Thursday, October 4, 2007

Bad guesses

Ok, so in the early 1990's I am living in Olathe, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City. My oldest son was a then just a baby so I was spending the afternoon in the recliner, reading a book and watching the Kansas City Royals baseball game while he napped.

Partway through the game, during a break between innings, the announcers say that it is time for the Somebody Airlines Trivia Question. I poke my head up from my book in time to hear them ask something akin to “Who was the one-armed man who played for the St Louis Browns in the 1940’s?”

Without flinching, I reply out loud, “That’s easy: Peter Gray.”

When I was a lot younger, I had read of Pete Gray and how he had lost his arm as a youth in an accident and then how the war had forced the Browns to sign Gray in 1945 because the talent pool had gotten rather shallow. It was a great trivia answer I had held onto for years; today was the day I was going to make it worth my while.

Two round-trip airline tickets were on the line so I popped up and grabbed the cordless phone. Keep in mind this was years before Google and the internet; this was the kind of thing you either knew or you didn’t. I figured that everybody who knew anything about baseball knew the answer to that question, so I punched in the numbers real quick.

The line was busy.

There must be a bunch of people still on the line who called in before the question was asked, I thought. They’ll either get the right answer or hang up because they’ll know they don’t know the answer.

I hit 'Redial'. Busy. Click. Redial.

Busy. Click. Redial.

Busy. Click. Redial.

The ball game returns.



One out. BCR. BCR. BCR.

I want those tickets.

Two outs.


I really want those tickets.


Three outs. We go back to commercial.

BCR. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

They come back from commercial and I am still frantically BCR-ing and I hear them say “We still don’t have a correct answer, so we’ll go another inning. Remember, the question is who was the one-arm player for the Browns in 1945?” and I’m now screaming “Pete Gray! Pete Gray! Everybody knows it is Pete Gray!!!!” Of course, I wake the baby.


I must have called a zillion times and it was busy each time.

After another inning the announcers say “Well, we didn’t get any correct guesses so we’ll just tell you. It was Pete Gray who played for the Browns in 1945...”.


Did he say ‘guesses’? How do you GUESS at the answer to that one?

Finding the answer to that question involves taking the set of all baseball players you know {Aaron, Bonds, Clementi, ...} and intersecting it with the set of people you know who only have one arm {Pete Gray, Jim Abbott, the one strange uncle you know from the family reunion, the guy down at the Gas ‘n’ Sip}. The intersection of those sets forms the only rational guesses. What in the world were people guessing??!? How many one-armed people do they know? Did they call in and guess Babe Ruth? What were they thinking? Why would they call in if they didn’t know they knew the answer? THERE IS NOTHING TO GUESS!!!

See, I can ask you “Who was the only player to strike out four times in an All-Star Game” and you could GUESS at that by taking the collection of All-Stars and then trying to find someone who might have batted four times AND stuck out. You can GUESS Ruth or Gehrig or Clementi or someone else. You would be right with Clementi.

But you can’t guess about one-armed ballplayers. That’s just dumb. What were people thinking? Didn’t they know that they didn’t know?

So I didn’t get the tickets.


hd said...

You do have to wonder why anyone would call in who didn't know they knew - let alone enough people to tie up the phone lines for the rest of the game.

Levi Stahl said...

Sorry to be a stickler, but Jim Abbott has two arms; he's just missing a hand.

But that's a minor detail--your point, along with your sharp anecdote, stands.

Languagehat said...

Infuriating. And surprising -- I knew the answer before reading yours, and I would have thought any baseball fan even moderately interested in the history of the game (and what baseball fan isn't?) would know about Pete Gray, and Eddie Gaedel, and all the other legends of WWII-era baseball. (I guess earlier legends like Fred Merkle have slipped beneath the sands of oblivion, though he'll probably get some play next year, the centenary of his "boner" -- for which, incidentally, he was unjustly maligned. Yes, I am capable of getting indignant about baseball plays from 1908. Don't even get me started on the unfairness of the "losers" reputation of the 1899 Spiders.)

Anonymous said...

no. they wanted the free tickets and thought they'd take a stab at it. i think the level of delusion about knowledge on a topic definitely rises with the proximity to something free. that's the variable you're skipping: if there were no prize, people wouldn't have had the incentive to guess, blindly. i'd have been interested to hear the answers.