It's possible that there would have been no revolution without Fidel and Che, and it's possible there would have been no stat-based deeper understanding of baseball without Bill James. But he is an original--who else can say they started, by themselves, an entirely new academic discipline? I'm like a lot of people--started buying the Abstract after reading the Dan Okrent article in SI, have read everything I can get my hands on since. So I had to buy his new book, which isn't about baseball at all. It's about murder.
Here's what people always got wrong about Bill James--he wasn't actually interested in baseball statistics. He was interested in the game of baseball. It's just that the statistics dominated the conversation about baseball; that was always true. When I was a kid, a good hitter was a guy who hit .300 hitter with 100 RBI's. That was what was meant by a really good hitter. A good pitcher won 20 games. I remember driving my Mom nuts trying to explain to her how batting average was calculated. She thought I was wasting my time with statistical esoterica, which drove her crazy because I was flunking 4th grade math. I was just a baseball fan--being a baseball fan meant knowing what batting average was. Stats were the language of baseball. I remember Roger Angell pointing this out. I'm paraphrasing, but the way he put it: the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies had a team batting average of .315. They scored 944 runs. And they finished 52-102, in last, 40 games out of first. With those four numbers, you have said a great deal about the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies.
Bill James wanted to study baseball, figure things out about it, examine conventional wisdom and see what conclusions could be supported by evidence. That meant looking at statistics differently than they'd been looked at before. We're the beneficiaries today, and we talk about WAR and BABIP and SNVLR, but we're just trying to understand the game better. I think most of us don't really care about the numbers per se. We just love baseball, and we're fortunate enough to live in a time where our understanding of baseball has been enhanced by new ways of looking at it.
So now, Bill James has a new book, about murder. But it's not a book full of murder statistics. It's a book that tries to understand the phenomenon of a particular kind of media-hype murder. He takes this phenomenon--the fact that some murders get a tremendous amount of media attention--and looks at it, examines conventional wisdom, draws conclusions based on evidence. He looks at murder differently than most people have. Along the way:
He draws some conclusions about specific murders. Albert DeSalvo probably wasn't the Boston Strangler; Bruno Hauptmann was, however, the kidnapper/killer of the Lindbergh baby. JonBenet Ramsey wasn't murdered by her parents--and James paints a picture of the guy who did kill her specific enough that they ought to be able to catch the guy. He thinks Sam Sheppard probably hired a guy to kill his wife, and that Rabbi Neulander was probably innocent.
He also draws conclusions about the Kennedy assassination that I've never heard of before--and it's a subject that interests me, I've read dozens of books--that's at odds with the conclusions reached by most books on the subject, and that I also find completely convincing.
But that's all just incidental. What's central to his book are the conclusions he draws about our criminal justice system generally. He thinks that our current political liberal/conservative divide is pointless and foolish and immensely damaging to having a sensible conversation about crime, how to prosecute it, how to combat it, how to incarcerate and how to rehabilitate. I initially resisted his conclusions--I'm a pretty knee-jerk lib--but I can't stop thinking about his ideas. I think he may be right.
Of course the book has all the strengths and flaws of James' book generally. He's famous for resisting editorial suggestions--it would be better if he listened to his editors. Too many snarky asides, too many irrelevant side excursions. It's like the Historical Abstract, when he uses his comment about Joe Morgan to complain about something dumb Joe said in a broadcast the night before. Come on, Bill, this is one of the greatest players ever--write about his career. In this book, he takes a cheat shot at Obama that I frankly didn't even get. He's Bill James--he's going to do stuff like that.
But it's still a terrific book. It's a compelling read, and there are insights and ideas on nearly every page that me nodding my head. I don't know if it's in print yet--I read it on Kindle. Highly recommend it.