Well, given what he’s done to change the game of baseball forever, maybe you have. But he sure keeps a low profile.
The youngest of seven children in a Holton, Kan., farm family, this fellow has gone on to become a living legend in one of America’s most highly visible industries. And although he continues to live in Kansas, even the people next door may not know that Time has designated their neighbor “one of the 100 most influential people in the world.”
The fellow’s name is Bill James. ESPN’s Brian Kenny rightly calls him, “the most influential thinker in the modern history of baseball.” To put his importance to the industry in perspective, the chapter about James in Kenny’s book “Ahead of the Curve” is titled, “The Godfather.”
A View from the Outside
Forty years ago, James had no more connection to baseball than any other fan anywhere in the country. What he saw, he saw from the outside. A contrarian by nature, he looked at the way baseball was being organized and managed and called foul.
Despite the daily scrutiny from thousands of sportswriters and millions of fans, baseball management continued to make decisions—when to bunt, steal, take a walk, pull a starter—for no better reason than that was the way they had always been made.
When I first discovered James many years back, two thoughts crossed my mind: the first was this is exactly what baseball needs; the second was why had I not thought to do what James was doing.
Even as a kid I sensed something amiss in the way the game was imagined and strategized. To set the world in order, I felt compelled to create my own baseball board game. The store-bought games were too random, and the real games were too remote.
To make my game work, I had to first figure out the dice odds. In New Jersey, where I grew up, calculating odds would prove to be as useful a life skill as calculating soybean yield is in the Midwest. I was not yet 10 at the time.
In my world, Mickey Mantle would hit almost exactly as many home runs and strike out just as often as he would back at Yankee Stadium. And at my ballpark, he never showed up hungover.
Discovering James was an epiphany enough. To learn that the guy still lived here in the area, Lawrence to be precise, bowled me over. Ever since Walt Disney followed his mouse to Hollywood—sorry, “muse”—Kansas Citians have come to expect its innovators to fly the coop.
A KU grad, James began writing articles about baseball while working nights at the Stokely-Van Camp canning factory, then operating in Lawrence. He had two talents that rarely come together in a single individual, let alone a security guard—a creative way with statistics and a witty, irreverent writing style.
Given James’ remove from ballparks and ballplayers, magazine editors were not keen on publishing his unorthodox articles. So in 1977 he began publishing them himself. His first collection—1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 categories of statistical information that you just can’t find anywhere else—sold 75 copies.
Undaunted, James published a 1978 collection that sold 250 copies. A few sportswriters began to notice, and sales picked up. In 1982, a major publisher released The Bill James Baseball Abstract, and stat junkies like me devoured it.
Not dependent on access to a locker room, James could critique players and managers in ways that a beat reporter could not. He could also cut through the mythology that defines each player—Charlie Hustle, Mr. October, Sultan of Swat—and zero in on the player’s quantifiable contribution to the team’s success.
In 1985, he released The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. Kenny calls it “staggeringly interesting,” and I would have to agree. James managed to make historical comparisons between players of different eras make sense. Spoiler alert: Babe Ruth is still the best of them all.
In the course of his writing, James not only deflated the value of some overrated stars, but he also set in motion the mechanism to recognize the underrated. In general, these were the players who quietly got on base—a walk is as good as a single in James’ world—and scored runs.
For all the wisdom implicit in James’ writing, Major League Baseball resisted it. Management continued to employ strategies that had not made sense since the introduction of the live ball in 1909.
Then one hard-pressed general manager decided to channel Bill James. His name was Billy Beane. His team was the underfunded, small-market Oakland Athletics. And his goal was simply to win more games than the other guys.
As Kenny writes, “Bill James’ writ-ing made sense to a baseball fan with an open mind and intellectual curiosity. Michael Lewis’ writing about Billy Beane learning from Bill James made sense to everybody. Once it made sense to everybody, there was no stopping it.”
Lewis’ book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, was published in 2003. The movie version starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane came out in 2011. Those who have either read the book or seen the movie know that Beane, using “Jamesian thinking,” assembled a team of seeming nobodies and turned it into a winner.
In 2002, the Boston Red Sox hired James himself and started accumulating the players that he was recommending. With only Beane’s Athletics plotting the future the way James’ Red Sox were, the Red Sox bobbed for players in an all but unfiltered talent pool.
Over the next seven seasons, the Red Sox won at least 95 games six times. In 2004, the Red Sox undid the “curse of the Bambino” and won their first World Series in 86 years. They won again in 2007 and in 2013.
Today, just about everyone has caught on. The resistance is all but over. James is a prophet with honor in America’s baseball capitals.
But in his own hometown, he’s just another guy.