I’ve been reading about baseball history much of my life, and when I started this blog in May 2009, I considered myself an expert on the subject. For years growing up, I was the odd person among my friends who could recite World Series winners from memory and dispense anecdotes about Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and others. Needless to say, blogging has been an exercise in humility. Since launching this site, I’ve learned a lot about sabermetrics and baseball history. I’ve also learned how much information is out there that I still don’t know.
Much of what I know about baseball comes from books. My grandfather gave me my first baseball history book when I was eight, and since then, I’ve read through more books than I can count: Ken Burns’s Baseball and Lawrence Ritter’s The Lost Ballparks in early adolescence; Ball Four, The Glory of Their Times and Summer of ’49 in recent years. I figured when I started here I’d read a good chunk of the important baseball books in existence. As it turned out, I wasn’t even close. I haven’t scratched the surface with the works of Bill James, John Thorn, Pete Palmer and many other essential baseball writers. Heck, I still haven’t read much of Moneyball. If I ever venture to a desert island, I’m bringing a sabermetric library with me.
For the time being, I’ve commenced to slowly make my way through a list of books that I assume will make me more well-rounded as a baseball writer, researcher and historian. The top of my list features a mix of sabermetric and historical works:
- The Politics of Glory, by Bill James
- The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
- Baseball in the Garden of Eden, by John Thorn
- The Book, by Tom Tango
- The Soul of the Game, by Joe Posnanski
I’m a slow reader, frequently distracted, and it might take me a year to get through those books, though I’ve made a small dent in the list. I have a friend who lives nearby and shares my interest in baseball history, the kind of guy who talks about having gone to Baseball Prospectus outreach events in the past, the dude I saw “Moneyball” with last year. (On a side note, I’d love to get this guy involved with SABR– he’d fit right in.) My friend recently lent me a stack of old Bill James’ abstracts along with a copy of The Politics of Glory. I’m about 300 pages in and I’m liking it so far.
To the uninitiated, The Politics of Glory is a 1994 book James wrote about the Hall of Fame– its history, its membership and how James envisioned reforming the museum. I don’t agree with all of it, but a lot of it’s fascinating reading, a good primer for anyone with an interest in Cooperstown. It’s also been interesting to see how well James’ concepts hold up nearly 20 years after publication. Some ideas fare better than others, which is probably reasonable considering there’s stuff I wrote a couple years ago here that I’d just as soon not have my name on now.
Baseball-Reference.com adopted the Similarity Scores idea James introduces in Chapter 9, as well as his Hall of Fame Monitor, Standards, and Black Ink Test that he writes about at length. I see occasional mentions online to James’ “Keltner List” for Hall of Fame candidates that he breaks down for Chapter 22 (here’s Geoff Young doing it for Mark Davis.) And I’m curious if the book got any players into Cooperstown, specifically George Davis, a forgotten Deadball Era infielder the Veterans Committee honored in 1998. James compares Davis favorably to Joe Tinker in Chapter 16, even writing that at the turn of the 20th century, Davis was one of baseball’s best players.
Less remembered is James’ idea in Chapter 21 to convert pitcher’s win totals, winning percentage and games above .500 to a single Fibonacci score. No one ever acted either on James’ proposal in Chapter 29 to have Hall of Fame voting handled by five groups: players, fans, media, scholars and professionals. Then there’s James list on page 365 of players he predicted would be enshrined by this year (Bill Parker blogged about it here.) James correctly predicted 21 honorees, though players he figured would be in by now but aren’t include Joe Carter, Al Oliver and Brett Butler, who received just two votes in 2003, his only year on the writers ballot for Cooperstown.
All things considered, I’m glad to be reading the book, though it comes at an interesting time. James has been under fire recently for some comments he made defending Joe Paterno, and it makes me wonder how relevant the so-called Godfather of Stats is these days. That’s a post for another time. For now, what I’ll say is that I’m glad to be finally reading him. I’m reading Bill James for the same general reason that I’ve read The Great Gatsby and the first few books of the Old Testament. At least in baseball terms, James is part of the canon of the game’s literature. To not read him, to ignore his work is to miss something vital.