State Your Case, Part II: Remembering Seymour Siwoff, a lasting NFL contributor

Photo courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau
Clark Judge

With much of the attention of the Pro Football Hall of Fame focused on its Centennial Class for 2020, we felt it appropriate to recognize the passing of an unsung hero whom most persons won’t recognize as one of the NFL’s most significant contributors … but should.

And that’s Seymour Siwoff.

The former head of Elias Sports Bureau, Siwoff brought statistical analysis to the sports world and changed the way we measure our games and our sports stars. But he did more than that. He made Elias Sports Bureau the go-to site for statistical information for a variety of sports for more than half a century.

Siwoff died last Friday at the age of 99, and, in acknowledgement of his contributions to the NFL and pro sports, we reprint a State Your Case that was printed in April and that pushed for his inclusion among the contributor candidates for the Pro Football Hall of Fame:

STATE YOUR CASE: TIME TO RECOGNIZE THE MAN WHO SUPPLIES THE LAW OF AVERAGES

(April 23, 2019)

It’s highly unusual to recommend Pro Football Hall-of-Fame induction for someone who wasn’t a player, GM or owner. But it’s downright extraordinary to promote someone who was no closer to the game than the press box, nearest TV set or telephone.

But that’s precisely the point. Because 98-year-old Seymour Siwoff is downright extraordinary.

Which is why I’d like to see him included as a contributor candidate for Canton.

No, he didn’t play the game, didn’t coach it and didn’t hoist a single trophy. But without him the NFL would not be where it is today. Nor would its networks and legions of fans. Why? Time to pay attention, people.

Seymour Siwoff is the guy who in 1952 purchased what today is Elias Sports Bureau and turned it into the leading authority on sports statistics and historical sports history. He did it with the NFL. He did it with major-league baseball. He did it with the NBA and WBA, too.

But his reach didn’t stop there. It included broadcast and sports networks, including ESPN, the NFL Network, Major League Baseball Network, Turner Sports, Comcast and NESN. In short, he was to the NFL and others what Siri is to you today.

If you wanted to know something, you asked Seymour. And you had your answer.

“If Seymour says it’s so, it’s so,” Cubs’ publicity director Chuck Shriver told Sports Illustrated in 1969. “He’s my Bible.”

He was the Bible for the NFL, too. When the NFL looked into an accomplishment, it contacted Elias. When it was asked a sports history question, it contacted Elias. When it was posed a difficult statistical question it could not answer, it contacted Elias.

And Siwoff was quick to respond.

“The upsurge in pro football’s popularity,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Jerry Kirschenbaum, “has been accompanied by a rapid increase in the statistics that surround it, a phenomenon that Siwoff has openly aided and abetted.”

As an example, he cited field-goal percentages. Until 1966, accuracy was measured by attempts and conversions. Period. But Siwoff measured it by attempts and misses according to distance, separating kicks into categories such as 0-19, 20-29, 30-39 and so forth – a practice that remains today.

Similarly, punt and kickoff returns were kept separately – that is, until Siwoff combined the two in 1968 with a pair of new categories, most combined kick returns and kick-return yardage.

“In encouraging the proliferation of statistics,” Kirschenbaum wrote, “Siwoff has had the good sense to realize that they are valuable only insofar as they reflect what happened in yesterday’s game and generate interest in what may happen tomorrow.”

Today, the reach of numbers has expanded, with a glut of figures and statistics to support Hall-of-Fame candidacies, greatest-ever arguments and Trivial Pursuit curiosities. But it was a different world when Siwoff got into the business, joining Elias prior to World War II, leaving to join the Army and earn a Purple Heart before returning to the bureau in 1948.

Buying it later from the widows of the Elias brothers, he turned the bureau into the leading authority on sports statistics … but only after an assist from the NFL. Because it wasn’t until Siwoff became the league’s official statistician in 1960 (he took over for the AFL in 1966) that Elias became a full-time operation – going from a baseball-only business to a year-round practice with a permanent staff.

Elias then became the go-to site for all questions relating to numbers and sports history, and Siwoff became the NFL’s Answer Man for nearly 60 years.

But all things must pass, and so it is with Seymour Siwoff and Elias. He headed the bureau until last month when he sold it to his grandson, 32 year-old Joe Gilston, a former Elias employee who now becomes the bureau’s president.

What happens next I don’t know. I’m not sure if Siwoff knows what to do with the idle time he never had. But I do know what should happen, and that’s this: The Pro Football Hall of Fame should recognize his contribution to the game by including him as a candidate for induction.

When the Hall originated the contributor category in 2014, it was precisely with someone like Seymour Siwoff in mind. Yet he has never been discussed. Nor has he ever been on the ballot, and that needs to be corrected.

Starting now.​

Follow on Twitter @ClarkJudgeTOF.

Comments (2)
No. 1-2
bachslunch
bachslunch

Clark, very good and well-argued piece. The points you bring up make a good case for Siwoff, someone I only knew vaguely about, and I'm positively disposed to the argument.

Interestingly enough, I found this post at the city-data website that brings up what might be a point not in Siwoff's favor. I'll post a link:

The poster is someone I normally respect and often agree with, though not always. The gist is that Siwoff attempted to monopolize the baseball statistics market, charging very high prices for his data, and went to a lot of trouble to try and drive Bill James out of business, delaying sabremetric thinking in that sport at least a decade. I know nothing about this issue and am bringing it up solely for the purpose of possible discussion -- not as an endorsement. I say read if interested, agree or disagree as one likes. I'm not sure how accurate it is, myself, nor do I know how problematic the issue is, if true, for football.

Anyway, FWIW.

BOB FOX
BOB FOX

Very nice piece, Clark. You definitely have enlightened me. No doubt that Seymour Siwoff needs to be talked about and considered as a contributor for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So does Jack Vainisi, who drafted seven Hall of Fame players (Jim Ringo, Forrest Gregg, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke and Jerry Kramer) when he was in charge of scouting for the Green Bay Packers, plus also drafted players like Bobby Dillon, Ron Kramer and Boyd Dowler, who are currently senior candidates who also deserve consideration for the HOF. Plus, it was Vainisi who played a vital role in Vince Lombardi coming to Green Bay in 1959.


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