People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws: Age, appearance, personality. Bill James and Mathematics cuts straight through that. Billy, of the twenty thousand notable players for us to consider, I believe that there’s a championship team of twenty five people that we can afford. Because everyone else in baseball undervalues them – like an island of misfit toys.
~Peter Brand, Moneyball
Someone (unknown) once commented, “Baseball is an island of activity amidst a sea of statistics.” There’s no doubt statistics drive the game. Here’s a good general timeline on how that has played out over the years.
Baseball statistician, Bill James, spoke at the University of Kansas last night as part of the James Naismith Lecture Series. I had the privilege of attending the lecture, which centered around “Transitioning from Naïve to Professional Research.” The talk was delightfully engaging, thought-provoking, and amusing.
If you’ve never seen him in person, Bill James is a big man. He stands over six feet tall with noticeably broad shoulders, and he a full head of hair and a large beard that only seems to add to his enormity. He is, of course, even bigger in the baseball world.
But James actually didn’t talk a lot about baseball. He couldn’t entirely avoid it, being such a prolific baseball writer and the founder of sabermetrics. He did talk about the determination of strong versus weak MVP pools, mentioning this article, which, among other things, argues that Eric Hosmer deserves to rank second in the AL MVP race over Aaron Judge. His statement noticeably surprised a lot of folks (and delighted a lot of folks; Lawrence is only about an hour from Kauffman Stadium, after all). “Eric Hosmer’s contribution to the Royals,” James said, “was greater than Aaron Judge’s contribution to the Yankees.” When he puts it that way, it makes sense.
James’s primary discussion, however, revolved around ideas. He compared ideas to seeds on a tree. The seeds of a tree scatter, and though there are thousands upon thousands of seeds that can come off any given tree, if just one of them takes root and becomes another fully-grown tree, that is an astonishing percentage. 99.9% of tree seeds scatter and all they do is become food for animals or clog our sewers and gutters. In the same way, we as human beings come up with hundreds of ideas every single day, and the vast majority of those ideas are throwaways. But if one of those ideas takes root, it can potentially change the world.
Everything around us, he said, once started as an idea. “The Kansas Union was once an idea that somebody had. The University of Kansas was once just an idea that somebody had.” It’s a perspective-altering thought.
This thought has direct relevance to James’s own life. When he graduated from KU in the 1970s, James says he knew his job prospects weren’t great. More than anything, he just wanted to find a job “that didn’t involve taxi cabs, heavy lifting, or armed robbery.” Spending his spare time working with baseball statistics, he said, was something that folks around him would comment was interesting, but that not enough people in the world were interested in it enough for him to ever make a living off it. We know now that those folks’ assessment was proved wrong, and James’s work with statistics became the idea that not only changed his own life, but revolutionized the world of baseball.
This isn’t everything that Bill James spoke about last night, but these are the ideas that particularly struck me. It was one of the more engaging lectures I’ve had the opportunity to attend, and I like to attend these kinds of things whenever I can. The fact that I’m a baseball fan certainly influenced my perspective, but as you can probably tell, it was the kind of talk that even non-fans could appreciate.
School will be back in session before we know it, and this fall, I will be sitting in on a class at the University of Kansas called “The Literature of Baseball.” I won’t actually be taking the class for credit, but I contacted the instructor for the course and managed to get permission to sit in on the class. Naturally, I’ll be reading the material as well.
Suffices to say, I am ridiculously excited about this.
The class is taught by James Carothers, an English professor at KU. He has been teaching the course for decades, and apparently even taught Bill James when James was at KU. I found a great article about Dr. Carothers and the class that was published a few years ago here.
The booklist for the class is as follows:
– Baseball: A Literary Anthology, ed. Nicholas Dawidoff
– The Celebrant, by Eric Rolfe Greenberg
– Eight Men Out, by Eliot Asinof
– The Glory of Their Times, by Lawrence Ritter
– I Had A Hammer, by Hank Aaron
– The Natural, by Bernard Malamud
Through his book A People’s History of Baseball, Mitchell Nathanson offers up a fresh perspective on the history of our beloved national pastime. In the same way that Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States explores and tells the histories of the underrepresented populations of America, Nathanson’s book delves into the untold stories behind the scenes of baseball. While popular baseball histories tell of patriotism, virtue, and heroism, Nathanson probes deeper to uncover a world of player oppression, power struggles, racism, and questionable politics.
Nathanson debunks myths about the perfection and nobility of baseball, as portrayed by the owners and the media. He points out, “[J]ournalists often assume the passive role of stenographers, copying down what is said rather than actively probing their own angles, digging behind the scenes, searching for the story that perhaps is not the one presented to them but the one that lies behind it. …. [C]lub owners … gravitated toward this vehicle in their continual quest to get their preferred message across to the American public.” Through this book, Nathanson attempts to rectify this lack of journalistic muckraking.
He breaks apart the idea of baseball’s beginnings as a “gentleman’s game,” and forces readers to take a harder look at the perception of baseball as a game of patriotism, pride, and morality. Through exposing myths, Nathanson does not merely provide an alternative history of baseball, he offers readers a sort of history of baseball’s history of myths.
When looking at the Black Sox Scandal, for example, the author does not merely perpetuate the common argument over whether the players really did throw the World Series. Rather, he explores the mindset of baseball and of the nation as a whole, reveals the motives of the forces involved in the decision to ban the players, and considers the position of the players themselves.
Nathanson also delves into the “Great Experiment” of bringing on Jackie Robinson as Major League Baseball’s first black player. Breaking the color barrier, he argues, would have worked with just about any player at the time, because America had experienced enough social pressure leading up to this point that the event became inevitable. Furthermore, the expectation of Robinson to maintain an impeccable moral character created a double standard that only served to indirectly continue black oppression.
He describes the revolutionary publications of Bill James in the 1980s, who introduced a new way of looking at baseball statistics to the American public. Contrary to popular belief, baseball presented a wide array of complexities that went beyond merely throwing, catching, and hitting. Nathanson reveals how Bill James’s work only marked the beginning of a whole new outlook on statistical baseball, as embodied today through social media and fantasy baseball.
In many ways, one could almost title this book A Player’s History of Baseball, as Nathanson devotes much of the text to the defense of baseball players against their owners and the media. In his quest to expose the hypocrisy and self-service of baseball’s owners, Nathanson wound up placing baseball players on a pedestal, making it appear as though the players could do no wrong, and they were merely victims of an unfair managing body.
While Nathanson does touch on a number of subjects throughout baseball history, the scope of the book also proved limiting. Though it seems that the brevity of coverage certainly provided for an unencumbered reading experience, in a book of breakthrough revelations, a more in-depth collection of descriptions and explanations would have brought more life to the histories contained within its pages.
Nevertheless, Nathanson presents historians and baseball fans alike with an engaging book that challenges readers to look at baseball with a fresh perspective, and he does so in an easily accessible and readable format. He pulls no punches in his analysis, which provides a refreshingly objective approach in the midst of the uber-patriotism that continues to surround the game.