Allan Roth: Baseball’s Forgotten Innovative Thinker

Every time you come across this great website, you are always filled with numbers that make Major League Baseball that much more interesting than before you ever visited the site, or at least that is how I see it. We have all seen Moneyball (hopefully) and we should know who Bill James is and his importance to the game and the Boston Red Sox. There are other figures, like Sandy Alderson and Earl Weaver, who also offered their own input on evaluating baseball statistics in a different way

We all know who Jackie Robinson is and his importance to baseball and the Dodgers. Do you know who Allan Roth is, though? If not, just know the Dodgers and Branch Rickey also made history by making him the first full-time MLB team statistician.

Roth was born on May 10th, 1917 in Montreal, Canada. Throughout his high school years, he played many major sports, and during most of his free hours, he kept stats for the International League and his hometown Montreal Royals. He was accepted to McGill University, but due to family circumstances, he took a job as a salesman.

Roth was mostly interested in baseball and hockey statistics. He even wrote a couple of letters to the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Larry MacPhail, during the months of December, June and August of 1941. To say the least, MacPhail was not very interested in looking at the statistics and ideas Roth proposed. Although being denied by the Dodgers, Roth had too much pride in himself and work. He ended up leaving his salesman job at a clothing store and shared his work with Frank Calder, the president of the National Hockey League, who brought him on to start keeping statistics for professional hockey.

Roth’s stats job was interrupted a couple months later because of his service time in the Canadian army during WWII. The army did recognize his talents, though, and let him keep all of the records and stats the army needed to see and use. In 1944, Roth was released because of epilepsy, but this did not affect his work with sports. He came out of the war and starting writing for a few sports magazines and newspapers while also keeping stats for the Canadians once again.

His eyes were focused on the Brooklyn Dodgers, though, because MacPhail was later replaced by Branch Rickey, who Roth thought was the most innovative businessman in baseball at the time. Roth had the opportunity to meet with Rickey and share his ideas, but Roth called it a disaster. He later told Rickey he did not think he was getting a “fair shot” and Rickey asked what he wanted. Roth responded with “10 minutes of your undivided attention.”

Rickey told Roth to send a detailed paper of his ideas to his assistant. In Roth’s paper, it included many breakdowns of how the Dodgers could use their players in certain situations and help the manager gain an edge. Some of the ideas were righty-lefty splits, ballpark variation and day games vs. night games. Nonetheless, his methods were not used at first, but it was enough to gain a second meeting with Rickey.

The second meeting was the opposite of the first. Roth later stated that Rickey was intrigued with some of his ideas during the meeting, especially on how RBI’s are overrated.

On April 15th, 1947, the Allan Roth and Jackie Robinson era for the Dodgers debuted. For the next 18 years, Roth would basically record every pitch for Rickey and the Dodgers. After the game, it would take about five hours for him to complete the breakdown of the games and the players.

During the offseason, Roth would look further into the numbers to see which hitter did better against which pitcher and vice versa. He also added in home and away games to the mix and which hitters did better in which counts. No team in MLB had even thought about this type of work prior to this time.

Roth was a firm believer that you do not have to be an expert mathematician to record baseball stats. You just had to be an innovative thinker and have a passion for the game. He also realized that human element of baseball and numbers could only help aid the game, not run it.

A funny twist to Roth is he did not even do his own taxes or remember his own phone number. Roth described baseball as if it is, “A game of percentages—I try to find the actual percentage, which is constantly shifting, and apply it to the situation where it will do the most good.”

In 1950, Rickey left the Dodgers and Walter O’Malley took over. Slowly but surely, Roth’s work started to diminish within the organization. In 1954, he stopped recording pitches because he was moved from behind the plate in the stands up to press box to give his stats to the announcers. He thought this was a demotion.

Instantly, though, Roth and the legendary voice of the Dodgers Vin Scully became friends. Scully loved having Roth next to him in the booth. Any time he had a statistical question, Roth answered in a heartbeat. Reporters also fell in love with Roth because his numbers were constantly giving them new ideas to write about. Roth also had many supporters and followers, and he received plenty of letters saying how they also want to do what he does. In addition, broadcast sponsors started paying half of Roth’s salary.

During the year of 1964, Roth was quietly let go by the Dodgers. Rumors have it that Roth was having a relationship with an African-American woman that went on the “wrong end”. O’Malley despised negative publicity, and it was only until reporters started asking where he was that the Dodgers gave the announcement that he had been let go.

A year later, Roth had a divorce with his wife. He still had to make a living for himself and his children, so he started freelancing and ended up getting a broadcast job for NBC and later ABC, where he would feed the announcers information like he did with Scully.

Due to his health, Roth stopped working in the late 1980’s, and he died on March 3rd, 1992. However, as the first full-time MLB statistician, Roth paved the way for the type of innovative statistical research that is prevalent in the game today and his legacy still lives on.

To end this article, here is what sabermetrics pioneer Bill James said about Mr. Allan Roth: “He was the guy who began it all. He took statisticians into a brave new world.”