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"Finally, McGraw. I certainly didn't expect Carlton and Schmidt to have the seasons they did, but I knew they were capable of it. But Tug McGraw? At 35? Coming off a 5.14 ERA in 1979? He had a 1.47 ERA in 1980, a better than 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, excepting intentional walks, and gave up only 6.07 hits per nine innings. Astonishing.
"Considering everything, what I wrote about the Phillies a year ago doesn't look bad at all."
Babe Ruth never apologized for striking out with the bases loaded, either.
James is 31, with a B.A. in English and economics, graduate credits in psychology, a passion for William Faulkner and an abiding interest in the French Revolution—all more or less standard attributes for a resident of a college town like Lawrence, site of the University of Kansas. But James spends less time analyzing Faulkner's prose or Robespierre's motives than he does calculating the average time of games worked by various umpiring teams, or figuring statistically which pitchers are really best at holding runners on first base. His father, George, 74, who still lives in Mayetta, Kans. (pop. 246), where Bill was raised, says of his son's boyhood, "Mostly, Bill had his nose in books, but he was a baseball nut, too, like a lot of other people. He was just nuttier than most." And a lot smarter, too. Unfortunately, a statistician's mythology is not like that of a fastball pitcher; we have no mental picture of young Bill hurling stats at the side of a barn, sharpening his nominal curve.
In any case, in 1975, when he was a graduate student at Kansas, a professor told him it would take five to eight years for him to get the Ph.D. he was working toward, and that even after he had it there probably wouldn't be many jobs available. "What am I doing?" James remembers asking himself. "Why should I invest all this time in a degree I don't really want and won't be able to sell?" He decided to pack it in and try instead to become a writer. What would he write about? Something he knew. What did he know? Baseball. He'd turn his lifelong obsession with the game into a professional endeavor. Easy.
It turned out to be not so easy. His early baseball articles usually ended up in publications that paid him "with free copies and misspelled bylines," and a living obviously had to be made, even though James says he has learned from his wife, Susan McCarthy, an artist, "how to live on nothing." In 1976 he became a high school English teacher and earned $9,500, still the most he's ever made in a year. Later, he worked for a time as a boiler attendant—a watchman of sorts—in a food-packing plant in Lawrence, which turned out to be an ideal job for James. "I'd spend five minutes an hour making sure the furnaces didn't blow up," he says, "and 55 minutes working on my numbers."
The numbers were baseball statistics, which fascinate James as much as they do most baseball fans. The difference is that he finds things in them that most people don't know are there. "A baseball field," he says, "is so covered with statistics that nothing can happen there without leaving its tracks in the records. There may well be no other facet of American life, the activities of laboratory rats excepted, which is so extensively categorized, counted and recorded." James distinguishes himself from most other stat men by adding, "I love numbers, but not for themselves. I don't care for them as conclusions. I start with the game, with the things I see there or the things people say are there. And I ask, 'Is it true? Can you validate it? Can you measure it?' For instance, why do people argue about which shortstop has the best range or which catcher has the best arm? Why not figure it out? You can get a pretty good idea by abstracting information from the available data."
In 1977 James produced his first Baseball Abstract and has come out with a new edition each year since (the 1981 version is just about ready). At first glance, it's a simple, straightforward-looking publication, with lists of numbers, detailed charts and blocks of copy presented in orderly fashion, all of it reproduced on a photocopying machine and bound in ordinary kraft paper. The book has four main sections, one for each of major league baseball's divisions, and these are subdivided into team-by-team analyses. There might be four or five pages for each team, with detailed information on its top 10 or 12 hitters and top five or six pitchers, as well as a commentary (sometimes quite pungent) on some aspect of the team, or its stars, or its manager. Here and there through the Abstract are other, more generalized, lists and two or three longer essays bearing such titles as "Trade Value" or "De Facto Standards for the Hall of Fame" or "Pythagoras and the Logarithms."
James softens the heaviness of such titles, as well as the relentless march of statistics, with his writing, which is spry and graceful. Disparaging the distinction made in baseball between all runs allowed by a pitcher and just "earned runs," he says, "It seems pointless to hold the pitcher responsible if the catcher can't throw, the second baseman can't pivot, the leftfielder can't move and the centerfielder thinks that the cutoff man is a plastic surgeon, but to excuse him for responsibility if a ball bounces off someone's glove." Discussing Mickey Rivers' reputation for having a bad throwing arm, James says, "Rivers is famous for his throwing not because his throws are so bad but because he looks so funny making them. A lot of his throws are bad, but if he didn't throw like a chicken, people wouldn't notice it."
Some observations are more matter-of-fact. On base stealing: "The common wisdom, which is to say that most often quoted by the announcers, is that you don't steal on the catcher, you steal on the pitcher. I suspect that the repetition this little acorn receives is largely an attempt to overcompensate for the audience's natural disposition to think of stolen bases coming against the catcher; whatever, it is clear that bases are stolen against both the pitcher and the catcher, and a serious inadequacy on the part of either will surely cost both."