway through “the big forum of the New York papers and, just as important, a very influential column in The Sporting News when that still mattered.” 

“He was probably the guy that sparked a whole generation to begin to ask questions about why and how things happened in the game, stuff that seems pretty simple and obvious now, but weren’t much looked at before, or at least weren’t given much of a forum,” Stout said. “Moreover, the Thinking Man’s Guide identified a market for this kind of approach, which allowed others to probe into those questions further—that’s almost as important as anything actually in the book. So if not truly a seminal figure nevertheless he was certainly a key figure in moving sports writing away from just a re-telling of the game, but to place it in context, both in terms of what happened on the field and in terms of how what took place behind the scenes impacted the game.”

Koppett’s A Thinking Man’s Guide also created a lasting impression on a 14-year-old baseball-loving kid named Andy Kozinn, son of a venerable New York tailor. When Kozinn eventually took over his father’s business, he believed that men would enjoy shopping for clothes more if they truly understood the product. To this day, Kozinn+Sons Merchant Tailors refer to themselves as “A Thinking Man’s Tailor,” as Kozinn says he was inspired by Koppett’s “unprecedented editorial approach to what at that time was strictly a blue-collar sport. His writing style was eloquent, scholarly and with the touch of a connoisseur.”

I also grew up reading Leonard Koppett and was fortunate to develop a friendship over the phone when he was in his late 70s. He was living in Palo Alto, California, and I was helping establish the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in New Jersey. His health wasn’t the best, but he was still jovial and eager to visit the museum and his old friend Yogi. He made a special point to do so during a brief trip to the city in the spring of 2000.

As I picked him up at his Brooklyn hotel, Koppett regaled me with stories of his early life. He was born in Moscow; his father was in the herring business and left Russia during Stalin’s rise to power. This was 1928, and Koppett was five. The family moved to E. 157th Street—one block from Yankee Stadium—and Leonard admitted to a sheltered childhood of reading, writing, and playing the piano.

Yet he did get to see John McGraw’s Giants at the Polo Grounds and Babe Ruth and the Yankees at the Stadium, and so began his Americanization. Later, his family moved to Brooklyn, and he attended games at Ebbets Field.

He was not an athletic kid, but he loved the game. He said he loved to read the newspaper stories about it, and it dawned on him that by writing for a newspaper, he could make a living out of watching ball games.

Although I knew Leonard Koppett too briefly—he died three years later at age 79—it was evident he lived a happy and fulfilling life. He had a passion for journalism and sports and got to do what he loved, explaining to people what was happening, and how to understand it better.

Leonard Koppett (second from left) and fellow Baseball Writer Association member Jack Lang, along with broadcaster Ralph Kiner, presented 1965 post-season MVP Sandy Koufax with his second Babe Ruth Award. Koppett was the 1992 winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for his work in baseball.

 

 

 

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Nice to see some appreciation for a writer who IMO is right up there with Roger Angell and Bill James. Too bad he seems to have faded from our collective memory.

Andy Moursund

posted 07.01.2017