Seymour Siwoff, a pioneer in bringing statistical analysis to the sports world who chronicled feats from the epic to the arcane through seven decades as the head of the Elias Sports Bureau, died Friday at his home in New York City. He was 99.
His death was confirmed by his grandson Joe Gilston, whose Joseph Gilston Trust took over Elias in March, purchasing 100% of its stock.
Until then, Siwoff had, since 1952, been the president and chief executive of Elias, the official record-keeper for America’s major professional sports leagues. In recent years the bureau’s day-to-day operations had been overseen by Steve Hirdt, the executive director, but Siwoff remained a presence in its Manhattan office until just a few months ago.
When Siwoff took control of Elias, it was tallying basic baseball records for newspapers and wire services. At the time the Brooklyn Dodgers were evidently the only team with its own statistician: Allan Roth tracked the performances of the Dodgers’ players in a variety of situations.
Sports statistics were still relatively primitive, and record-keeping, long before the computer age, was a laborious task. Managers, coaches and front-office executives were armed with only modest information for plotting strategy and making trades. The correct answer to many a barroom trivia argument might remain unclear long after closing time.
That began to change when Siwoff purchased the Al Munroe Elias Baseball Bureau from the widows of Al and Walter Elias, who founded it in 1913.
Siwoff had worked part time for Elias in 1939 when he was a freshman at St. John’s University in Queens. After serving in the Army in World War II — he was wounded in the Italian campaign — he obtained an accounting degree from St. John’s, then returned to Elias, where he melded his professional training with his interest in sports.
Siwoff renamed the company the Elias Sports Bureau, reflecting his ambition to range through the entire sports world.
Elias eventually became the record-keeper for Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and later the Women’s National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer. It also provides national and local sports broadcasting outlets and sports websites with data and content drawing on its archives; among its offerings are short “Elias Says” items for ESPN’s website.
By the 1970s, Elias was relying on computers to unearth data and indicate what it all might mean in anticipating players’ performances.
Through its computer programming, Elias has also provided teams and media outlets with bits of history within minutes of an odd or spectacular moment on the field, revealing whether anything like it had happened before.
“Statistics can be cold and trivial,” Siwoff was quoted as having said in the 1970s in “The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination With Statistics” (2004), by Alan Schwarz, a former reporter for The New York Times. “But they can also be alive and full of drama.”
“What I enjoy most about statistics is the chance they give you to relive the past,” Siwoff said. “When Nate Colbert drives in 13 runs in a doubleheader, it gives you a chance to recall when Jim Bottomley drove in 12 in a game.” (Colbert set his record with the San Diego Padres in 1972; Bottomley achieved his with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1924.)
“In looking up things like that, I can see these guys in my mind as clearly as if they were playing again,” Siwoff said.
Siwoff assembled a staff, which presided over computers and old record books and scrapbooks, on an upper floor of an office building in Manhattan, overlooking the New York Public Library.
“We’ve got more information on sports up here in our office than they do down there,” he once said.
Elias has over the years been joined by a growing field of statistical compilers and analysts. But it retains its standing as the official statistician for many leagues.
Seymour Siwoff was born Nov. 9, 1920, in Brooklyn to Jack and Ida Siwoff. His father made women’s shoes.
In his early years at Elias, he delivered updated statistics for the major leagues’ batting and pitching leaders to New York newspapers and wire services like The Associated Press after the bureau combed through daily box scores.
Long after his data was computerized, Siwoff retained something of an old-time aura.
“His slight, angular frame is covered by conservatively cut business suits,” The Hartford Courant reported in 2004. “He always wears a tie and leather shoes with laces, of course, even in the summer. In the winter months comes the overcoat and fedora. His reed-thin mustache is right out of Ronald Colman or William Powell.”
In 1975 Siwoff began publishing The Player Analysis, printouts weighing some 40 pounds, for about a half-dozen major league baseball teams. The teams paid Elias to assess each of their players’ performances in a host of situations.
From 1985 to 1993, Elias put out a successor publication, the annual Elias Baseball Analyst, which was sold to the public. It has long issued The Elias Book of Baseball Records, an annual publication also available for purchase.
In addition to Gilston, Siwoff is survived by a son, Ronald; a daughter, Nancy Gilston; three other grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His sister Lela Swift, a pioneering female director whose career went back to television’s early years, died in 2015 at 96.
Elias considers its data proprietary, designed for use by its customers. It doesn’t invite phone calls seeking a definitive answer to barroom arguments.
When asked his age by reporters as the years went by, Siwoff had a standard retort. As he put it to The Buffalo News in a 2008 interview, “That’s the question I never answer.”