Book Review: The Mind Of Bill James

The Mind Of Bill James

By Scott Gray (Doubleday, $23.95)

Scott Gray was one of the thousands of baseball fans who was discovered the Bill James Baseball Abstract in the mid-1980s. Unlike most of James’ fans from the 1980s, Gray and James paths eventually crossed, when Gray was assigned to copy edit the Bill James/Rob Neyer Guide To Pitchers.

According to Gray, James has quite a reputation within publishing circles as being nearly impossible for copy editors to deal with. And it was quickly proven at least somewhat true, when James explained to Gray why he didn’t want any copy editor touching his writing.

But rather than being rebuffed, Gray was intrigued by James’ e-mails. He continued to correspond with James, and eventually decided to write a biography about baseball’s most famous sabermetician. James, and his wife Susie, as well as former co-workers and others gave interviews for Gray’s book, which attempts to flesh out the man that started baseball’s statistical revolution.

There is little doubt that James is worthy of a biography. Now 24 years after his first mass market Baseball Abstract hit bookstores, his place in the history of baseball seems much more secure than it was when he published his last abstract in 1988. Back then, he was the true outsider, jousting with a baseball establishment that at times seemed openly hostile to his ideas.

Now many of his ideas are accepted as orthodoxy–no one finds it shocking that a .300 hitter with the Colorado Rockies is not the same as a .300 hitter with the Detroit Tigers– and on-base percentage has gone from obscure to accepted. And James is now a senior adviser for the Red Sox, an outsider turned insider.

Gray’s biggest challenge proved to be that while James is an excellent wordsmith, he early on told Gray that he wasn’t much for telling stories. And there are few new stories in this book. Instead, Gray relied on large amounts of quotations of James’ writings from the Abstracts and other books. In some ways, this is a wise idea–after all, James is a great writer. But for those readers who own most of all of James’ books, the quotes become repetitive, and offer no new insights. If you don’t know much about Bill James, this is a solid primer. But for fans of James’ work, there’s not really enough new insights to justify a purchase.