Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

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December 4, 2012

John Cannon: Sports helped improve his math skills: 12/05/12

ASHLAND — Like million of other boys, I had dreams as a child of becoming a great athlete. I loved sports and had visions of following in the footsteps of Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek and starring for my beloved Ohio State Buckeyes in basketball, or of scoring the winning touchdown for the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl, or of someday being a Cincinnati Redleg just like Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Wally Post and Joe Nuxhall.

But, alas, it was not to be. God did not create me to be a great athlete, or even a good one for that matter. As a kid,  I was slow, clumsy and had no noticeable natural talents. I was made to be an eternal benchwarmer.

So with my dreams of being a great athlete colliding head on with reality, I settled into be just a sports fan.

However, I was always a good student, but of all the subjects I had in school, arithmetic (which later became mathematics, or just plan math) was by far my least favorite and the most difficult for me. Although I learned to do math well enough to get my homework done, I never enjoyed it, and I somehow managed to earn a master’s degree without taking a single math course in college.

By now, you are probably wondering where I am going with this column. What could my love for sports have to do with my disdain for math? My love of sports did more than anything else to improve my math skills. That’s because sports is all about statistics, and statistics are all about math.

When I played Babe Ruth baseball, I was not good enough to start or even play much. So I was assigned the task of keeping the scorecard. When the season ended, I used my math skills to figure out all my teammates’ batting averages and their on-base percentage. I even came up with an earned run average for every pitcher by dividing the number of innings they had pitched by nine and dividing that number into the

number of earned runs they had given up. (This was kind of tough because there are a lot of errors in sandlot baseball, and I had to use my own judgment in determining whether a run was earned or unearned.)

In basketball, I figured out such things as free-throw percentages and field-goal percentages and the number of points per game for each player.

Remember, this was all done before the invention of the inexpensive calculator. In fact, when I was in graduate school at Ohio University in 1970, I needed to find the square roots of some numbers for a paper I was writing. I really needed a calculator for that, but at the time, the least expensive calculator I could find was $106 plus tax. I simply could not afford that and really struggled to do my paper. Just a few years later, you could buy a calculator for less than $10, and not much later, I was given a calculator for opening a new bank account.

Today, I could figure out batting averages and earned run averages in a matter of seconds by using a calculator, but in those ancient times, using a calculator was not an option. So I used long division, and became better at math because of it.

Even before I became a sports fan, I learned math by playing cards with my family. Playing cards was probably are number one activity on the farm, and all of us learned how to keep score. That required us to do a lot of adding and even some substracting.

I also learned to count by playing cards, although I soon learned that it was not 8, 9, 10, jack, queen, king, ace, but 8, 9,10, 11, 12, 13.

However, in the last few years, sports and games have ceased to be a good way to teach children how to count. How else can you explain the Big Ten still being called the Big Ten even though it soon will have 14 teams, and the Big 12 still being called that even though it now has, what — eight teams?

Football also has lost its sense of direction. I mean, San Diego State and Boise State are now in the Big East. Go figure.

Hint to teachers: If you ever have a student who loves sports but hates math, teach him or her how to keep statistics. It worked for me.

And there was another game that helped me learn math: Monopoly. That math was all about money, and what can be more practical than that?

JOHN CANNON can be reached at jcannon@dailyindependent.com or at (606) 326-2649.

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