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Just the Factoids, Ma'am
Steve Rushin
December 12, 2005
Sports trivia is one of those phrases, like tuna fish or armed gunman, whose redundancy goes unnoticed. Sports are inherently trivial, which makes sports trivia doubly trifling, the toy department within the toy department. It is of no consequence that Gaylord and Jim Perry, for five days in September 1975, had identical career pitching records of 215--174. So why did I commit that fact to memory? And why are you now doing the same?
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December 12, 2005

Just The Factoids, Ma'am

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Sports trivia is one of those phrases, like tuna fish or armed gunman, whose redundancy goes unnoticed. Sports are inherently trivial, which makes sports trivia doubly trifling, the toy department within the toy department. It is of no consequence that Gaylord and Jim Perry, for five days in September 1975, had identical career pitching records of 215--174. So why did I commit that fact to memory? And why are you now doing the same?

It was Ken Jennings who said, "Even the most trivial-sounding trivia can bring us joy." (To say nothing of wealth: He won $2.5 million on Jeopardy!) And he's right. There is a blissful perfection in the nickname of obscure St. Louis Browns pitcher Emil (Hill Billy) Bildilli.

And so last week I locked myself in a very small room full of very large books--the aptly named The Big Book of Hockey Trivia is as big as Moby-Dick, and nearly as violent--and indulged in an orgy of sports trivia.

Like the lifer who reads the entire law library in prison, I spent four solitary days devouring sports reference books. My goal was to become the world's worst-rounded person--the opposite of a Renaissance Man--or die trying. As sportswriter deaths go, it could be worse. Phil Klusman of the Bakersfield Californian was killed by a wayward hammer throw while covering the 1986 Division II track championships, earning him a heartbreaking entry in The Ultimate Book of Sports Lists. Such tragedy is anything but trivial. But sports trivia glosses everything in the same factoidal veneer, births and deaths included. Indeed, three Cooperstown enshrinees died on their birthdays, the ultimate baseball round-tripper.

I am the shut-in who devours every Penguin Classic, from Austen to Zola, except that my knowledge extends from Acapulco to Zernial. When a singer performed the national anthem at a Cubs game without musical accompaniment, announcer Jack Brickhouse said he sang it " Acapulco." Gus Zernial is second on the alltime career home run list among players whose surnames begin with Z. There has never been a big leaguer whose surname started with X. Joe Xavier did rise to Triple A in the Brewers' system in 1989 but never made it to his major league Xanadu.

Clearly, I've become the guy to avoid at parties. (Sports trivia is an anagram of trap visitors.) I won't hesitate to tell you that Eddie Shore's 978 career stitches are the most in NHL history--his face must have resembled a needlepoint sampler--and that Ilya Kovalchuk lost nine teeth in the 2001-02 season alone, though none of those losses were hockey-related: Four were pulled wisdom teeth and five were rotten, which is exceedingly strange when you consider that his mother is a dental hygienist.

Some of this knowledge ought to be part of the national curriculum. Every American schoolkid should know which player has the highest career batting average (minimum 75 at bats) in major league history. But much of what I learned is antiknowledge, displacing useful information in my brain. Lee May, Nellie Fox and Mel Ott are the answer to a trivia question so trivial that I've already forgotten it: Name three players with three-letter last names who hit .300 in a season, perhaps?

Read enough sports trivia and you begin to trivialize the whole of human history. Consider: Jazz coach Frank Layden fined holdout Adrian Dantley 30 pieces of silver for "betrayal," a fine paid, ingeniously, with 30 dimes. That is now all that I know of the New Testament.

But it's enough. I've distilled history to its essential elements. Checkmate is from the Arabic shah mat: "Your king is dead." The BBC radio listings used to carry a diagram of a soccer pitch divided into eight squares to help listeners better visualize the action. And so a back pass to the goalkeeper took a team "back to square one," a possible origin of that phrase. And the plus fours that Payne Stewart favored have four inches of fabric below the knees. ( NBA shorts, by this definition, might more aptly be called plus 12s.)

I learned those etymologies from a strange book called Schott's Sporting, Gaming & Idling Miscellany, filled with manifold celebrations of time-wasting. Author Ben Schott quotes James Thurber: "It is better to have loafed and lost than never to have loafed at all." After four days of my idler's idyll, I was quoting Hamlet: "Yea, from the table of my memory I'll wipe away all trivial fond records." But I can't.

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