Advertisement

Archive for Sunday, April 25, 2010

On being Bill James: Lawrence historian discusses baseball, crime books and bobbleheads

Baseball was Bill James hobby until he made a name for himself in the baseball world by analyzing players and statistics to project likely future results. One new hobby that replaced baseball was an interest in collecting sculptures and facsimiles of real people. James is pictured at his Lawrence home.

Baseball was Bill James hobby until he made a name for himself in the baseball world by analyzing players and statistics to project likely future results. One new hobby that replaced baseball was an interest in collecting sculptures and facsimiles of real people. James is pictured at his Lawrence home.

April 25, 2010

Advertisement

Past Event
After Hours at the Library featuring special guest Bill James

  • When: Sunday, April 25, 2010, 7 p.m.
  • Where: Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St., Lawrence
  • Cost: $50
  • More on this event....

With a bio that reads "nation's best-known baseball historian and analyst — senior adviser for the Boston Red Sox — author of more than two dozen books on baseball history and statistics ... inventor of 'Sabermetrics,' an objective analysis of baseball that attempts to determine why teams win and lose —" you'd think Lawrence resident Bill James was obsessed with America's favorite pastime.

You'd be right.

"I'm not a real excitable person by nature, but I'm the most obsessive baseball fan that you know," says James, who speaks today at the Lawrence Public Library.

"Baseball is never out of season for me because even when games aren't being played, the 1928 season is still being replayed in my head, or the 1976 season. Questions are still there to be analyzed."

Like all true obsessions, the sport has a grip on James' heart, as well as his head. He works largely by the numbers - methodically, empirically, diagnostically. Yet, he waxes poetic on the heady days of early spring.

"I've always said my favorite moment every week is that moment in church when you're sitting there and everybody has gray hair and you think there's nobody there under 60," he explains. "Then, they start the children's sermon and little children just pour out of the seats and run down the aisles. The moment when an infant season begins is like that moment.

"You're there - for me, it's usually in Fort Myers, Florida - and you see the green grass, and it's wonderful. And you can't explain why because there's some element of it that your senses have forgotten, and there's no way to replace it except when the games are actually being played."

Clearly, the man lives, loves and dreams baseball. But that doesn't mean he's one-dimensional.

"Bill does have a very wide range of interests and would never want to be seen as a one-track guy. Because he isn't," says Susan McCarthy, an artist and James' wife.

That said, McCarthy saw the writing on the wall early in their relationship and started taking an interest in her partner's passion.

"I think that if he'd tried to make me a baseball fan, I would have rejected it completely because I wouldn't have wanted to feel like I had to do this just for him," McCarthy says. "But since I came to it willingly and on my own, and he was such a good teacher, it really worked out."

The publishing company Doubleday, produced a Bill James bobble-head doll that coincided with James' book "The Mind of Bill James."

The publishing company Doubleday, produced a Bill James bobble-head doll that coincided with James' book "The Mind of Bill James."

Hobby haven

But the couple share other interests, including politics, art and, of course, their three children. They've filled their Old West Lawrence home with antiques collected over their 31-year marriage. Susan's paintings adorn the walls, and a sampling of Bill's eclectic collection of figurines, busts, nesting dolls and Bobbleheads accessorize the decor.

How eclectic? Everybody from Jackie Gleason to John F. Kennedy and W.C. Fields to Shakespeare is represented. There's even a set of Bill Clinton nesting dolls featuring the former president with his, ahem, "dolls" - Monica, Gennifer, Paula and Hillary.

"I have, literally, thousands of them," he confesses. "Most of them are hidden away in boxes. It's a good hobby in the sense that it gives people something they can get you for Christmas."

Sandwiched between stacks of books in the library is a figure that looks surprisingly familiar: a Bill James Bobblehead.

"There was a book called 'The Mind of Bill James' several years ago," he explains, "and the publishing company did it as a promotion. I don't know how many of those they produced, but I know quite a few people who have one."

Not everyone can become a Bobblehead, a truth that's not lost on James' 24-year-old daughter. At a young age, Rachel - unlike her younger brothers, Isaac and Reuben - was in awe of her father's fame in the baseball world.

"I was definitely aware," Rachel says. "I've always followed celebrities, so I was very impressed that Dad had an agent and was in magazines like Newsweek. When they did the Bobblehead, that was really cool because I used to collect Bobbleheads."

Isaac, 21, was less impressed with the Bobblehead distinction. While he appreciates his father's accomplishments, he thinks of him as just a normal dad.

"If I weren't his son, I wouldn't know his name," he says. "I'm not a huge baseball fan, just a casual baseball fan."

But, once in a while, a father's fame precedes the son.

"Sunday of last week, I met a girl's parents, which was awkward enough, and her mom knew who my dad was. And it was like, 'Oh, my God!' Every once in a while you run into someone who actually knows who he is and they get really excited."

True crime

James is also fascinated by true crime stories, having read them most of his life, and has just completed a new book, "Popular Crime" to be released next February.

"It's about the phenomenon of taking horrific events and making popular amusement of them," he says. "It's about crime books and the issues raised by them."

Just as he's adamant that Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player "who didn't shave his head and use steroids, HGH and synthetic testosterone," he has an opinion about the ultimate crime book, too.

"'In Cold Blood' (by Truman Capote) is, in fact, the best crime book ever written, being as objective as I reasonably can," he notes. "It isn't just the most famous, it's also the best. If you're writing a book about crime books, you really can't ignore it. On the other hand, there's already been so much said about it, there's not an awful lot left to be said."

Comments

louisvuitton4 4 years, 8 months ago

I am envious of people who work in the arts, they are really very powerful, but also great, I like.

parrothead8 4 years, 8 months ago

Bill James makes baseball, and fantasy baseball, more fun for people like me. A lot of people who write about baseball statistics get too bogged down in, well, the statistics. Bill James makes baseball statistics into stories.

Bill, if you're reading this, thanks for the work you do. Keep on writing.

Mark Kostner 4 years, 8 months ago

I remember Bill James from the Stokely-Van Camp boiler room in the late 1970's. He had tablets and notebooks full of baseball statistics and people would talk to him about baseball on their breaks. Several years after I left Lawrence I saw him being interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline and realized what a baseball authority he was. I began to see books by him appear at leading bookstores, and after I moved to Las Vegas watched a guy who was trying to become a baseball handicapper read Bill's books to bone up on his craft. Finally, I became a writer mysel, f and as one, wishes Bill James continued success.Personally I have been fascinated by true crime stories such as In Cold Blood and the BTK case. There is a local writer here in Las Vegas, an ex cop, who's writing true crime stories and has a true crime TV show in the works. Like baseball, there's an endless source of material to cover.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.