It's undeniable that Dr. K is a great moniker for Dwight Gooden, and so are the K banners that unfurl from the cheap seats in Shea Stadium every time he puts the Kibosh on an opposing batter. In two years, he's Kommandeered both the rookie of the year award and the Cy Young (a name, alas, in which the K is silent but still has a pronounced effect).
The stock-in-trade for the Mets pitcher is the rally-quenching strikeout, whose universal symbol on baseball scorecards is the letter K. Why K? We can thank Henry Chadwick (1824-1908), amateur ballplayer, sportswriter, and baseball editor of the New York Clipper.
For a time early in this century, Henry was known as "the Father of Baseball." Not as pithy as Dr. K, but with a certain charm.
Chadwick was a prolific writer, and even today the card catalogue at the Library of Congress contains almost an inch of slips that detail his books on lawn bowling, chess, skating, curling, American cricket, yachting and rowing. But baseball, to judge from the number of titles alone, was clearly his first love, and he turned out separate volumes on hitting, base-running and pitching.
In the early 1860s, Chadwick came up with a system for keeping track of games. Published as Chadwick's Association Scorebook and endorsed by the National Baseball Association in 1865, it gradually took hold and was widely reprinted.
It is probably no coincidence that Chadwick was chairman of the rules committee of the first National Association and editor of the DeWitt Handbooks. That publication evolved into Spalding's Official Baseball Guides, which Chadwick edited from 1881 to 1908.
Letters were the key to Chadwick's system. A meant a putout at first base, B at second, C at third. F was a caught flyball, and L a caught foul. K signified "struck out," as Chadwick wrote in 1883, because "it was the prominent letter of the word strike, as far as remembering the word was concerned."
Later in the century, a number of competing systems came into use. The printing and selling of seasonal schedules, score cards, and even tables of percentages (for won-lost records and standings) had become a big business.
Gradually, although much of Chadwick's system fell into disuse, his K was retained.
The letter K long has been used in an astonishing variety of other senses.
Mozart's music, for example, carries a K-number in addition to its title, in honor of Ludwig Ritter von Koechel, the cataloguer and musicologist. This means the D Major Piano Concerto is also known as K-537. This translates to 537 strikeouts, an admirable two-season total. Too, there is the case of Joseph K -- also known as Joe Strikeout -- the aptly named hero of Kafka's novel The Trial. Everything happens to him.
Advertisers and public relations people seem strangely taken by K. Let's see, during the Beatles era, there was Murray-the-strikeout. Who would want to shop for a bargain at a place called Strikeout-Mart? How about a ride in a Strikeout-Car?
But Dwight Gooden has helped restore some balance to the historical meaning of K. In the Middle Ages, K stood for 250, a nice round total-wins figure for Dr. K to aim at. And a variation of K meant 250,000 . . . ah, but perhaps the good doctor's agent can think of a better use for that sum.