PnP Conversation: The Bigness of the Babe and Bill James

via flickr user doradora

Eric: Bill James has written an essay for Slate called Life, Liberty, and Breaking the Rules. Actually, essay might not be the right word; the piece feels more like performance art — a structureless, egomaniacal rant in the tradition of frustrated talk radio calls, and furious letters to the editor. Alex Belth at Bronx Banter thought it fit to ask the simple quetion: “Is Bill James losing it?

I think he might be, Ted. The piece starts off in mid-conversation, as if clipped from exasperated correspondence. (“First of all” rarely bodes well as an opening clause). And it quickly dives into a tone so defensive and so earnest that readers would be justified in wondering what they might have done or thought to deserve such treatment. James only gets weirder and more confounding from there, by using the word “bullshit” multiple times and leaping haphazardly from the deeply personal to the sweepingly general to the just plain anecdotal.

James probably means less to Pitchers & Poets than he does to most baseball publications. We are relatively unconcerned with statistical analysis and the baseball establishment (though we do appreciate the premium he puts on convention-breaking). Instead, we focus on the experiential, the ephemeral, and the personal. Which is what makes this article so interesting. It’s totally, almost embarrassingly personal.

I’m not especially well-versed in the guy — I’ve never even picked up one of his Baseball Abstracts — but I think you might be. So my question is, what do you make of all this? Is he actually losing it?

Ted: Your lack of experience reading Bill James’ stuff shows itself. I’m no Jamesian scholar, but I’ve read much of his Historical Baseball Abstract. He is, in fact, as taken with the historical and extremely non-analytical side of the game as he is with the numbers. The abstract’s player descriptions are more engaging, on many levels, than the numbers (for me, anyway), as James clearly takes great pleasure in finding the little-known anecdotes about little-known players and sharing them with a dash of his own sensibility. So stats, yes, but he’s also a sort of self-made historian and has set a long precedent for discussing things like Babe Ruth’s eating habits and cheating in baseball, etc.

Okay, with that said, he might be losing it. James has always reminded me of the really smart, fairly anti-social kid that you sit next to in science class in middle school. If you are of a certain temperament, and you’re a little susceptible to strong personalities, even anti-social ones, you might make friends with him and go over to his house a couple of times and watch him hack computer games and steal liquor from his parents and ramble engagingly about perverse topics and children’s cartoons. This kid’s intellect is apparent, and between perversities he says some truly insightful stuff, way ahead of its time. But deep down, you know that if you hitch your horse to this wagon train, it’ll take you somewhere you don’t really want to go.

Now, James only reminds me of that kid. He’s not perverse, and a life of corporate crime isn’t the only outcome for his acolytes. But, he is now revealing the weirder side of anti-social, anti-establishment intelligence. This article is the equivalent of poruing mixed drinks from his parents’ dusty bottles of forgotten booze.

I write fragments if I goddamned well feel like it. I refuse to follow many of the principles of proper research that are agreed upon by the rest of the academic world. An editor said to me last year, “Well, you’ve earned the right to do things your own way.” Bullshit; I was that way when I was 25.

Exhibit A: he compares himself and his writer’s life to the career of Babe Ruth, with seemingly little irony. The article could be called “What Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds and I Did to Achieve Greatness, and Why We Don’t Care What You Think About It.” And I quote: “It doesn’t make me a bad person; it makes me who I am.” Uh, Bill, who has called you a bad person? You didn’t cheat at writing fun books and building insightful commentary. Steroids and corked bats do not equal unsound grammar and self-publishing.

Granted, his argument is slightly more subtle than that, but the fact is he placed himself in the same paragraph as the Babe and Barry Bonds and Ted Williams. I don’t know much about much, but I know a slightly unsettling feeling when I feel one, and that made me a little nervous about his creative sensibility, and his taste.

Okay, now that I’ve started the claim that he’s off his rocker, I’ll offer that his actual argument has some merit. America was built by hustlers, as claimed in the book I’m reading called Freedom Just Around the Corner by Walter A. McDougall. Even the Puritans basically said to the king, yeah sure cool we’re your servants, etc., while they set up their own economy and government and went after it American-style.

So what do you think of his argument, that we should leave Babe Ruth alone. You know, work to end those anti-Babe rallies on the mall in Washington, D.C., and discontinue our Impeach George Herman campaign….

Eric: I accept my lack of experience reading Bill James. And I accept the fact that his influence goes beyond statistics.

That said, I think your description of James as I know his reputation — and has he is portrayed by other writers, like Rob Neyer and Joe Posnanski — seems accurate. He does seem to be teetering on the edge. As Neyer wrote of the article, it says more about Bill James than it does anything else, including Babe Ruth.

On the subject of Babe Ruth, I think we are crossing into an altogether different dimension. James is a cult hero and it is unlikely that he will ever be anything more than a cult hero. Babe Ruth on the other hand is a tall tale. If they aren’t already, the historical facts of his life will soon mean a great deal less than the myth of his existence. I don’t think it’s silly at all to put Ruth in the same category as Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan and even John Henry. The pie-eating, beer-guzzling, home run bashing Babe. He fits right in. He’s is folk. Hell, 2014 will be 100 seasons since he made his Red Sox debut.

With that status in America’s history and its collective cultural conscious come certain realities. One of those realities is that like those 19th century folk heroes, Babe Ruth will ibe studied exhaustively. His legacy will be proven and disproven. His behavior will be roundly criticized and roundly applauded. We already see this happening with stories about calling shots and hitting home runs for sick children.

To argue, as James appears to, for a kind of willful ignorance on subjects like Ruth, seems, well, willfully ignorant. One can’t expect us to look back and appreciate that “America was built by hustlers,” as you put it, without actually investigating and learning about those hustlers. Furthermore, I find that narrative unconvincing. I think America was built by hustlers. But it was also built by slaves and preachers and educators and poor farmers. It was also built by immigrants and poets and soldiers.

via flickr user photohound

There is that indefatigable spirit of America. The one that Whitman wrote about and the Founding Fathers embodied and James appears to be trying to tap into. It exists and that’s a great thing. But James is warping the spirit considerably. His adventures illegally crossing a railroad track to get to a convenience store are hardly the stuff of Vanderbilts and Carnegies and pioneers moving westward on the Oregon trail. Crossing that railroad track isn’t even a risky enough act to work as a metaphor. Not to be petty, but a billion people in places like Beijing and Rome and Mexico City jaywalk every day. Does that mean they too are imbibed with the spirit of America?

To answer your question, I don’t think we should leave Babe Ruth alone. We should continue to celebrate him and explore his history. But the notion that anybody is trying to discredit him feels foolish.

I want to go back to the idea that America was built by hustlers. As I mentioned, I find that narrative unconvincing — especially as we often see it in film and tv and book portrayals as an excuse for and explanation of organized crime. The Godfather has a million examples of it, from the opening scene in which the poor abused baker Enzo says “I believe in America” to Michael Corleone’s military heroism to the famed panoramic image of the parked car in the golden field with the Statue of Liberty looming in the background over the murderous scene.

It obviously works in the movie. And there is an element of truth in the notion. But I’m not all the way there. Tell me why America is a nation of hustlers, not a nation of something else.

Ted: Well, vis a vis the hustler concept, I don’t want to press on someone else’s point too hard, and I agree in large part with your assessment of who has built the America that exists today. One side note is that the author of the hustler idea stressed the double meaning of the term hustle, meaning to scheme but also to work hard. And hard work applies to both the stereotypical Godfather-style ascendance, and to your average everyday American success story.

I think there’s something to be said for doing something in the spirit of something. Like capturing or tapping into the spirit of the time, or using your force of personality to influence the way people see something that is askew. I think Bill James used his power of personality to drive the baseball conversation in a more intelligent, more interesting direction, and I think Babe Ruth used his power of personality to save baseball and take it to a new place. Suffice it to say, I don’t think that Barry Bonds did that, and I’m fairly sure that Roger Clemens didn’t do that. Sosa and Mcgwire do present a more complicated argument, because of the way that they saved baseball and really did elevate the game when it was in the crapper.

Hey, I’m with Bill. This stuff is complicated.

But he takes it too far. His essay goes from Babe Ruth to steroids to crop spraying to crossing the railroad tracks to Branch Rickey. From insider trading to violent crime to Prohibition. It isn’t that he’s wrong, it’s that he’s off in the Milky Way. Every argument is covered, giving the impression that James wanted to write something that included the contents of his active brain, rather forming a cohesive argument. And ultimately that’s fine. It’s a great way to learn about yourself and about a topic, by exploring all of its facets. But is this a consistent, compelling, drum-tight, “print”-worthy piece? Probably not.

The primary offense James is committing is Failure to Self-Edit. His prominence may have gained him an editor’s hesitance to question what the hell he’s talking about. Hell, I probably wouldn’t say that to his face either.

It may be that rather than showing us the real Bill James or something intense like that, he’s showing us the limitations of his artfulness. He is more effective when summarizing a baseball player’s career, or sharing a story from the annals of baseball anecdote. I might in the end leave the column-format policy argumentation to Thomas Friedman.

With all of that said, are we holding Bill to a standard too high? He never claimed to be Thomas Friedman. In fact, one of his genius moves is to avoid claiming any particular identity. In a way, allying himself with Bonds or Ruth is one way of attaining the freedom of the pariah, a role he hasn’t enjoyed in decades.

3 Responses to “PnP Conversation: The Bigness of the Babe and Bill James”

  • Thomas Friedman? Really? Thomas “the next six months” Friedman? Mr. Establishment Journalism? Mr. Mixed Metaphor? Mr. Intellectual Lightweight?

    Huh. Curious choice.

  • I guess I’m referring to the Friedman who has the easily digestible, wide-audience, capital-I Ideas that he wraps up and slaps a bow on. James doesn’t try and make his ideas that succinct, catchy, or all-inclusive.

  • Right on. I know what you meant by the reference, and you just summed it up very . . . succinctly and catchily. I guess it just drove home the fact that I had just read a 2000-word blog post set off by the fact that Bill James wrote an unconventional and somewhat loopy article. To be sure, it was an interesting and well-spoken blog post, but I have to say, I find the idea that Bill James might be losing it kind of puzzling, especially if by “it” you mean “his mind”. I don’t think he was ever trying to give his work general appeal–he’s an iconoclast. And it doesn’t surprise me to find that he’s maybe not that smart outside of the fields of statistical analysis and baseball history. He seems like a classic boomer type, individualistic and skeptical, but he’s a classic boomer who just happens to have achieved enough fame to get his articles published in Slate even if they’re inchoate.

    The other reason I felt unsettled enough to comment here is that people like Friedman are a pox on this country. They are the reason the death of journalism in terms of newspapers contracting and folding is redundant. Journalism died decades ago, and people like Friedman killed it. His writing style, which goes down smooth and leaves no aftertaste, goes hand-in-hand with his unquestioning mind and establishment sensibilities. Bill James is a world away from the Potemkin Village op-ed page of the New York Times, of course, but he’s searchingly reflective and anti-establishment, and those are two valuable traits here at the beginning of a century in which it is becoming obvious that we lost our way as a nation a long time ago. He just seems not to have a way to put those traits to very good use in prose that isn’t strictly about baseball.

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