The Immaculate Grid
by Lincoln Mitchell
A few months ago an old friend from high school sent me a text about the Immaculate Grid, an online baseball trivia game. I checked it out quickly and didn’t understand it. However, I went back to it a few weeks later and became hooked. Now the Immaculate Grid is like a warmup exercise for my day. It allows me to start thinking about obscure baseball players as I prepare to write about politics, finalize my syllabi and prepare my lectures for next semester.
The Immaculate Grid is a daily baseball quiz now hosted by Baseball Reference, that presents a three-by-three grid and requires respondents to fill in all nine boxes with players that fit the category presented by the row and column. The three columns and three rows are both usually two teams and a statistic. The rows might be Yankees, Pirates and Hall of Fame players and the columns could be Blue Jays, Cardinals and Gold Glovers. You would then have to find a player who played for the Yankees and Blue Jays, another for the Yankees and Cardinals, another who played for the Yankees and won a Gold Glove and then repeat that for all three rows. The Immaculate Grid is available in similar format for other sports, but I only play the baseball version.
If you get all nine squares filled correctly, you get a rarity score, the lower the overall score the better. The rarity score is based on the percentage of respondents who chose the same answer. That data is given in the corner of each square once a correct answer is submitted. My best score so far is eight, but I am usually between 75 and 150. On some days, I can’t even complete the grid. The toughest part of the challenge is that if you get one wrong answer, the game ends.
Playing the Immaculate Grid every day has taught me a few things about my knowledge of baseball. While I can think of dozens of Chicago White Sox players from around 1975-1985, or even Boston Red Sox players from decades before I was born, whenever one or more of the categories are any of the four most recent expansion team, I know I am in for a long morning. In general, when I look at my completed grid, usually at least five of the players are from that 1975-1985 era.
I have also learned a few tricks to drive down my rarity score. For example, when possible, I pick players from the pre-WWII era. On a recent day, one of the questions was Hall of Famers who played for the Detroit Tigers. Rather than pick Jack Morris, Alan Trammell or Al Kaline, I went with Harry Heilmann. Fewer than two percent of other respondents had chosen Heilmann.
Another trick I use is if asked to find a player who played for two teams, I choose a player who did not spend most of his career with either of those two teams. For example, Andrew McCutchen played mostly for the Pirates but spent some time with the Yankees. Similarly, Francisco Cervelli played a few years for both teams. A better choice for the rarity score would be to pick Luis Tiant who had a 19-year big league career, but only spent two years with the Yankees and one with the Pirates.
I also find it useful to be very familiar with the careers of a few players who toiled for many different teams over the course of their careers. There are a lot of squares that can be filled by Bobby Bonds, Rickey Henderson or LaTroy Hawkins in a pinch.
There is something else about the Immaculate Grid that fascinates me. It is something of a daily window into how memory, particularly my memory, works. The first and most obvious question this raises for me is why my memory is filled with so much baseball arcana. Why is it so easy for me to remember that Gene Garber pitched for both the Phillies and Braves or who Del Ennis was? What is so important about that kind of information that I have held on to it all those years, and how was my brain functioning when I was between about eight and 16 years old and ingesting so much of this baseball information in the first place. I know that I am not capable of those kind of feats of memory today, and have not been for at least a few decades.
I have no idea how memory works, but it is a fascinating part of our consciousness. We all have had the experience of thinking of an event, friend, or yes, ballplayer from years ago about which we have not thought in years. The Immaculate Grid makes this a daily experience. I almost never think of Dave Goltz or Marty Marion, but if the Grid asks me to name somebody who played with both the Dodgers and Twins or a player who won a World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals, those players come to mind right away. I can almost feel those names leaping to the top of my mind out of nowhere when I see that prompt.
The Immaculate Grid forces open the floodgates and allows the obscure baseball players and facts that take up way too much of my memory to stream into the front of my mind. The Immaculate Grid is more than a warmup drill or fun baseball quiz. It is a daily reminder of the depth and strangeness of my baseball obsession.