Jim & Bob's Palatial Baseball Blog

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Jerome Holtzman

Chicago sportswriting legend Jerome Holtzman died yesterday.

Those of you of a certain age (say, about my age and older) who grew up in a certain area (say, the greater Chicago metropolitan area) will certainly remember Holtzman, one of the finest journalists to work in Chicago. I grew up reading his stuff, and it was a sad day for all when he retired from the newspaper grind (to be replaced as the Trib's baseball writer by [shudder] the estimable Dr. Phil).

Anyway, his daily columns were a joy to read. I was blessed to be in the right time and place to read at least some of his work before he died.

For those folks who weren't in that right time and place, Holtzman is probably best remembered for two things.

First is the piece in Bill James' The Baseball Book 1991. On page 375 (and I know because I have a copy open on my desk right now), James (perhaps a bit too antagonistically) penned an essay titled "Jerome Holtzman Has a Cow."

The cow-birthing involved some minor corrections made to the eighth edition of Macmillan's Baseball Encyclopedia. As hard as it might be for some of you kids to understand, back in the day stats and records were kept by hand, not on Excel, and occassionally errors would creep into the records. The only way to make sure you were right would be to go through all the box scores and and it up. Again, by hand.

Anyway, here's how James described the situation:

When they were putting together the book, the editors of the new Macmillan undertook to rectify some errors in the old stats. Honus Wagner had previously been credited with 3,430 career hits, but Macmillan decided that the actual total was only 3,418. Larry Lajoie, credited with 3,251 hits, was pared back to 3,244.

Well, Jerome Holtzman just about sht in his pants.

In the June 10 issue of the Chicago Tribune, Holtzman wrote that the editors were "tampering with baseball's most sacred and trusted text." Wagner and Lajoie, said Holtzman "have been the civtims of a statistcal grave robbery," which he compared to "a baseball Watergate."

Uhhh...yeah. Not one of Jerome's finer moments. Holtzman doesn't get much more rational in the rest of the piece (I just dug it out of my archives).

Just for the record, baseballreference.com lists Wagner with 3,415 hits and Lajoie with 3,242. No word on what Holtzman thought of that, at least that I saw.

On a similar topic, when those damned grave robbers found another RBI for Hack Wilson, raising his record-setting 1930 total to 191, it was officially okee-dokee with Holtzman. Guess it just goes to show that everyone can get goofy about something...

The second thing Holtzman is famous for, of course, is the creation of the save. Few people can say that they single-handedly changed how the game is played, but Holtzman did with the save.

Thanks to Holtzman, we're now treated to the sixty-five inning closer. The guy who comes in only in the ninth inning and only with a lead of three runs or fewer.

And we're also subjected to the usual round of gibbering about the importance of "proven" closers and how important it is to find the guy who's mentally tough enough to protect that three-run, ninth inning lead.

I think it just goes to show how smart Holtzman was that even he had some second thoughts about the value of the save:

"The reality is, he revolutionized baseball," former Sun-Times columnist Bill Gleason said. "He glamorized the relief pitcher, who was just another guy before [the save rule]. Jerome said not long ago that he was sorry he'd come up with the concept, that it wasn't necessary. But there was no need to apologize. If there were more people who thought like Jerome Holtzman, the newspaper business would be in better shape."

Holtzman was right -- saves aren't necessary.

And Gleason (a terrific writer in his own right) was right -- the newspaper business would be in better shape if we had a few more like Jerome Holtzman. Our condolences to his family and friends. We will all miss him.

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