Sports History I Never Knew: How “K” Came to Stand for the Strikeout

Henry Chadwick, enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1938, is sometimes called the father of the modern game of baseball.  He never played it or managed it, but he probably did more than any other individual to preserve its memory for posterity.

He was a fascinating guy from a fascinating family. Add Henry Chadwick to the list of “People I’d Love to Have a Beer With.”

His grandfather, James Chadwick, started out as a teacher in Manchester, England. One of his students was John Dalton, who “discovered” the atom via his atomic theory.  James became a radical journalist, moved to France during the French Revolution, and lived for a while with Thomas Paine. The latter was a force during that Revolution; his Rights of Man was a rallying cry for the radicals who wanted to overthrow the monarchy.  Paine, who became a member of the National Assembly, ended up by arguing unsuccessfully for preserving the lives of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and he spent some time in prison himself for his views.

One of this man’s grandsons, namesake Sir James Chadwick, put that atomic theory into action. Educated at the University of Manchester under Ernest Rutherford, “the Father of Nuclear Physics,” Sir James won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the neutron. In 1941, he wrote the final draft of the MAUD Report, which inspired the U.S. government to begin serious atom bomb research. He was the head of the British team that worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II.

Henry Chadwick’s half-brother Edwin was a lawyer in England, and he was not a particularly nice man. He was a political operative, secretary of the Poor Law Commission, and author of A Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. That book was a best-seller.  His work on the Poor Law of 1834 led to a national system of workhouses and made him one of the most reviled figures in the land. London had not yet figured out that its deadly cholera epidemics were due to unsanitary conditions; people drank water that was polluted by human waste.  Henry Chadwick espoused the “miasma” theory, which attributed the sicknesses to foul odors.  Just get rid of the poor, dirty neighborhoods and the people in them, he thought, and you get rid of the disease.

Edwin Chadwick wasn’t all bad, though. His subsequent work led to the Public Health Act of 1848, under which the British government started to assume overall responsibility for sanitation. They centralized the sources of London’s water supply. Ten years later, the Brits were ready to grapple with the matter of sewage disposal that “The Great Stink” of 1858 made into a national crisis.

Yuck. Fortunately for us, Henry Chadwick took a different career path. He became a sportswriter. His family moved to America in 1837, when he was 13. He became a cricket reporter for the New York Times, and he later moved to the New York Clipper and other papers.

In those days before computers, sabermetricians, and filmed replays, it was Henry Chadwick who devised the ways to record the achievements of both teams and players. He invented baseball statistics. He edited The Beadle Baseball Player, the first baseball guide, and the Spalding and Reach annual guides.  He served on baseball rules committees and campaigned against the influences of alcohol and gambling on the game.

The 1861 Beadle guide listed totals of games played, outs, runs, home runs, and strikeouts for hitters on prominent clubs. It was the first database of its kind and it gave numerical evidence of which players’ performances helped or hurt their teams. Chadwick also thought up and quantified batting averages and earned-run averages.

So, what about the “K” for strikeout?

As his Cooperstown plaque states, Henry was the inventor of the baseball box score.  He modeled it, unsurprisingly, on the scorecard for a game of cricket – a grid with nine rows for players and nine columns for innings.

He needed abbreviations to put in all those little boxes. Many of the abbreviations contained an “S.”  He needed something different when a batter struck out.

He decided on “K.” Why? Because it’s the final letter in “struck.”

As for that Chadwick family, author Bill Bryson points out that Henry’s grandfather James was a direct link between the discovery of the atom, Thomas Paine and the French Revolution, the sewer system of London, and the origin of professional baseball.

But as far as we’re concerned, Henry’s work was far more important than that of James, Edwin, and Sir James. After all, it was about baseball. Yes, I’d love to have a pint with Henry. I’d buy.

Now you know the rest of the story.

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