Reading Bill James for the first time

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 FourThe 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:

  1. The Politics of Glory, by Bill James
  2. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
  3. Baseball in the Garden of Eden, by John Thorn
  4. The Book, by Tom Tango
  5. 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. 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.

7 Replies to “Reading Bill James for the first time”

  1. I have been reading Bill James’s work for over 30 years, and I’ve found it provocative and fascinating. Like a lot of other folks, I found that it awakened me to aspects of the game I wasn’t aware of. I am actually envious that you get to read Bill James for the first time.

    I think it’s completely appropriate for there to be 2 Bill James books in your five to read. I would strongly advocate “Lords of the Realm” by John Helyar. I would describe it as a history of the business side of baseball–not sure if that’s how the book jacket describes it. It’s a terrific read, and it will round you out on yet another side of the game. That would be in my top 3 baseball books to read, along with “Ball Four” and the “Historical Baseball Abstract.”

  2. Graham,
    I’ve read books 1-3 on your list, have thought about 4 and am not familiar with the Pos book. I’m also a big fan of Bill James going back to the late 80s… Obviously I don’t REALLY know what you’ll think of anything you read, but i think you’ll have lots of good reads ahead. I’m especially fond of the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (well, and the original).
    The baseball book that I STILL haven’t read that I think is the most “How could he have not read this?” would have to be Ball Four. And I keep MEANING to read it… it just hasn’t happened. Yet.

  3. I like all those and I would add 3 that you’ll like and find enlightening: The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter; A False Spring by Pat Jordan; and the Notes for Masochists chapter in any of the early fantasy book annuals by Alex Patton.

    Also, as much as i love Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract, I find the Abstracts from his Abstracts for 1977 to 1988 to be very thought provoking:

  4. Hi CK, I definitely have a copy of The Glory of Their Times. It’s a major influence and one of my favorite baseball books.

    I haven’t read Jordan or Patton’s books. I’ll try to remember to keep my eyes peeled the next time I’m at the used bookstore.

  5. Enjoy the BJ Abstract, buddy! (And say goodbye to the next month of your life…)

    Nomination for a super fun baseball read, I just finished Leo Durocher’s “Nice Guys Finish Last.”

    The guy was everywhere in 20th century baseball, like a foul-mouthed, pool-hustling, Forrest Gump. Started with The Babe and the ’27 Yankees, Captained the Gas House Gang Cardinals in ’34, Manager of the Dodgers when Jackie was signed, was in the Dugout for the Bobby Thompson homer, and the collapse of the ’69 Cubs. It’s a heckuva story.

  6. Really, the entire field of sabrmetrics is more or less built on James’ work. so the Historical Abstract is a must-read, and if you can find some of the yearly Abstracts from the 80s, all the better. i would concur on Jordan’s book; by all accounts, Jordan has become a pretty major asshole as he has aged, and he hasn’t written anything much good in an awful long time, but he wrote some fine things in the 70s.

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