Long Reads: Allan Roth: The story of the Canadian who was MLB’s first team statistician

Allan Roth (Montreal, Que.) calculated baseball statistics in his office before computers. Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame

By Kevin Glew

Cooperstowners in Canada

Before Bill James, Sabermetrics and FanGraphs, one determined Canadian helped start it all.

Allan Roth was a 26-year-old former tie and suspenders salesman from Montreal, who had a passion for baseball statistics, when he ventured to Brooklyn to attempt to meet up with Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey in April 1944.

According to Roth’s son, Michael, his dad had sent a letter to Rickey that outlined how his statistical expertise could help the Dodgers and he was advised to come to Brooklyn to discuss this further.

“I remember my dad telling me how he originally took the train to Brooklyn and had a room in a small hotel and was waiting a number of days in Brooklyn because Rickey was in Bear Mountain (N.Y., home of the Dodgers’ spring training),” recalled Michael in a 2019 phone interview. “My memory is a bit fuzzy on the chronology because he told me this a long time ago, but I think finally when Rickey didn’t return to Brooklyn, my dad decided to go to Bear Mountain.”

In Bear Mountain, Roth managed to track down Rickey in a restaurant. That initial get-together was disappointing for the persistent Canadian. Roth had to compete with a host of distractions as he tried to persuade the venerable exec that hiring a statistician would benefit his club.

“I think Rickey initially saw my dad as just some guy with another project,” said Michael.

Near the end of the meeting, sensing that Rickey was not swayed, Roth told Rickey that he felt that he wasn’t receiving the GM’s undivided attention. Perhaps feeling badly for Roth, Rickey told him to prepare a detailed proposal and send it to his assistant Ed Staples.

Roth agreed and the proposal he later submitted suggested that the Dodgers hire him to tabulate then revolutionary stats like how players batted with runners in scoring position and how they fared against left-handed or right-handed pitchers. Rickey was impressed and it earned Roth another meeting.

According to a SABR profile written by Andy McCue, Roth bonded with Rickey over the runs batted in stat at the second get-together. Both men agreed that it was overrated and Roth suggested that the percentage of RBI chances converted by a hitter provided a more accurate assessment of their worth. Roth later said this conversation was a key reason Rickey offered him a job.

Unfortunately, due to the Second World War, in which Roth served briefly in an administrative role for the Canadian Army, the ambitious statistician could not get a visa to work in the U.S. until 1947. But when he did finally report to the Dodgers, Roth became the first statistician ever hired by a major league team.

Securing the job was a triumph for the Canadian. He was now working in a field he was truly passionate about. It was also a position that his parents couldn’t have fathomed for him and likely never truly understood.

Roth was the middle child of Nathan and Rose Roth who had immigrated to Canada from Central and Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century. Roth also had an older brother, Max, and a younger sister, Sylvia.

Roth, whose father was a tailor and at one point a factory foreman, exhibited his proficiency in math at a young age. Alan Schwarz details in his 2004 book, The Numbers Game, that Roth could count backwards from 100 by twos by age 3.

“When I went to school in Montreal, mathematics was my favourite study,” Roth told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in a profile about him that was published in 1953.

By his early teens, Roth was keeping his own statistics on the Montreal Royals, his hometown International League squad, while attending high school at Strathcona Academy. He was a strong student who also played several sports, particularly excelling in football. After he graduated, he was accepted to McGill University, but he did not attend, instead taking various sales jobs to help support his family. The SABR profile about Roth suggests this was a financial decision. According to that profile, his brother, Max, was attending McGill and the family couldn’t afford another college student.

So Roth set off to make a name for himself as a salesman, but he never lost his passion for sports statistics. In 1940, he married his wife, Esther, and the couple would have two children, Andrea and Michael.

While working in sales, Roth reportedly penned multiple letters trumpeting the benefits of baseball statistics to Brooklyn Dodgers president Larry MacPhail before he managed to secure a meeting with MacPhail in a Montreal hotel in 1941, but he could not convince the Dodgers executive to hire him.

With MacPhail’s indifference, Roth focused on hockey statistics and he dazzled NHL president Frank Calder enough to convince the esteemed exec to hire him as the league’s official statistician in 1941. Unfortunately, as reported in his SABR profile, his work there was interrupted when he was drafted into the Canadian Army.

While in the Army, he served in a recordkeeping capacity, before he was discharged due to his mild epilepsy. His son, Michael, can’t recall this condition being much of an issue for his dad throughout his life.

Once Roth was out of the Army, he was hired to maintain statistics for the Montreal Canadiens.

“I had three jobs – club records, league records and writing a hockey article for a Montreal weekly,” Roth recalled in a 1953 interview with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

But even though he was working for a historic hockey club, Roth still felt that his expertise was best suited for baseball. And fortunately for him, two years after his unsuccessful meeting with MacPhail, the Dodgers hired the progressive thinking Rickey.

“I was always a fan of baseball and I thought baseball offered me more of a chance to spread myself, so I got in touch with Mr. Rickey,” Roth told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1953.

As noted earlier, Roth eventually won over Rickey and was hired full-time for a $5,000 annual salary. Roth’s son, Michael, says the original agreement was for the club to try out Roth in this position for a year.

Roth reported for his job with the Dodgers within days of when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s colour barrier with the club in April 1947. Starting on Opening Day that year, the ambitious Canadian charted almost every pitch thrown by a Dodgers pitcher for the next 18 seasons.

Sharply dressed in a suit jacket and tie and armed with several sharpened pencils, sheets of graph paper and index cards, Roth could be found seated just left of the Dodgers’ dugout at Ebbets Field during home games, and he didn’t miss a pitch. In fact, he was so devoted to his craft that he avoided drinking water so he wouldn’t have to take a washroom break. When certain matchups arose over the course of a game, Roth would sometimes pass an index card with statistical information on it to the Dodgers manager.

“At a ball game, practically everyone in the park, even the manager, can relax for a moment,” Roth wrote in a chapter for a book called Baseball is their Business that was published in 1952. “The statistician is the exception. I can’t go out to buy a hot dog, or get a drink, and I’d better not blow my nose while the pitcher is on the mound.”

Needless to say, the job took tremendous focus and discipline and Roth worked seven days a week during the season. After each game, he’d generally dedicate at least five more hours to compiling the information into various ledgers.

“That old crack attributed to an umpire of another era, ‘You can’t beat the hours,’ does not apply to a baseball statistician, at least not to the man whose sole duty is toward one club. You work year ‘round and during the season you work seven days a week. You don’t knock off when the whistle blows or when the clock’s hands get to around 5 p.m.,” wrote Roth of his job.

Allan Roth compiled his statistics before computers, hence his cluttered desk. Photo: SABR

Keep in mind that Roth did all of his work before computers, his calculations were made by hand and his routine included meticulously entering many of his stats into three separate spread sheets. This resulted in a huge archive of paper files that had to be transported to Los Angeles when the Dodgers moved there after the 1957 season.

“Baseball is a game of percentages,” Roth once quipped. “I try to find the actual percentage.”

During this era, most baseball executives and managers had little use for statistics and many opposing teams were baffled by Roth’s consistent presence at Ebbets Field. One publication called him a “spy,” while others deemed him the Dodgers’ secret weapon. The latter description seems more apt; in Roth’s 18 seasons with the Dodgers, the club finished first or second in the National League 14 times and by the end of his tenure with the club, Roth was the proud owner of three World Series rings (1955, 1959 and 1963).

Roth is credited with inventing some of the game’s most well-known statistics, including the save and on-base percentage. He has also been deemed to be the first to monitor pitch counts, to create spray charts and to concoct a formula to monitor a player’s isolated power.

With this said, Roth was not your typical stats geek. He didn’t believe that statistics should replace the first-hand knowledge of scouts.

“We may call him a numbers guy, but to him, there was nobody he liked talking to more than to scouts, to back-up catchers and to people that really played the game at a grassroots level,” said Roth’s son Michael, during the speech he delivered at his father’s Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2010. “To him, statistics were an important tool to enhance the knowledge of the game, but it didn’t take the place of good scouting. It didn’t take the place of good grassroots gut feeling knowledge of the game.”

Roth also possessed a good sense of humor, an active social life and many interests outside of baseball. Michael can also recall his father enjoying the odd cigar and smoking a pipe from time to time.

“My dad had a dry wit. He was very funny,” recalled Michael. “He was very social. He was very personable. He was really into jazz. He liked jazz music a lot. He liked theatre and things like that . . . He had numerous friends and he liked to have a good time.”

Roth also stayed in contact with his relatives and sometimes offered them perks that only someone working in Major League Baseball could. Stan Tepner was raised in Montreal and his father, Arnold, was a first cousin of Roth’s. Tepner remembers being on a summer vacation in southern New Jersey as a kid with his family around 1964 when Roth set him and his dad up with tickets to a game.

“The Dodgers were playing in Philadelphia at Connie Mack Stadium and Allan arranged for tickets for my dad and myself to go to the game,” recalled Tepner. “Johnny Podres was pitching that night and I believe I met the team.”

Roth, who was Jewish and had experienced anti-Semitism, was also an ardent supporter of the Civil Rights movement.

“My dad was deeply affected by Jackie Robinson’s courage as the first black in Major League Baseball,” noted Michael. “Jackie was very much his favourite player, partly the way he played, and then, of course, the whole issue of race. My dad was always a strong advocate for equal rights for blacks and a supporter of the Civil Rights movement – not to the extent of going out to demonstrations or such but just a personal supporter of Civil Rights causes and that always stayed with him and was part of his personality.”

As the Dodgers’ statistician, Roth was so greatly valued by Rickey that the legendary executive rarely made a transaction without consulting him. In fact, Roth’s calculations had a profound impact on the careers of many Dodgers Hall of Famers, including Robinson’s.

After the 1948 season, Roth shared statistics with Rickey that illustrated that Robinson was a particularly strong hitter with runners in scoring position. Up until then, Robinson had hit primarily second in the batting order and often came to the plate with few runners on base. Thanks to Roth’s tabulations, Robinson was shifted to the cleanup spot for the 1949 season and responded with a career-best 124 RBIs and won his only National League MVP Award.

“No statistics didn’t win Robinson the highest honour in the League that year,” wrote a humble Roth in 1952, “but they did move him into his proper niche in the batting order where his tremendous talents could better be exploited by his club.”

Hall of Fame left-hander Sandy Koufax also came to appreciate Roth’s work. Following the 1961 season in which the legendary southpaw had won 18 games but posted a pedestrian 3.52 ERA, Roth approached Koufax and showed him stats that indicated that he was less effective against left-handed batters than righties, which was unusual for a left-handed pitcher. Right-handed hitters had batted .218 off Koufax in 1961, while lefties hit .237. This information inspired Koufax to change his curveball grip when pitching to lefties so that the ball would drop down and away from them. After making this adjustment. Koufax held lefties to a .158 batting average in 1962.

In Jane Leavy’s 2002 Koufax bio, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, she writes that starting around the 1961 season Koufax began to “avail himself” of Roth’s work.

“Over the years, Roth charted 26,450 Koufax pitches and 313 of his 397 games. Roth tracked each at bat and the count on which the decisive pitch was made,” wrote Leavy.

Roth’s numbers illustrated to Koufax how much of an advantage it was when he pitched ahead in the count. And from that point forward, when Koufax was asked what his best pitch was, he would respond, “Strike one.”

“I learned more about this game from your dad than I ever learned playing it,” Koufax once told Roth’s son, Michael, following his playing career.

“I think Sandy was being a little overly kind that day,” said Michael, “but it gives you an idea of the interest and insight he [Allan Roth] had in the game and the effect it had on other people.”

On the flip side, Roth’s numbers also worked against the players in contract negotiations. At Roth’s induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010, his long-time friend and author Roger Kahn shared anecdotes from former Dodgers Carl Erskine and Duke Snider about how the Dodgers would use Roth’s statistics come contract time.

In a note to Kahn, Snider recalled how coming off a productive year, he would enter the Dodgers’ offices confident he was worthy of a raise. But then the Dodgers brass would start asking him questions like, “Do you know how many times you came up with a runner on third with less than two out and you didn’t get the runner home?” or “Do you know how many times you took a third strike?”

“By the end of Allan’s numbers,” recounted Kahn, “Duke was saying, ‘Can I please still be a Dodger?’”

After Rickey left to become the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1951, Roth’s role with the Dodgers was reduced. In what Roth perceived as a demotion, the Dodgers shifted him from his seat near the dugout to the press box. And the stats sheets he prepared were often tossed in the garbage by old school manager Charlie Dressen.

The media became the primary beneficiaries of Roth’s work. He fed them data that no other major league organization was supplying at the time.

Allan Roth (middle) is pictured here with radio broadcasters Jerry Doggett (left) and Vin Scully. Photo: Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

“Long before there was Mary Poppins, there was Allan Roth,” legendary broadcaster Vin Scully once quipped. “If you had some question that came to you in the middle of the game, he would reach down into his bag and the next thing you knew you’d have your answer. It was marvelous.”

And Roth was not completely disregarded by the Dodgers’ new baseball operations staff, headed by vice-president and general manager Buzzie Bavasi. In 1951, with the Dodgers entrenched in a pennant race, Roth and Dodgers’ chief scout Andy High were dispatched to watch World Series contenders in the American League. This is believed to be the first time that a scouting tandem consisting of an old school talent evaluator and a stats expert was employed. When New York Giants third baseman Bobby Thomson belted his famous walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth of the third game of their playoff with the Dodgers to win the pennant for his club, the Dodgers handed over the scouting data on the American League clubs that Roth had neatly compiled to the Giants, where Roth’s work earned the praise of Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher.

Dodgers Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston (right) greatly valued the statistics shared with him by Allan Roth (left). Photo: Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

It should also be noted that Walter Alston, the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame manager from 1958 to 1976, thoroughly embraced Roth’s work.

“Alston was not familiar with the National League, so Allan’s analyses were a godsend, like inheriting an extra coach,” wrote Vin Scully, in his New York Times tribute to Roth in March 1992. “It was rumored that Alston never made a move without checking with Allan first.”

But in general, for the 14 seasons Roth was employed by the Dodgers after Rickey left, he worked studiously in the press box or in the broadcast booth, sharing statistical information with reporters and broadcasters.

He held this post until he quietly left the organization in August 1964 and took a job writing for The Sporting News and continued his work as editor of the Who’s Who in Baseball publication before landing a gig as the statistician for the Major League Baseball Game of the Week.

NBC owned the rights to the Game of the Week starting in 1966 and Roth worked in the background of these telecasts, feeding information to on-air personalities like Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek and for a shorter period to Koufax and Pee Wee Reese.

Tepner can recall when the NBC Game of the Week crew came to Montreal to broadcast an Expos game against the Cincinnati Reds on May 10, 1969.

“I remember them coming to Jarry Park and being in that little press box behind the plate and Allan invited my dad and myself in to come meet Tony Kubek and Curt Gowdy and in those days, they used to have the celebrity star of the week [also in the booth] . . . and you know who it was? It was singer Glen Campbell,” recalled Tepner.

In 1973, the Staunton News Leader published a detailed article about Roth and the work he did behind the scenes in the booth.

“Roth makes the Monday night rounds with three suitcases and most of them stuffed with ledgers, loose leaf notebooks and graphs of all description,” the article reads.

Roth told the reporter he didn’t have a great memory.

“He claims a good memory is not one of his assets. Yet, sitting alongside Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek and the celebrity guest on the Monday Night Baseball telecast, Roth can summon up a myriad of statistics to fit any situation for the broadcast team,” reads a sentence in the article.

The reporter even got the Canadian to boast a little about his statistical archive.

“I don’t mean to sound immodest, but I honestly feel I’ve got in my possession the most complete statistical dossier of major league players the game ever knew,” said Roth.

Roth’s son, Michael, can attest to this. He remembers his father having an office in a room off the garage in a home the family lived in in Los Angeles.

“It was just full of a ton of stuff and gradually it started to take over other rooms in the house,” said Michael.

Roth was forced to make some lifestyle changes in his fifties when he was diagnosed with diabetes and he began to exercise more.

“In his later years, he became a very big hiker,” noted Michael. “In my adult life, he’d call me up and say, ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ And if it was Saturday or Sunday, he was almost always going hiking somewhere, particularly on the beach. That was a huge pastime for him. He really loved nature . . . And he could certainly out-hike me.”

Roth later shifted to ABC and continued to work on baseball broadcasts until 1990 when declining health forced him to retire.

“He’d had a stroke, but he wasn’t paralyzed and his speech wasn’t affected. It was very mild as strokes go, but it became harder for him to keep up with the stats,” explained Michael.

But baseball statistics were his passion to the end. He would regularly attend SABR meetings in Los Angeles and that chapter now carries his name.  And despite living and working in the United States for more than four decades, Roth never forgot his roots.

“My dad was a Canadian. He never stopped being a Canadian,” said Michael at his father’s Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame induction. “He lived in the United States for 45 years and he never became a U.S. citizen – not because of any disrespect to the United States where he lived for so long, but to him he was a Canadian . . . He always loved Canada.”

Sadly on March 3, 1992, Roth died of a heart attack in Brotman Hospital in Culver City, Calif. But his legacy as a trailblazer in the baseball statistics field has lived on. Today every major league team employs some sort of statistical expert. And as noted earlier, in 2010, the Montreal-born statistician was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont. It was Tepner who put together the nomination package for Roth. He spent four years researching his trailblazing cousin and collecting endorsements from baseball heavyweights like Vin Scully and Bill James.

From left to right: Allan Roth’s son, Michael; author Roger Kahn and Roth’s cousin Stan Tepner at the Roth’s posthumous induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont., in 2010. Photo: Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

“Before the advent of modern computer programs and statistical printouts, a man from Montreal began with the modest tools of pencil and paper, yet by combining his love of baseball with his statistical curiosity, Allan Roth was able to assist a professional baseball team with facts that were not only conversational, but also had a practical application,” reads a testimonial written by Vin Scully, supporting Roth’s induction into the Canadian ball hall. “These revelations gave the Brooklyn Dodgers a cutting-edge advantage when it came time to analyzing its on the field product. This innovative man is remembered as a pioneer among his scholarly peers and truly deserves to be included in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.”

Renowned baseball stats guru, Bill James, also endorsed Roth’s induction. James’s words were read by Tepner at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony.

“Allan Roth was decades ahead of his time,” wrote James. “In a time when baseball looked upon statistics as decorations and adornments, he understood that they could be used to evaluate decisions. That was tough enough, but beyond that he understood what had to be done on a human level, person-to-person, to make that happen. His contributions to baseball were vast and wide-ranging and they should be remembered.”

Nine years after his Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame induction, Roth was named one of the Society for American Baseball Research’s three Henry Chadwick Award winners in 2019. The Henry Chadwick Award was established by SABR to honour the game’s great researchers for their contributions to making baseball a game that links America’s past and present.

Michael accepted the Chadwick Award on behalf of his father at a luncheon at the SABR annual convention in June 2019. In a phone interview the following month, he was asked how his dad would feel about his posthumous accolades.

“My dad might in a way sort of shrug it off,” said Michael. “But I think he would be very happy about it. I think he would’ve been thrilled because he would’ve been glad to be recognized.”

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Sources

Online

“Allan Roth” BR Bullpen, BaseballReference.com

Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame website

McCue, Andy, Allan Roth SABR Bio

“Allan Roth, 74, Dies; Baseball Statistician,” New York Times, March 5, 1992 – Online archive

Cronin, Tom, “Allan Roth: Baseball’s forgotten innovative thinker,” Statliners.com, March 23, 2015

Glew, Kevin, “Trailblazing Canadian statistician, Allan Roth, one of SABR’s Chadwick recipients,” Canadian Baseball Network, February 12, 2019

Video/DVD

2010 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony (DVD of entire ceremony), featuring speeches about Allan Roth by Stanley Tepner, Roger Kahn and Michael Roth

Documents

Tepner, Stan, Allan Roth – Supporting Papers for Nomination to Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, 2010

Interviews

Michael Roth (son), Phone Interview, July 15, 2019

Stan Tepner (cousin), Phone Interview, July 24, 2019

Books

Eig, Jonathan, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), p. 169.

Gruver, Edward, Koufax (Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 2000), p. 124-25, 132, 237-39.

Leavy, Jane, Sandy KoufaxA Lefty’s Legacy (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002), p. 106.

Ramparsad, Arnold, Jackie Robinson: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1997) p. 202, 228, 275.

Rosenthal, Harold, Baseball is their Business (New York: Random House Inc, 1952), chapter written by Allan Roth, p. 134-45.

Schwarz, Alan, The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004) p. 54-59.

Newspaper/Magazine Articles

“Allan Roth is sports statistician,” Staunton News-Leader, July 29, 1973, p. 14.

“Goodby to Some Old Baseball Ideas,” Life Magazine, Aug. 2, 1954, p. 78-79.

“TV, Radio Weekend Sports,” The Akron Beacon Journal, May 9, 1969, p. 49

Burr, Harold C., “Dull statistics come alive under magic Roth touch,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 11, 1953, p.24.

Doussard, James, “NBC baseball statistician drops ball,” The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), April 29, 1973, p. 22.

Dufresne, Chris, “Thinking inside boxes,” Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2007, p. 40.

Maher, Charles, “Allan Roth can answer every Dodger question,” The San Bernadino County Sun, August 11, 1963, p. 23

Scully, Vin, “Backtalk: From early on, Allan Roth was man behind numbers,” The New York Times, March 22, 1992, p. 11.

7 thoughts on “Long Reads: Allan Roth: The story of the Canadian who was MLB’s first team statistician

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  1. I enjoyed the story. I remember attending baseball games at Maple Leaf stadium to watch the Maple Leafs before computers. On the scoreboard there a place for the lineup, their position, and their batting average. Every time the player would come up his batting average would change. 1 of my brother in laws’s brothers did the odd at the track in Montreal by hand.

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