SUBSCRIBE

BOB RYAN

Long before sabermetrics, there was Art Keefe, baseball statistician

Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff/File 2014

By Globe Correspondent 

The Boston Red Sox issued the following statement in late December, 1967:

The Red Sox announced last week the appointment of Arthur J. Keefe of West Yarmouth, Mass., as club statistician and assistant in the public relations department.

Keefe, a 24-year-old native of Westwood, Mass., received his B.A. in mathematics from Northeastern University in June 1965. Throughout his college career, he worked for the Boston Globe sports department, under the university’s cooperative work-study program.

For the past year and a half he has been a sportswriter with the Cape Cod Standard Times, in which capacity he covered the Red Sox pennant drive and the World Series in 1967.

Married, with one daughter, he will assume his new duties in the Red Sox public relations department on June 2.

Something was left unsaid in that announcement. “When I asked my sports editor, Joe Sherman, if I could cover the Red Sox in September that year,” Keefe chuckles, “he said, ‘No.’ So I drove my VW to Fenway anyway and covered that month without pay. They ran my stories but didn’t pay me. But when the World Series came they paid me to cover the home games.”

Advertisement

And two months later, he was hired by the Red Sox.

What they got for their $7,500 a year was a pioneer. He was not just an ordinary “statistician.” He was a man way ahead of his time. He would give the Red Sox information they would get nowhere else. Long before anyone heard of Bill James or any other sabremetrician, and long before anyone had access to something called a computer, Arthur J. Keefe of West Yarmouth, Mass., while most decidedly an emotional fan — Jackie Jensen had been his particular favorite — was also looking at baseball with a far more detailed and sophisticated eye than the rest of the population.

Art Keefe was keeping a fantastic daily diary of the entire 1967 Boston sports seasons, plus detailed Red Sox statistics on his own while in the employ of the Cape Cod Standard Times. And when he talked with the Red Sox he was able to show them that what they were relying on was inadequate and, frankly, often downright bogus information. Their statistics-keeping was sloppy. “I saw at least a hundred mistakes from the daily stat sheet,” Keefe explains. Quite often the task fell to clubhouse man Don Fitzpatrick, and sometimes he even delegated the duty to a player. “You can imagine how off those stats were,” Keefe notes.

Art Keefe opened the Red Sox to a whole new world. He was in their employ from 1968 through 1972, when he left to become the public relations director for Bud Selig and the Milwaukee Brewers. As an organization, the Sox were much better off than they were when he arrived.

It was a logical career path. He had always been equally fascinated with both the aesthetics and the statistical foundation of baseball. “When I was a freshman in high school, I remember listening to Curt Gowdy talking with his statistician, Joe Costanza, on the radio, and I said, ‘That’s the job I want,’ ” Keefe explains. “I said to my classmates all through high school that I wanted to be the statistician for the Red Sox. At my 10th high school reunion, people were saying, ‘I can’t believe it. That’s the job you said you always wanted.’ ”

Advertisement

So, what exactly was he bringing to the table? At the end of each season he presented general manager Dick O’Connell and company a detailed season report on both team and individual performance. He prefaced his 1970 report as follows:

“Various statistical comparisons have been employed to better provide an insight as to a player’s value to the team, although it is readily acknowledged here that statistics cannot tell the whole story . . . A sincere effort has been made to be as objective as possible, ignoring personal feelings about the players.”

Why was that last part important, you may ask?

“Dick Williams was a feisty guy, and he often gave me a hard time,” Keefe says. “At the time it was known that I was a friend of Gary Waslewski. He looked at my report and comments about Gary and he said, ‘OK, if you tell the truth about that guy then I know you’ll tell the truth about everyone else.’ ”

Included in his annual reports: late-game clutch situations; average with men on base; RBI drive-in percentage; runs produced per at-bat; advancing runners percentage; runs produced; on-base percentage; and batting average with men on base or bases empty.

He defined a “clutch” situation as “fifth inning on, and the score is tied, the Red Sox are ahead or behind by one run or there are sufficient runners on base that the batter has a chance to erase a run deficit.”

With regard to pitchers, he was very big on run support at a time when it was infrequently discussed. He broke down each pitcher’s detailed numbers in both wins and losses. And he was a WHIP man without using the acronym.

Mike Nagy was a good example. In his 1970 report, Keefe observed that for the second year in succession, his won-loss record (6-5, following 12-2), “he had quite a bit of help . . . Also pointed out a year ago was the fact that a pitcher just can’t put 14 men on base every nine-inning game and continue to get away with it. He continued to put 14 men on base per game this year but he most certainly didn’t get away with it . . . That will have to change if he is ever to be better than a .500 pitcher.” Let the record show that Nagy won just two games in the remainder of his career and was out of baseball by 1974.

Among the batters exposed was George Scott, whose 16 homers and 63 RBIs masked the fact that he had a teammates driven-in percentage of .183. As for Carl Yastrzemski, Keefe declares that, “In some respects he had a better season than his Triple Crown performance [of 1967].”

Keefe did not particularly enjoy his time in Milwaukee and he left the business entirely to pursue a career in real estate. Following that he became involved in what he describes as retail site selection for major businesses. He also became an ordained deacon in the Roman Catholic Church in 1996. So, if you Catholics would like to receive Communion from a man who once rode the plane with Yaz, Boomer, Rico, Reggie Smith, and friends, head to Holy Family in Duxbury, where Mary, his wife of 52 years, is the music director.

Art Keefe also moonlighted for many years as a copy editor for the Globe, where among other tasks he helped rein in young turks named Gammons and Ryan, often saving them from themselves.

He did it all without the modern aids that have made all our lives so much simpler. I can’t imagine the work, especially when you consider what he was getting paid. But I guess it fell under the category “labor of love.”

Now you know I had to ask him one final key question. Art Keefe, godfather of baseball statistics, what do you think of the hallowed modern concept known as WAR (Wins Over Replacement) to evaluate players?

“I don’t like that at all,” he says.

’Nuff said.


Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.