Just the Facts, Ma'am
Elias is the infallible, Unflappable Source for Sports
By Tracy L. Ziemer
Weekend edition: August 16-17, 2003
The cleat mark was the first physical clue that things just
didn't add up. Kneeling on the turf with a tape measure in
hand, Steve Hirdt painstakingly recorded additional evidence.
Then he studied the videotape frame by frame. The ruling,
as he suspected, was wrong.
The longest touchdown return of any kind in NFL history was
107 yards, not 108. Hirdt set the record straight.
Equal parts detective, accountant and historian, Hirdt is
executive vice president of Elias Sports Bureau, the official
statistician of Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, NHL,
WNBA, MLS and WUSA, the professional women's soccer league.
As the most trusted authority in sports statistics, Elias'
team meticulously researches achievements for accuracy.
"If someone asks me my middle name, I won't give them
the answer until I've checked my birth certificate,"
Hirdt said during a visit to Elias' Manhattan offices, home
of this 24/7 operation.
In the case of a Monday night game between the Denver Broncos
and Baltimore Ravens last season, Hirdt's extra efforts assured
the statistic for the longest return in NFL history was correct
in the record books.
Baltimore's Chris McAlister caught Denver's short field-goal
attempt and went the distance at the end of the first half.
Officials called it a 108-yard touchdown return. Hirdt wasn't
"Since the field is 100 yards and the end zone is 10
yards, that meant he would've had to have caught it two yards
from the end line of the end zone. I was looking at it and
thought: 'That just doesn't look like two yards,'" recalled
Hirdt, who attends all Monday night NFL games as a service
to Monday Night Football, a 21-year Elias client.
Hirdt went on the field at halftime to measure the distance
between McAlister's cleat mark in the turf and the end line.
Photos and video also supported Hirdt's hunch that the ball
was caught seven yards into the end zone. The rest is, quite
Elias' statistical handiwork is seen across sports. When
Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Scott Podsednik reached base
safely in 47 consecutive games, Elias knew it was the longest
such streak in the majors this season. In the 1990s, Brett
Favre's durability prompted Elias to research the record for
consecutive quarterback starts; the bureau noted Favre was
pursuing Ron Jaworski's record of 116. Today, Favre's record
of 173 consecutive regular-season starts -- and counting --
exceeds Jaworski's record by a greater percentage (49 percent)
than Cal Ripken Jr.'s surpassing of Lou Gehrig's consecutive
games played record in baseball (24 percent, 2,632-to2,130),
a nugget also unearthed by Elias.
It's this ability to put sports achievements into historical
context that makes Elias so valuable to the pro leagues and
clients ESPN, Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and
other media outlets.
"I probably talk to Elias once or twice a week, whether
it be just double-checking a statistic we might have or calling
for some research," said Jon Greenberg, the Brewers'
director of media relations. "They are an invaluable
asset to baseball. They are the people I trust the most."
Elias' evolution into the encyclopedia of sports began nearly
a century ago. In the early 1900s, baseball fans and brothers
Walter and Al Munro Elias began compiling stats on major and
minor league baseball games. Soon, stats-hungry sportswriters
sought their data. The Elias brothers became the official
statisticians of baseball's National League in the 1920s,
and the American League soon therafter.
Seymour Siwoff worked for the Eliases part-time as a teenager
and is the burea's current president. He took over the company
in the 1950s, after the brothers died. Siwoff slowly built
it by increasing its technological capabilities.
The NFL signed on with Elias in 1960, the NBA in 1970, and
the NHL in the 1990s. Hirdt, a former high school and college
stats keeper, joined the Elias lineup in 1970. Brothers Peter
and Tom, and son Ken, are among Elias' 30 employees, too.
In the early days, Elias' services consisted primarily of
compiling data rather than providing analysis. Researchers,
using pencil and paper, needed hours just to record box scores
from the day's baseball games. File drawers of these fragile
recordings are still at Elias' offices -- no-frills digs adorned
with books of yellowing newspaper clips and towers of reference
Now, Elias relies on its customized computer database, a
sophisticated Pandora's Box of sports data to which only Elias
has the key. "Our database is very, very large. We can
usually answer what a team is looking for, sometimes with
some additional programming," Hirdt said.
"I'm not sure how I could do my job without them,"
said the Brewers' Greenberg. "So much about this game
is historic reference. Our records from the early '70s aren't
the best, so we verify anything back then with Elias. They
have an amazing database."
The system is the backbone of the Elias franchise. It's therefore
closely guarded and not directly available to clients, who
receive differing levels of service depending upon the size
of the organization, according to Hirdt.
Small local television stations, for example, may receive
only graphics and basic player statistics to flash on screen
as a player comes up to bat or goes to the free-throw line.
For bigger clients, Elias also tracks burgeoning streaks
and key matchups, and faxes notes to help clients prepare
for upcoming games. The bureau logs all information requests
so it knows precisely what a client's needs are and structures
contracts and services accordingly.
The cornerstone of Elias' services is its speed in responding
to requests for statistical information -- the more obscure,
the better. When 44-year-old Rickey Henderson homered his
first night with the Los Angeles Dodgers this season, the
boys at the bureau informed the team he had become the third-oldest
player since 1900 to hit a home run in the majors. Only Jack
Quinn (46) and Carlton Fisk (45) were older.
A database is only as good as the information put into it.
Elias uses team game reports and other sources to verify all
stats. If one report says the single was a bloop to center
field while another calls it a hit to short, Elias goes to
game tapes to decide how the play should be officially scored.
"For football, one of the things we have to do is look
at plays that are unclear -- whether the quarterback intended
to run with the ball or pass the ball, if he's tackled at
or behind the line of scrimmage with the intention of passing
or not," said Hirdt. All of these variables affect sack
counts, rushing stats, passer ratings.
Sometimes Elias' sleuthing leads to major corrections. Baseball
changed Hack Wilson's single-season RBI record from 191 to
190, and added six walks to Babe Ruth's career total, thanks
to the bureau's research.
Such niggling is all in a day's work at Elias, where success
is measured by speed, as well as longevity.
"When we come up with a stat, people will say, 'How
long did that take you?'" Hirdt said, "And I always
say, 'Forty seconds and 40 years.' Forty seconds to retrieve
it and 40 years to put data in the computer and check it for
Staff writer Dennis Semrau contributed to this report.
top of page