A couple years ago I heard from Bryan Johnson, one of the earliest mainstream journalists to write about sabermetrics, in Toronto’s Globe and Mail in the early-to-mid-1980s, in the way of his comments on some excerpts from those columns that I’d posted on my baseball history blog.
Johnson is credited by Bill James with discovering the Johnson Effect: the tendency of a team to revert back to the win-loss total one would expect from its ratio of runs scored to runs allowed. Here’s James’ explanation of it from 1985:
The Johnson effect states that when a team wins more games than it could be expected to win in view of the number of runs scored and runs allowed … that team will tend to decline in the following season. When a team wins significantly fewer games than could be expected in view of its runs scored and runs allowed … that team will tend to improve in the following season.
Since Johnson was apparently the first journalist to write regularly about advanced statistics, Bill James’ ideas, sabermetrics and such, I’ve since taken the opportunity to ask him some questions about those days to find out about the infancy of sabermetrics.
I came across your name and the articles you wrote discussing sabermetrics for the Globe and Mail when I went looking through a database for the earliest articles that I could find about sabermetrics. Obviously there were a lot of baseball columnists in the early 1980s, but do you know if anyone else in the newspapers and magazines was writing about sabermetrics back then?
Not as far as I know. Quite the opposite. I seemed to be in a constant fight with other writers, columnists, etc., both within my own paper, and versus competitors. You saw, I think, how the Toronto Sun declared Alfredo Griffin the Jays’ “MVP”—after I pointed out his atrocious OBP, and pretty much demanded that the Jays bring up Tony Fernandez. That was the basic tenor of the times. The response was very negative, very hostile. New ideas seemed quite threatening to baseball writers, for reasons that weren’t clear then, or now. The letters to the editor were more of a mixed bag, pro and con.
I remember, in 1985, arguing with a current ESPN guy (Tim Kurkjian, then a Dallas writer) in the press box in Kansas City, that George Brett deserved the MVP much more than Don Mattingly. But his response was utter dismissal, since Mattingly had far more RBIs. Of course, Mattingly had Ricky Henderson leading off in front of him; Brett had Willie Wilson. But, in those days, pre-internet, with very little access to detailed stats, it was harder to prove the case. And nobody realized—or cared—that Henderson’s OBP was vastly higher than Wilson’s. To most baseball writers, Henderson and Wilson seemed very comparable players. And nobody had a clue that Brett’s RC/27 and OPS totally eclipsed Mattingly’s. Those were ideas from outer space, basically.
In retrospect, obviously, the 1985 MVP was one of the worst injustices in baseball history.
In 1983 and 1984 you were the Toronto paper’s drama critic and a foreign correspondent, right? It seems like your sabermetrics columns were an ad hoc thing, where you went to the paper’s editor and asked if you could write about baseball too. Did that reflect the emergent nature of sabermetrics in those days, that it was mostly made up of people doing things on their own initiative?
Yes, I definitely had a ‘thing” about not being a baseball writer. I was ambitious, and wanted to be considered a “serious” journalist. So, in a sense, I was just kind of playing with the column. My real jobs were very different, but I was given time to write the once-a-week Inside Baseball column. So, obviously, my own sports department viewed me as a complete outsider, a dilettante with goofy ideas.
But that was nice for me, because I thrived on the hostility, and struck a pose of haughty dismissal, to some extent. I thought it worked well in the column format: an “outsider” writing about “inside baseball.” And realistically, hell, the response I got was often so absurd, so emotional, that it was easier to mock it than take it seriously. Remember, in the beginning, sabermetrics was up against “baseball Neanderthal” thinking, basically.
In the early ’80s, was sabermetrics basically Bill James spearheading a movement, or was there a large community of people shaping the new way of looking at baseball statistically?
It was a very small community. James essentially invented it, at least as far as I was aware. But guys like Pete Palmer and a few others quickly jumped in with a lot of their own ideas. The funny thing was that the mainstream stat people, like Elias, were very hostile to us. They felt they “owned” the stats, and didn’t like a bunch of newcomers writing about them, much less reinventing them. There were a lot of odd little battles, just trying to get our hands on more detailed statistics. Remember, this was all pre-internet, so it had to be sent by mail, etc. There were a lot of outright refusals. But I must say the Blue Jays, and their media people, were always as helpful as they could be. A lot of the stats I needed just weren’t readily available then.
I’ve heard that James started selling his Abstracts through small ads in the Village Voice or some other New York City publication. How did you first hear his name? And how did you communicate with him and other sabermetrics people in the early ’80s?
It might seem odd now, but Bill was very easy to contact and communicate with in those days. His address was right on the Baseball Abstract, and there weren’t very many copies printed. Also, I was the Globe‘s Peking correspondent, when I first wrote to him, so I guess he must have been struck by the novelty—absurdity, almost—of our situation. I was isolated halfway around the world, hungry for baseball, with a couple of dog-eared copies of the Abstract for company on cold winter nights. Imagine how he must have felt, getting letters from China.
He was very, very generous with his time and ideas. And generous also, with giving credit to others. He was the one who dubbed one theory ‘The Johnson Effect’—giving me the credit—when he actually did all the research which proved something I had only postulated in a column. I have nothing but praise for Bill James. He was only interested in baseball, and understanding it…not in the fame which eventually came his way.
As for other guys, like Pete Palmer, all I had to do was call them up. I mean, nobody else in a real newspaper was picking their brains, and asking for their research. They were delighted to get the recognition. Pete was in Boston, but the Boston papers didn’t seem much interested in his work.
How did I stumble across my first Abstract? I barely recall. But as soon as I laid eyes on it, I made damn sure to be on the mailing list for every issue. Aside from everything else, Bill James was just a wonderful writer. I couldn’t wait to read his stuff.
What do you think was the first key milestone for when sabermetrics became something fairly mainstream in baseball circles?
The other questions were easy. This one…hmmm? I think it’s best if I only speak for Toronto, and the communities there: the baseball community, and the broader one, of fans. I think the combination of guys like Bill James and myself hammering away on one side, then the “establishment” writers getting their backs up, and hammering back at us…that really attracted a lot of attention in Toronto. It created a controversy.
I used to drive home from work and listen to the sports call-in shows on radio, which were crammed with angry, opinionated callers. “How can he say that stuff about Griff? (Alfredo Griffin), etc.” I would sometimes make a cup of coffee when I got home, and call in, too…just to stir the pot a bit. It was fun, and it came at a time when baseball was really taking off in Toronto. The Jays were on the verge of being a very good ballclub.
Was there any sense at the time of the impact sabermetrics could/would have on baseball?
Yes and no. I always felt that there was no way they could cram the toothpaste back into the tube, after we had exposed the absurdity of a lot of stats, exploded so many baseball myths. But I think most people just assumed it was a passing phase. Even now, a lot of the commentators are pretty dismissive of sabermetrics.
In the beginning, the general feeling was that we were nerds, or something, over-interested in arcane and meaningless stats. The truth is that I, personally—(and James has said it several times, too)—had almost zero interest in the stats themselves. I’m not the kind of guy who would win a trivia contest. The interest came from trying to understand baseball; more particularly, trying to understand which players were really good, and which ones only seemed to be good. That was utterly fascinating to me; and still is.
In Toronto, the Blue Jays—they were starting a kind of decade-long dynasty in ’83, ’84: was there a sense of them being a team on the rise? Were people in Toronto paying much attention to baseball at the time, or did the fan base develop later on?
Actually, Canada had a long history of baseball, and a lot of diehard fans, even before the Jays were created. Babe Ruth hit his only minor league home run in Toronto. And I used to listen to the Toronto Maple Leafs (Triple-A, International League) on the radio all the time, as I was growing up. I was from Niagara, so I’d go to Buffalo to see the Bisons and Leafs play doubleheaders in the old War Memorial Stadium, I think it was called. And our local Niagara Falls—(Ontario, not New York)—radio station carried all the Detroit Tigers games. It was the closest big-league team. I grew up on Kaline, Cash and Colavito, and Ernie Harwell, of course.
I think most Americans have an idea that Canadians don’t like, or know much, about baseball. But that’s certainly a myth, in my experience. Heck, Sal (The Barber) Maglie taught me to throw a curveball, when I was a kid, at my father’s company picnic. I grew up with a Wiffle Ball in my hand. Baseball was always my favorite sport. For me, the Jays were Johnny-come-Latelies, in a way. I was a Tiger fan in the AL, and Dodgers in the NL….long before there was any notion of the Blue Jays.
So, when they arrived, a lot of serious ballfans just breathed a big sigh of relief: big-league ball, at last! And then the franchise was successful, so a lot of the hockey fans, etc. climbed on board. Some sportswriters used to actually call the obsessive Jays fans “baseball snobs,” because we all felt that baseball was far beyond any other sport. I’m still guilty as charged; definitely a baseball snob.
What is it like now, as a teacher in the Philippines, to be a dedicated baseball fan? Obviously the internet shrinks distances, but there’s still hardly any baseball around where you live, right?
It’s perfect, really. The 12-hour time difference means you wake up, make coffee, and watch a ballgame over breakfast. Meanwhile, my computer is on in the background, churning out up-to-date scores. I can even click on the ESPN stats page and switch to sabermetric stats, rank all the players by RC/27 or component ERA, or whatever. Pretty hard to beat that.
I have a friend here who’s ex-US military, with access to satellite TV and the military channel. If I really need to see a game that’s not on regular TV, I can go over to his place. Several local bars show satellite games live, every morning.
And we’ve got something here on cable that you cannot imagine: a Japanese channel which shows MLB games in Japanese—a lot of games, sometimes two a day. I assume you realize that the Japanese are THE most obsessive baseball fans anywhere in the world. It’s a privilege to see how they cover a game. They’re totally into it, on every level.
Nope, I don’t actually speak Japanese. But I’ve watched it so long that I know most of the baseball terminology now. And it’s fascinating to see the major leagues from their perspective. Japan is baseball’s true World Champion now, after all. They won the actual “world” series.
So, these days, with modern technology, the Philippines is an ideal spot to be a ball fan.
References & Resources
Here are some links to background information about the Johnson Effect: