The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
by Bill James
Free Press. 998 pp. $45.00
The soul of America is routinely sought in baseball. What often turns up, of course, is the seeker’s boyhood self. Still, it is not foolish to ask whether we would be different, or become different, if some other public pleasure took baseball’s place.
That question has been the territory of the game’s elegists—a classy bunch, from the poets Marianne Moore and Robert Frost to the novelist John Updike and the essayist and New Yorker editor Roger Angell. Bill James—who writes racy and demotic, if sometimes garrulous, prose—is an exemplar of the fan as reason-giving animal, or analyst. He began baseball’s scientific revolution in 1977 by circulating his first samizdat volume of “abstracts.” His project: to mine the game’s records in new ways in order to investigate what, if any, of its traditional lore might be true. He was looking for the soul of baseball.
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract is really two books united by not much more than affection for the game. The first part, largely anecdotal, offers essays about each decade from the 1870’s to the 1990’s, and another essay on the Negro Leagues. Who were the game’s heroes and villains, what baseball news made the sports page (or police blotter), what were the ballparks like, the uniforms, the equipment, nicknames, strategies, slang? James revels in baseball’s Dickensian eccentricity, providing comedy (lists of juicy names like Yats Wuestling and Nemo Gaines), whimsy (Mrs. James picks the best-and worst-looking players of each decade), and sentiment (tales of hard luck).
In the second part of the book, James introduces a new measure of individual performance on the field, which he then uses to choose and rank the 100 best players of all time and the 100 best at each position. Most readers will no doubt skip directly to this second part, but that would surely not please James. For he calls himself a historian—and baseball is one of the rare American preoccupations in which history runs deep.
Some of that is an accident of mere longevity. Baseball was popular before the Civil War, has inevitably reflected cultural and demographic shifts, was shamed by segregation and partially redeemed by Jackie Robinson (who belongs high on the list of American heroes). But there are also reasons deeply rooted in the nature of the game. One of them is continuity: top players have long careers, and a favorite may easily span one’s own trip from childhood to parenthood. Then, too, the linear action—attention moving from pitcher to batter, to fielder, to runner—lends itself to lucid narrative; a baseball game can be told, with credit and blame assigned. All these tabulations invite, and justify, comparisons across the generations.
The important baseball numbers record long-haul totals and averages, rather than momentary performance peaks like sprints, leaps, or tosses. Merit shows not in the confines of a single game but in the long run—a 162-game season or a twenty-year career. Baseball, the province of dailiness, showcases bourgeois virtues appropriate to a commercial republic. (Football is the game for Achilles.) A player must not be enflamed with adrenaline but “relaxed and alert” (George F. Will). There are many bad days at the office: as Roger Angell famously says, the game consists largely of failure. A team will be in contention for a league pennant if it loses “only” four out of every ten games; a very good batter makes twice as many outs as hits.
Which brings us to the record book. To a nonfan, this is an eye-glazing artifact. By contrast, a fan (or a sportswriter or broadcaster) who is stuck in the pre-scientific age may mistake its raw entries for knowledge: for answers, regardless of the question. What makes a batting champ a batting champ? What else if not the highest batting average?
In part two, Bill James asks (with myriad digressions) who is better. There is only one way to answer this in fundamental terms: whoever helps his team to win more games. And how is that determined? In James’s hands, the process unfolds as a rational reduction—from the winning of games, to the scoring and preventing of runs, to measurable acts of individual players. His is a model of empirical inquiry, and it offers the pleasure of engaging with a mind at work—framing questions, teasing answers from imperfect information, judging how seriously to take the results.
Here is a snippet, drawn from James’s discussion of fielding (that is, defense). The technical problem is that all fielding data are heavily biased by context—by who else is on the field. The complex details of James’s proposed solution can be found in a separate book, Win Shares, co-authored with Jim Henzler1—and James is mighty pleased with the results: “Please understand that I am not claiming that [my] analysis of fielding performance is better than any previous analysis of fielding. . . . I am claiming that [it] is vastly better . . . , light years better.” The Historical Abstract offers something that might be titled Prolegomena to Any Future Fielding Statistics, and it demolishes the measures currently in use.
One example will have to suffice. A standard measure of defensive performance is “fielding percentage”—essentially, the fraction of more-or-less routine plays that a fielder executes successfully. But a fatal flaw in this standard is disclosed by an easily overlooked fact—namely, the fielding percentages of very good and very bad teams are virtually indistinguishable (about 98 percent). A moment’s thought explains why: someone who cannot consistently make routine plays will not be playing in the major leagues. Fielding percentage measures a skill in which the relevant population shows little variation.
James’s discussion here, a widely applicable lesson in informed skepticism, has resonance beyond itself. Is it too much to hope that a fan who has learned to sniff out junk baseball might recognize the scent of other nonsense numbers—the “50,000” child abductions every year (I cite from memory), the “150,000” yearly deaths from anorexia?
Sport at its best has claims on our attention because it celebrates public virtues like fairness and the aspiration to excel. (Not the least of its benefits: a zone in which schoolchildren need not respect the official lie that, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, “there’s no difference between anybody.”) Baseball has special claims because it quietly endorses everyday republican rectitude. We would indeed be different without it—and giving it up would show that we had changed.
Bill James thinks provocatively on a subject worthy of thought. His book offers fans the pleasures, and the liberation, of those stubborn pre-postmodern questions: who is best, and why?
1 STATS Inc., 728 pp., $29.95.