March 3, 2006
BASEBALL: The Mind of Bill James
I recently finished reading my advance copy of The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball, by Scott Gray, due in stores March 14. The book is a sort of biography of James, mixing in details about his life with a sprawling look at his thinking on many subjects. I enjoyed the book, and if you are either a certified Bill James fanatic or want an introduction to what the fuss is all about, it's worth a read. But the book had three fundamental problems.
The first problem is that Gray is on well-plowed ground here. Michael Lewis' Moneyball, released in 2003, put James' story in the context of the implementation of his ideas by the Oakland A's. Alan Schwartz' The Numbers Game, released in 2004, told James' story again, this time in the context of a historical review of baseball statistics and analysis and their devotees. Gray offers up some new biographical details (did you know that like Babe Ruth and Tom Seaver, James' real first name is George?), but by now the story of the self-published night watchman who was discovered by Dan Okrent and came to dominate the baseball best-seller list is pretty well known, and while Gray keeps the focus almost entirely on James, readers of Lewis' and Schwartz' books may feel this is all something of a rehash.
The second problem is one that's unique to readers like me, the hard-core James fanatics: Gray peppers his book with generous excerpts of James' best writing. He clearly shares my taste in this regard, reliving many of my favorite Jamesian riffs. For readers who haven't been back to the Asbtracts in many years or missed them (or were too young) when they were out, this will undoubtedly be a real treat. Personally, I could recite most of these excerpts by heart at this stage, and so skimmed over a lot of them. One thing I will note is that the book only underlines the crying need for someone to take the out-of-print 1977-88 Abstracts, The Baseball Book 1990-92, the 1994 Player Ratings Book, and the various magazine articles James wrote in those years and collect them all into a hardcover set. There is definitely a market for this stuff - heck, there's a market for increasingly dog-eared old third-hand copies of the Asbtracts - and James' writings in this period deserve to be memorialized for his writing and groundbreaking work as well as to preserve a contemporary account of the era from the perspective of its most incisive observer.
The third problem the book has is - unlike the first two - not dependent on what the reader has or has not read. Gray promises in the preface to ramble off on tangents, and he delivers; these don't get dull or confusing, but the book is rather excessively disorganized, and has something of a patched-together feel to it.
Anyway, as I said, if you are as big a James devotee as I am, any new Bill James is a treat, and besides the new biographical stuff there are extensive discussions with James (mostly conducted via email, apparently) about numerous different subjects (there's a lot of his thoughts on crime stories, which he follows obsessively). And the book has a few other good moments thrown in that aren't strictly on topic, including one priceless if possibly apocryphal anecdote - which I hadn't seen before, though I'd seen similar ones about the same game - about a Red Sox fan watching Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS in a London bar in the wee hours of the morning, when some drunken cricket fan who'd never seen baseball before asks him, "Excuse me, sir, but would the rules permit those fellows to employ a substitute for the bowler? He seems to be laboring a bit."
A fun read, for all of that.
UPDATE: Reviews from Aaron Gleeman and David Pinto and some thoughts from Matt Welch.
Sorry Dan. Game 7 was lost at around 4am, London time. Nobody in one of the handful of sports bars that stayed open that late to watch it end would have been clueless about baseball. Also, nobody talks like that any more.
And he would have spelt it "labouring".
Well, the tale told in the book says the guy had to beg to keep the bar open that late.
But like I said, it has the ring of an apocryphal story.
The begging is true; we took up a collection during Game 5 of the A's series so we could pay the Sports Cafe staff to stay on until the end. Best £10 I ever spent.
Advance copy? I guess it's Mr. Baseball Crank now.
An advance copy? I guess it's Mr. Baseball Crank now. What's next? Should we be looking for you on the red carpet at the Oscars?
I think many people missed the point of Moneyball, which was Beane needing to find positives in areas that the moneyed teams didn't, so he learned how to maximize value. For a long time it was OBA, now it will have to be something else.
The Numbers Game was great. I find it interesting that people learned how to quantify numbers in baseball at an early age; something that no other sport has been able to do.
Bill James is probably most people's favorite literary baseball analyst; like Asimov, he writes in a simple conversational form that is really hard to do, and therefore gets his point across exceptionally well. The fact that he is comfortable with numbers is the added plus.
I am very impressed that you got an advance copy--I got one once to review as I do the newsletter for my woodworking club, and was very flattered. This is a much bigger deal, and thanks for the heads up.
And the pub story sounds too pat to be true, I must say.
I don't remember when it was published, but James himself did put together a compilation of at least the Abstract years in hard cover. It was called Let's Not Eat The Bones. It's several years old now, too, but it seems like you should still be able to find it through Amazon or Barnes and Noble or some place like that.
I have that book, but (a) it's also out of print and (b) it's got some of his best writing but is missing a lot, including the detailed studies.
I got rid of my '84-88 Abstracts in one of my many moves. Yes, I kick myself nearly every baseball game.
I got em all. Through numerous moves, I managed to keep all of Bill James stuff. One of my favourites is his comment on Danny Ainge. Dribble...,dribble...
The story is doubtless fake but accurate, because even a drunk who'd never seen any baseball before in his life could tell Pedro was done. If only the Sox had been managed by a drunk who'd never seen any baseball rather than by Grady Little.
Good for you, Giving up emotions even negative ones is a very hard prospect. Reading you post made me think about if there are any negative emotions that I need to shut out of my life.
Hi. Thanks for reading.
The London Pedro story is true. I wish I didn't have to give the telling of it that apocryphal tone, but I wasn't given a choice. Of course the beauty is what Andrew pinpoints: It's accurate either way.
Re Dan's three points:
On point one: There is some unavoidable retracing of the basic outline of Bill's story, but there are more than just a few details that go beyond what's been written before. Bill's childhood, his time in college and the army... these aren't rehashed at all.
On point two: This can also be stated as a problem with writing about Bill James: His hardcore fans are not going learn something new on every page. A reporter for Bloomberg the other day wrote a brief note about the book that implied it wouldn't be of interest if you *weren't* already into James. Oh well.
On point three: I made significant structural changes that will be in the final book but aren't reflected in the advance copies. That said, I agree that the structure is somewhat cobbled, but, as the project unfolded, I felt that doing it any other way (I did try it with more structure) made it too linear and a lot less fun. Of course it isn't up to me to judge if it works or not.
I hope this well-intended arguin' doesn't come across wrong. I meant that "thanks for reading" (above)!
I was delighted to find this page, and particularly that Mr. Gray himself is on here.
Scott, you have written a wonderful book. It gives more heretofore-unknown info about James than the posts here would lead one to believe, plus (as I elaborated in a review on Amazon), I think the biographical technique that you used was highly creative, and near unique. I think that as time goes on, you will get more and more credit for that.