I didn't care about the statistics in anything else. I didn't, and don't pay attention to statistics on the stock market, the weather, the crime rate, the gross national product, the circulation of magazines, the ebb and flow of literacy among football fans and how many people are going to starve to death before the year 2050 if I don't start adopting them for $3.69 a month; just baseball. Now why is that? It is because baseball statistics, unlike the statistics in any other area, have acquired the powers of language.
- Bill James, 1985 Baseball Abstract
There is a certain kind of writer whose motives are ultimately mysterious. The writer born into a family of writers; the writer whose work is an attempt to make sense of some private trauma; the writer who from the age of four is able and willing to stay in his room and make up stories: each of these creatures is a stereotype. What he writes may be good, but why he writes isn't something you particularly want to hear more about. The interesting case is a writer like Bill James. He grew up in a not unhappy family in Mayetta, Kansas (population: 209), and the closest he came to an uprooting experience was the move from there down the Interstate Highway to Lawrence. There, at the University of Kansas, James studied economics and literature. He didn't know any literary types, had no apparent role models, and was not encouraged in any way to commit his thoughts to paper. After a shaggy dog story in the U.S. Army-he was the last man from Kansas drafted to serve in Vietnam but never was sent - and a fruitless layover in graduate school, he found a job as the night-watchman in a Stokely Van Camp pork and beans factory.
It was while guarding Stokely Van Camp's pork and beans that James stumbled seriously into putting his thoughts down on paper, in response to having things he absolutely needed to say that he was unable to convey any other way. "Every form of strength is also a form of weakness," he once wrote. "Pretty girls tend to become insufferable because, being pretty, their faults are too much tolerated. Possessions entrap men, and wealth paralyzes them. I learned to write because I am one of those people who somehow cannot manage the common communications of smiles and gestures, but must use words to get across things that other people would never need to say."
Even more oddly, everything James needed to say was either about baseball, or could be said only in the context of a discussion of baseball. "I'd probably be a writer if there was no such thing as baseball," he said, "but because there is such a thing as baseball I can't imagine writing about anything else." He was, from time to time, aware of the absurdity of devoting an entire adult life to the search for meaning in box scores. He never seems to have resisted his instinct to do it. "Now, look," he wrote to his readers, once he'd become an established, successful author, "both of my parents died of cancer, and I fully expect that it's going to get me, too, in time. It would be very easy for me to say that cancer research is more important to me than baseball-but I must admit that I don't do anything which would be consistent with such a belief. I think about cancer research a few times a month; I think about baseball virtually every waking hour of my life."
James's first book was self-published-photocopied and stapled together by himself-and ran just sixty-eight pages (production budget: $112.73). Its formal title was: 1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can't Find Anywhere Else.
To sell it, James took out a single one-inch advertisement in The Sporting News.