Bill James will appear on the Colbert Show tonight, promoting his most recent book, Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. Bill is my boss—I help him manage his website, Bill James Online. But he’s also the Boss of us all.
It drives me nuts when people blame Bill for the onslaught of statistics in the game of baseball, or when they accuse him of being nothing but a numbers cruncher. You might blame people like me for relying too much on baseball stats, but that’s because, as a writer, I’m a pale imitation of Bill.
Bill is not a statistician. Never was, never claimed to be. Pete Palmer and others were probably much better at developing new-fangled stats. But Bill is an original thinker and writer. He approaches his subjects in unconventional ways and excels at expressing himself and his thoughts. He can out-write the rest of us in his sleep.
To understand what I mean, read his latest book. Popular Crimes has nothing to do with baseball (I’m two/thirds of the way through it and Bill hasn’t mentioned baseball once) and everything to do with the power of Bill, his gifts as a thinker and writer.
Popular crime is Bill’s other obsession. He’s always been fascinated by crimes that capture the public imagination: O.J. Simpson, the Boston Strangler, crimes like that. He’s read dozens of books about them and watched countless movies. He’s thought about them in the same way he has thought about baseball. This make Popular Crime a tremendous read.
Bill recounts the history of many crimes (I hadn’t heard of many of them) that were “popular” in their day and, as he goes along, he shares his thoughts about many related things: the near-revolution that didn’t occur in the early part of the 20th century, the impact of the Warren Court, something he calls “definition creep” in the law. He weighs in on many of these crimes, too. For instance, he believes there is a good chance that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t fire all three bullets at President Kennedy (but he doesn’t believe there was a conspiracy).
Now you have to read the book, don’t you? As you do, understand that what Bill does here is a lot like what he did for baseball in the 1980’s. He thinks about the big picture, leaves any preconceptions behind, and helps you see things in a new light. That’s the power of Bill.