April 4, 2002

Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

The US has a tradition of fine sports writing, born of the era when a slew of beat writers had to compete every day for every possible newspaper reader. "How long does it take you to write a column?", someone once asked Red Smith. "As long as I've got." was the inevitable comeback. The newspapers aren't the force they once were (though Peter Gammons started there, and he can write when he wants). Roger Angell is still the grand poet of the sport. But writers grow into the job: listen to stat-head Bill James:

But the true story of baseball in the 1950's is not a story about greedy men who betrayed the trust of loyal rooters and brought the golden age of sport crashing down as they foraged for even greener pastures. It is a story about fear and urban decay, about a panic-stricken industry scrambling for survival. It is a story about old ballparks that had come to symbolize the rotting neighborhoods in which they rested, and were smashed apart so that something new and full of promise could be put in their place. We know now that this was a mistake, and we wish now that they had saved the old ballparks. But we must also hope that history will have compassion in surveying our mistakes, and for that reason we must try not to judge to harshly the mistakes of the generation before us.

This appears on page 241 of a book that runs to 924 pages. It also appears in the first version of this book, but that's unusual: almost everything here is new. Preserving something this good is just good sense. James isn't stuffy, or fussy, and he isn't a poet. He simply writes damn well, and finds something interesting to say about hundreds and hundreds of men who played the game.