It may come as a surprise, but Bob Ryan’s greatest sports love was (and remains) baseball, not basketball.
“Baseball, and I believe this, is the best game,” Ryan asserted in a recent interview.
The longtime sportswriter — who formally retired as a Boston Globe columnist in 2012 but remains very active — is known for decades of Celtics coverage. He began on the Celtics beat in 1969 and has written seven books about basketball.
Yet it was actually Ryan’s singular year on the Red Sox beat that launched a personal tradition that’s now become his 15th book, the newly-released “In Scoring Position: 40 Years of a Baseball Love Affair.”
“I was put on the Red Sox beat in 1977. I was very excited about it,” Ryan recalled. “I had covered basketball for seven years and loved it, but my heart was always first in baseball and there was a great opportunity. And so I was very excited and I started keeping score religiously.”
Baseball scorekeeping in a notebook is a practice that dates back to the 19th century. Over the decades, it became a popular way for analysts or more serious fans to keep track of the game. For Ryan, it became an almost unbroken habit.
“I can truthfully say that maybe with one or two exceptions — one I know was a Cape Cod League game, which I regretted not scoring — that I have kept score at every baseball game I have attended at every level since the beginning of the ‘ 77 season,” he explained.
In total, Ryan’s new book draws from more than 1,500 games spanning 44 years compiled in his personal scorebooks. Co-written with fellow writer and baseball researcher Bill Chuck, it jumps through decades of the game’s history, seen through the prism of Ryan’s scorebook from that day.
As might be expected, most of the box scores are Red Sox-related. But the original scorebooks also include many other MLB games, Olympic softball and baseball, and one college baseball game in 1984 that Ryan attended casually while taking a break from covering the NBA Western Conferences Finals (it was played between North Carolina and Arizona State, and included a then-promising outfielder named Barry Bonds).
The process of writing, normally an intense and demanding experience for even a veteran of Ryan’s experience, was easier this time around.
“This was pure fun,” Ryan said of putting the book together. “It was easy to write. The only hard part was deciding who makes the cut.”
Only a select few of the box scores made it from his scorebook into the newly published book, but each one comes attached with fascinating personal anecdotes.
Ryan has had multiple players sign his scorebook over the years, including Reggie Jackson (“Reggie and I had a good relationship for some odd reason”) and former White Sox pitcher Joe Cowley, who Ryan saw throw a no-hitter while watching future Red Sox playoff opponent Angels in Sept. 1986.
“He threw the ugliest no-hitter you’ll ever see,” Ryan recalled, noting Cowley walked seven batters and threw the same number of strikes as balls, even allowing an (unearned) run on a sacrifice fly hit by Jackson. Still, Ryan had Cowley sign the scorecard. The surprising twist: Cowley, then 28, didn’t win again in 1986, and went 0-4 in 1987 before being released by the Phillies and never pitching again.
“So as it turns out,” Ryan noted, “that was the last game he ever won in the Major Leagues.”
Ryan admitted that the book is maybe “not for the casual fan.”
“This is a niche book there ever was one, I’ll be honest about that,” he acknowledged. But with each section, readers with an eye for detail will find the pages of baseball history brought to life through the eyes (and notations) of Ryan’s scorekeeping.
“It keeps you in the game,” Ryan said of why he still keeps score. And, as he noted in the book’s introduction. “Because it’s fun. That’s why.”
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