February 22, 2006

Book Review: The Mind of Bill James

One of the perks that comes along with writing for an audience is getting free books. Publishers contact me and ask if they can send a copy, and since I've never been one to turn down a book about baseball I find that question impossible to say no to. So they arrive in the mail, usually with a little note or some information about the book. The idea is that I'll read it, enjoy it, and write a review that spurs some of my audience to go out and buy copies for themselves. The other option is that I'll read it, not enjoy it, and tell no one of its existence.

It's a good little system, and I'm certainly not going to complain given the ridiculous amount of money I've spent on baseball books throughout my life. Anyway, I bring this up in the interest of full disclosure and to segue into the fact that I currently have no fewer than two dozen books lying around my room, unread. It's partly due to my being a lot busier now than I used to be and partly due to some of the books having less-than-enthralling subjects, but mostly due to simply not being able to keep up when a new batch is always on the way.

Last week I got a package in the mail and found this inside:

That's right, a Bill James bobblehead doll.

The package also contained an "advance copy" of Scott Gray's soon-to-be-released book, The Mind of Bill James. I first heard that Gray was penning a biography of James several months ago, and I've been looking forward to reading it ever since. Plus, even if I hadn't been the bobblehead certainly would have piqued my interest. And so with a couple dozen unread books surrounding me and a few writing deadlines of my own on the horizon, I got into bed one night and read through The Mind of Bill James in one sitting (or one lying, I suppose).

I suspect that it would be difficult for someone to write a book about James that I wouldn't enjoy, and Gray's version was a very good read. It was also quite a bit different than what I expected. I anticipated a book about James' upbringing and early days—you know, the typical biography stuff—and while that's certainly covered in the book, it's not the focus. Instead, Gray paints that information with broad strokes and chooses to focus on James' writing. In many ways, The Mind of Bill James is not so much a biography as it is a tour of James' work.

For someone who is only marginally familiar with James, the book is an excellent primer. It introduces you to why he's an important figure and takes you through some of the many highlights of his work. In that sense Gray was working with a secret weapon, because it's almost impossible to avoid falling in love with James' writing once you stumble across it. For someone like me, who has read just about everything there is to read by or about James, the book is more like a refresher course.

For instance, in a chapter about James' time in the Army during the Vietnam War, Gray quotes this passage about Red Sox second baseman Marty Barrett from an edition of The Bill James Baseball Abstract:

In the military, drill sergeants and other power mongers will set up little tests for you, make you do some stupid, irrational and painful thing just to find out how you react to it. If you pass their little test, then they'll always think you're OK, regardless of whether you're worth a hoot or not, because they have reached a prior conclusion that this is the moment at which they're going to find out about you.

I was at a game in [Kansas City] last May during which Barrett had a couple of hits early, just took pitches on the outside corner and guided them softly over the first baseman's head, the two hits being identical. When he came up the third time I was saying to myself that now they'll make him hit the inside pitch, and they did. The pitcher threw him two pitches on the inside corner, and he turned on the second one and hit the thing a mile (well, maybe 430 feet) for his first major league homer. I was really impressed by that, although logically I knew that it didn't mean any more than anybody else's first home run, because in my mind I had made a prior decision that this was Barrett's test as a major hitter.

While it was wonderful to rediscover the hearty supply of James' writing that is quoted liberally throughout the book, in some ways I would have preferred a more in-depth look at his life, including his pre-fame days, his family, his everyday experiences, and his substantial quirks. Here's an excerpt from one of my favorite passages in the book, which deals with several of those things all at once:

I guess we look for personal tics in people who are smarter than we are. It's silly to see Einstein's not knowing his own phone number or not wearing socks as defining characteristics. But if you want to riff on the absent-minded-professor motiff, Bill mixes frugality and disorganization like a true genius. Rob Neyer says that when he was Bill's assistant, "For bookshelves, he had me buy long planks from the Oskaloosa lumber yard and a big pile of bricks from a Topeka brick seller.


I bought a second-hand office chair for myself back in 1990 or 1991. Almost immediately, I realized that there was a tiny hole in the leather, and thus a tiny spring kept poking through and putting tiny holes in the seats of my pants. I got around this by making sure I had a towel under me, and kept using the chair. Here's the punchline: I was in Bill's office last summer ... and the poky green office chair was still there!"

Reuben pops into the office. "I lost a tooth," he reports. "I swallowed it chewing gum."

"Was it a tooth you were supposed to lose?" Bill asks.

It was. Reuben then instigates a wrestling match with his dad. Bill is huge and Reuben is eleven, so they look like a clip from Animal Planet. That makes me think of a story Bill's most recent ex-assistant, Matthew Namee, told me. One day a column of ants came marching up the porch steps and under the front door. Bill broomed them away, but in a minute they were back. After repeating the action a few times, Bill mused, "You'd think the guys in the back would notice their buddies keep disappearing."

As a long-time James fan and someone whose entire view of baseball was heavily shaped by his writing, that's the sort of stuff I enjoyed most about the book. However, I can see where Gray faced a dilemma. James is a unique subject in that most people likely know almost nothing about him, while some people know almost everything about him. If you're looking to appeal to a large audience and many of them are unfamiliar with James, it would be difficult to interest them with details of his childhood and path to success.

What Gray has done instead, it seems, is focus on making you interested in James' life by first showing you the brilliance of his work, and only then adding in the outside details once you're hooked. It makes the book unique compared to other biographies, in that part of Gray's effort is going toward almost selling James as a worthy subject. And he certainly is, which is what makes the book a must-read for more than just baseball fans. The Mind of Bill James is a well-done look at a fascinating personality, a one-of-a-kind writer, a ridiculously brilliant thinker, and a self-made success.

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