Wednesday, June 28, 2006
People who have read Moneyball are familiar with the rough contours of James life, but The Mind of Bill James fills in the gaps quite nicely. Simply put, James grew up with a very analytical mind and spent many of his early days analyzing why the Kansas City A’s were amongst the worst teams in baseball. Later James turned to the overall game of baseball and published the Baseball Abstract, his ground-breaking work on the baseball. Since then, much to his annoyance, Bill James has become synonymous with statistics. Reading the book it becomes apparent why: James doesn’t simply write about numbers. He uses his information as tools to make larger points about the game. James has an acid tongue that suffers no fools. The idea that he’s a “numbers guy” as opposed to a writer / critic must gall him.
I like the way Gray writes this book. The late Stephen Ambrose wrote in Citizen Soldiers than he was always taught, as a historian, to quote his sources whenever possible because they were the participants. They were there. They knew what happened. Gray takes the same overall philosophy with The Mind of Bill James: much of the book is simply quotes from James where he speaks at length about his thoughts or feelings on a particular subject and then Gray moves the narrative along. Gray lets James words do the talking. Consider this quote: “…[B]aseball is an insular world in which there is a great deal of thinly veiled anti-intellectualism … An assortment of half-wits, nincompoops, and Neanderthals … are not only allowed to pontificate on whatever strikes them, but are actually solicited and employed to do this …” (Page 120.) I particularly liked James thoughts on sabremetrics critic Joe Morgan: “This is not to deny that you were a brilliant player, Joe, but you are becoming a self-important little prig.” (Page 123.)
After about a week of reading, I put down The Mind of Bill James and was struck by how revolutionary James thoughts have been. I’ve compared James to Martin Luther, but I’m not so sure that the analogy is apt. I’d compare James more to Charles Darwin, a man whose unique understanding of science and information translated into ideas that transformed the way that we think about the game. In a sea of announcers and pundits who offer little more than to tell us that the secret to baseball is to score more runs than the opposition, James shines like a beacon of light. This is a terrific book.