Having someone write a book about you means you’re pretty special to that person — sometimes for good things, sometimes for not so good things. For Scott Gray, writing The Mind of Bill James was his way of showcasing the good things that he thinks James has contributed to baseball over the last 25 years.
The first question to ask is who is this Bill James? It’s hard to pin it down – but in his own words, he is “an eccentric” who “count(s) all kinds of stuff people are sort of interested in, but nobody in his right mind would actually bother to count” in an attempt to “explain how things in baseball are connected to one another.”
You may know James as a statistician, or a sabermetrician, or the guy the Red Sox hired to look at numbers the year they won the World Series. After reading Gray’s book, he’s all of those things yet not just those things — he is the guy who asks questions, looks at numbers, and tries to explain what causes certain things to happen, all in the context of baseball.
The book is clearly biased to show Bill James as an amazing contributor to the thinking about baseball — so much so as to compare him to Galileo arguing that Earth is not the center of the solar system centuries ago. Tall comparison? I would say so, but that’s not to knock the work that James has done and how he has influenced the way thinking about baseball has changed over the last two decades. He has shown through intense analysis of statistics and uncommon thinking that certain trends do exist, while others aren’t as prevalent as most people think.
But enough about James — let’s look at the book about James. I read it with a great amount of interest, as I think James has been one of the most influential contributors to modern baseball thought. But so what? Why does that make me want to read about him, and what do I want to learn about him? It’s that tough question that I’m not sure I can answer.
I find biographies are either incredibly fascinating or painstakingly boring – if they are not, they fall into the “so what” category, which isn’t much better than the latter of the two options. While I read it with a great amount of enthusiasm, trying to sum it up left me a bit flat. The best part of the book came at the end, where Gray publishes some of James’ key thoughts on baseball, which will be an invaluable help to readers new to James in getting to know his approach to baseball.
While I appreciate the work that Bill James has contributed to baseball, I wouldn’t say I’m a disciple of his, nor would I go so far as to say I am a fan. He is an incredibly sharp guy with a great mind for numbers and analysis, but other than dwelling on that, the book doesn’t seem to go much further, and I’m not really sure it could go much further.
If you want to learn more about Bill James, I suggest reading his books and articles. I think you’ll find a lot more substance in those than you will in The Mind of Bill James.
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