Monday, March 12, 2012
30th anniversary: Bill James hits the big timePosted by Chris Jaffe
Thirty years ago today, baseball experienced one of its most unexpected, but also important, seismographic shifts. For it was on March 12, 1982, that Ballantine Books published their first of seven annual “Bill James Abstracts.”
It wasn’t the first Abstract overall. As any good baseball sabermetrician knows, James initially self-published a series of Abstracts in his home in Kansas. Then Sports Illustrated published an article by Dan Okrent about James, and it was time for him to step into the national eye. Thirty years ago today was essentially the national coming-out party for James.
(Well, I think it was thirty years ago today. I’m going solely off of the release date listed at Amazon.com. Eh, it sounds reasonable).
The first abstract put out by an actual publishing company in many ways just rehashed some things gone over in the previous self-published ones. For example, James discussed and explained Runs Created, a stat that wasn’t new to him, even if it was new to the great multitudes who had never heard of him previously.
Long story short, the book was a hit. James never need concern himself with working at a traditional job again. His passion had become his profession; his calling merged with his income.
James would write seven of these annual books before getting burnt out. Along the way, he wrote his Historical Baseball Abstract and helped launched Project Scoresheet. He later came out with a series of more modest annual baseball books in the 1990s, such as the Bill James Player Ratings Book.
Perhaps more importantly, he released a series of seminal books about specific baseball topics: The Politics of Glory on the Hall of Fame, Bill James’ Guide to Managers, and Win Shares, which was James’ attempt to create one great uber-stat. Oh, and he also released a best-of-the-Abstracts books titled This Time Let’s Not Eat the Bones.
Those books, along with the Historical Abstract, are the center of the Bill James canon. The annual Abstracts themselves often only hold up so well. The writing is great and the analysis superb, but by their nature they often heavily focused on that particular moment in time. Some of the research that was so groundbreaking at the time is now practically conventional wisdom. This is not to dismiss the Abstracts, but just to note that some of James’ non-annual work holds up a bit better.
Later, Bill James became a brand name and in the Moneyball era has become part of the mainstream. He has been hired by the Boston Red Sox and won a pair of World Series rings. It goes beyond baseball for him, as Time magazine once named him one of the world’s 50 most influential people.
It didn’t all begin 30 years ago, but that first professionally published Abstract was a key marker on the road to where we are all now here.
Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate either than anniversary or “day-versary” (which is an event occurring X-thousand days ago). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you just prefer to skim the lists.
1,000 days since Ivan Rodriguez catches his 2,226th game, tying Carlton Fisk’s all-time record.
4,000 days since Dwight Gooden announces his retirement from baseball.
4,000 days since Mets prospect Brian Cole dies in a car accident when his SUV flips over.
5,000 days since the Dodgers (under GM Tommy Lasorda) trades prospect Paul Konerko as well as Denny Reyes to the Reds for reliever Jeff Shaw. This is Exhibit A in why Dodger fans would like to forget Lasorda’s stint as GM.
5,000 days since Chipper Jones hits his third career sacrifice hit. That’s notable because to date it’s still his last one.
6,000 days since the Mariners conclude the greatest LDS ever by beating the Yankees, 6-5, in 11 innings of Game Five of their ALDS. It was 4-4 entering the 11th inning, and the Yankees scored one in the top half only to see Seattle score a pair in the bottom of the inning for the series win. It’s the last game Buck Showalter managers for the Yankees.
7,000 days since Jesse Jackson says he’ll call for selective boycotts of MLB unless they put more minorities in front offices.
9,000 days since the Braves lose, pushing manager Chuck Tanner’s career record under .500 (1,313-1,314). It will never go over .500 again.
9,000 days since Eddie Murray draws two bases-loaded walks in one game. Both times, the pitcher allowing the RBI walk is Jose DeLeon.
20,000 days since Ernie Banks belts his 100th career home run.
25,000 days since the Braves lose, dropping Casey Stengel’s career managerial record 162 games below .500 (579-941). That’s his low mark, which he’ll tie two days later but never be worse than.
25,000 days since Stan Musial sets a personal best by reaching base for the 55th consecutive game.
40,000 days since veteran pitcher Al Orth allows a pair of inside-the-park homers in one game. White Sox infielders Frank Isbell and Hall of Fame shortstop George Davis leg them out.
1883 The National League and American Association reach a truce, as they agree to stop raiding players from each other’s leagues.
1889 Reb Russell, 1910s swingman pitcher for the White Sox, is born.
1892 Bill James, star pitcher on the Miracle Braves, is born.
1903 The AL officially admits the New York Highlanders into their league. In 1901-02, they were the Baltimore Orioles.
1921 Judge Landis suspends the eight Black Sox.
1930 Vern Law, star Pirates pitcher, is born.
1939 Johnny Callison, All-Star outfielder, is born.
1942 Jimmy Wynn, maybe the greatest player of the 20th century to get shut out of Cooperstown with zero BBWAA votes when he reached the ballot, is born.
1941 Baseball commissioner Happy Chandler loses a bid to stay in office, getting voted down, 9-7.
1955 The Giants sign amateur free agent Willie McCovey.
1955 Ruppert Jones is born.
1956 The Red Sox release Dizzy Trout.
1956 Dale Murphy, star Braves slugger, is born.
1960 The Reds sign amateur free agent Tony Perez.
1962 Darryl Strawberry, 1980s Mets star, is born.
1965 Steve Finley, outfielder who aged surprisingly well, is born.
1969 In Seattle Pilots spring training, Ball Four author Jim Bouton notes that hot young prospect Lou Piniella has a heated argument with team manager Joe Schultz. The manger had told reporters that Piniella wouldn’t make the team unless he threw better on defense.
1971 Raul Mondesi, outfielder, is born.
1973 Frankie Frisch, Hall of Fame second baseman and leading figure on the Veterans Committee, dies.
1988 Atlanta signs Lonnie Smith as a free agent.
1989 Baltimore trades Mike Morgan to the Dodgers for Mike Devereaux.
1991 Jim Palmer ends his unexpected comeback attempt by tearing his hamstring in spring training with the Orioles.
2002 Steve Gromek, arguably the greatest swingman pitcher in baseball history, dies.
2004 The Yankees sign free agent pitcher Orlando Hernandez, who didn’t play in the majors the year before.
2010 Tampa Bay signs former Rangers prospect Hank Blalock.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.