The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James (Free Press, 2003), 1008 pages
The history of baseball can be both fascinating and bewildering to British fans.Â Where do you start?Â You often hear and read of great players and teams, but itâ€™s not easy to piece them all together, particularly in trying toÂ compare players from different eras.
Thereâ€™s a natural desire to delve into the numerous stories and to improve your knowledge of the sportâ€™s history, not just because itâ€™s interesting but also to allow you to put current players into some sort of context.Â Who were the best players from years past and what does â€˜bestâ€™ mean when looking at a catcher or a shortstop?
Summing up the history of baseball in one book is an impossible task, but The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract comes astonishingly close to doing just that.Â
Bill James is known as the forefather of the advanced statistical analysis of baseball, a discipline often referred to as sabermetrics.Â He started publishing his ground-breaking Baseball Abstracts in 1977 and has been challenging conventional wisdom and improving our understanding of the sport ever since.Â James first published a Historical Baseball Abstract book in 1985 before releasing a completely revised (hence the word â€˜Newâ€™ in the title) version in 2001, followed by a slightly updated paperback version in 2003.
The latter is the version being reviewed here and it is a monumental piece of work.Â Coming in at a shade over 1000 pages, it is an impressively weighty object filled with an immense amount of information.Â Each copy isÂ likely to end up a little battered and dog-eared, but that will be due to the regularity with whichÂ it isÂ pulled down from the shelf, rather thanÂ its use as a door stop or â€˜whackingâ€™ tool (although Iâ€™m sure it could do a good jobÂ as either if pressed into emergency service).
The book is split into three main sections: The Game, The Players and Reference.
James isÂ adamant that the first section isnâ€™t a â€œrailroad history of baseball â€“ this happened, then this happened, and then this happenedâ€.Â Instead, his focus was on creating â€œa history of baseball that would surround you, that would reach out to you and take your handâ€.Â He does this by bringing together many tiny details that together donâ€™t simply explain what happened at a given time, but â€œgive you a sense of what it was like to be a baseball fanâ€ then.
These details range from strictly performance-based items such as who was the best hitter or who struck out the most batters, to more quirky matters such as uniform styles and the best/worst looking players.Â The latter is important to note because Jamesâ€™ reputation as a â€˜stats guyâ€™ could lead you to think that this is just a dry book full of numbers.Â That is far from the case.
James covers the sport from the 1870s to the 1990s, writing a substantial chapter on each decade and also including an excellent chapter on the Negro Leagues.Â For each decade, he sets the scene by answering the basic questions such as how the game was played (rules, strategies etc), who the game was played by (social standing, ethnicity and nationality etc) and where the game was played (geographic location, types of ballparks etc).Â He pools together bite-size bits of info while summing up the decade â€˜In a Boxâ€™ and then offers a range of articles and essays expanding on the key stories, issues, questions and moments of the decade.
Each chapter on its own provides an invaluable overview of the decade in question and collected together they are an excellent guide to how the game has changed over the years and evolved into the one we enjoy so much today.
The first section of the book would be fascinating in itself, but it gets even better with the second section.Â Here, James lists the top 100 players from the history of the game at every position.Â The format of this section, indeed the underlying intention of this not being â€œa railroad historyâ€ book, means that each entry is not accompanied by a full biography of the player and a host of stats.Â Instead they vary from a few short quotes by contemporaries to James using the entry as an opportunity to delve into a particular question.
For example, the entry on Mickey Mantle (per James’ rankings, the third-best centre fielder behind Willie Mays and Ty Cobb) contains a quick study comparing him to Joe DiMaggio.Â This approach makes for a more interesting read than a strictly biography-based approach and those details can be found easily from manyÂ other books and websites in any case.
While the entries are useful, it is the rankings that are the important part of the project.Â All rankings are subjective, a starting point for discussion rather than a definitive statement of fact, and these are no exception.Â However, as you would expect, James has not simply cobbled these together on the basis of gut instinct and memory.Â There is a considered methodology behind them, explained over 40 pages that some readers may wish to skim through or largely ignore.
Two statistical inventions by James lie at the heart of this methodology: Runs Created and the Win Shares system.Â Without going into a full explanation, they provide a new way to assess a playerâ€™s contribution to a teamâ€™s performance that allows for meaningful comparisons between players at different positions and from different eras.
Once again, this isnâ€™t to suggest that James takes a strictly stat-based approach.Â As he explains: â€œthe value of baseball statistics in identifying the greatest players is not that they answer all of the questions involved, but that they provide definitive answers to some of the questions involved, which enables us to focus on the othersâ€.Â Further stats based on the Win Share system are included in the Reference section, the third main sectionÂ of the book.
The only fault that can be found with The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract is that it is not now quite as new as the name suggests.Â The just-completed ‘2000s’ decadeÂ is obviously not covered in the first section and, more importantly, the player rankings only take into account performances up to the end of the 2000 season, although the 2003 paperback version includes a postscript that updates the rankings to that point.
This is something to be mindful of when considering the rankings, but it doesnâ€™t devalue the book in any significant way.Â The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract is still the best book available on the history of baseball and is an essential purchase for anybody interested in the topic.
Have you read â€œThe New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstractâ€? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.