I certainly don’t need to go into who Bill James is. His annual Baseball Abstracts (1977-88) popularized and revolutionized in-depth statistical analysis of baseball, the way we think about the game today, and the way the game is operated. (Yes, pretty darn influential!)
Besides his annual Abstracts James published in 1985 The Historical Baseball Abstract, where he takes a look at the history of the game decade by decade, talking about how the game was played, where, and by whom. This is one of my favorite baseball books – its bases are loaded with stories, statistics, and trivia, and it’s just some kind of fun on every page. I pick it up often, and it’s the perfect antidote to a cold winter day.
The first part of the book, about 250 pages in my edition, looks at the game decade by decade, from the 1870s on, and each section starts with a quick listing of fun facts such as notable nicknames, (Death to Flying Things, Spinach, Ol’ Stubblebeard, The Grey Eagle, The Donara Greyhound), biggest and smallest players, most disappointing player (or over-hyped — the Clint Hurdle Award), attendance, births and deaths, most home runs, most wins, most strikeouts, best outfield arm, fastest player, and best baseball book. And so on. After this introductory section, James writes a number of brief articles looking at the issues and the players of that time period. These can be little biographical notes on a player of interest (Kirby Higbe, Gates Brown, Lyman Bostock) or more statistically oriented, such as his piece on why run production dropped so dramatically in the 1960s.
The second part of the book is also great, and a bit longer than the first section. Here James appraises the top players of the game, position by position, and gives his estimation as to who was the best. James begins this section with a brief overview of statistical methods for appraising baseball players and review different variations of formulas that have been carefully tailored to different time periods and different standards of record keeping. For example, did you know that the National League did not keep statistics on “caught stealing from 1926 to 1950? Well, they didn’t. You can’t look it up. And so the formula for evaluating players in that time period has been adjusted to account for that.
Here are the top players, by position, according to James estimations in the ’85 edition of the Historical Baseball Almanac:
C – Yogi Berra
1B – Lou Gehrig
2B – Eddie Collins
SS – Honus Wagner
3B – Mike Schmidt
LF – Stan Musial
CF – Ty Cobb
RF – Babe Ruth
RHP – Walter Johnson
LHP – Lefty Grove
RP – Rollie Fingers
One section that I found particularly interesting in my review of this book for this posting was James talking about MVP awards; James did some math on these awards, and awarded MVP shares, based on percentage of votes received for the MVP award. So if a player received 100 percent of the votes cast, he was given 1 point, if he received 50 percent of the votes he was given .5 point. After looking at all the voting, who got the most points, do you think? James thought it would be Mickey Mantle, but he was wrong. And I was wrong too. (Ted Williams.) It was Stan Musial.
It looks like there is a more recent edition of this book out, though some of the comments on Amazon make me think that I will hold off on getting it. There’s been a few changes made, a few articles missing, a few format changes, which make it seem like you would want both books on your shelf. That being the case, I will be keeping my eye open for a nice used copy in my local used bookstores. But make no mistake, this is one book you will want to have on you shelf of Top Baseball Books.