The rise of Bill James is the secret fantasy of every bookish type. The details are practically Dickensian. James, a lifelong obsessive baseball fan, begins recording his thoughts on the game while working as night watchman at a Kansas pork and beans factory. He assembles what he calls a book, almost six dozen photocopied pages long, and sells it via a single ad in The Sporting News. Only seventy-five people would buy the 1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can’t Find Anywhere Else. But those happy few would be present at the birth of a legend.
James’s approach is based on rigorous objective analysis or as James put it, “counting things.” It dared to challenge much of baseball’s conventional wisdom, which in a sport that prizes its traditions is tantamount to heresy. James had a steadily growing number of admirers among hardcore fans, but the powers that be thought him a crank. Until they didn’t.
Michael Lewis’s Moneyball beautifully recounts what happened next. The front office of the Oakland Athletics relied on Jamesean analysis, known as sabermetrics, to turn a cash-strapped small-market franchise into a perennial contender. Other teams followed suit. James himself would become an advisor to the Boston Red Sox. His ideas would spread to other disciplines; Nate Silver applied the science of fantasy baseball to the American electoral process in 2008 and became a political guru. The man who, as Lewis wrote, “perfected the art of sounding like a sane man in an insane world” ultimately persuaded that world to think as he did. James represents the triumph of the wonk, the vindication of the studious kid watching others play outside, confident in the knowledge that they’re doing it wrong.
Bill James’s other great passion is crime stories, which he tackles in his new book Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. I share those two interests, so I picked up a copy. Little did I know when I cracked it open, coincidentally during the uproar following the Casey Anthony verdict, what a singularly odd experience I had in store. Popular Crime would prove to be one of the strangest books I’ve ever loved.
To begin, how to describe it? The subtitle, for instance, is a misnomer in that it sounds judgmental while the book itself is not. James is an unabashed enthusiast of crime stories, and laments that “opinion-makers and the ‘opinion elites’ … turn up their noses” at them. James, on the other hand, is eager to discuss them at length. In nearly 500 pages he surveys decades of tabloid fodder. It’s a deeply idiosyncratic study; James did no original research, basing his conclusions solely on exhaustive reading. It soon becomes apparent that James has been thinking about crime for years, and now wants to share his many, many thoughts. That sense of beliefs long bottled up finally spilling forth powers the book through some bizarre passages. Michael Lewis described the Baseball Abstracts as “one long, elaborate aside.” The same holds true of Popular Crime.
James breezes through horrors infamous and otherwise, sizing up the evidence and issuing his own verdicts. He makes a case for Lizzie Borden’s innocence that surprisingly holds water, blasts the widely accepted “solution” to the mystery of the Zodiac Killer’s identity, logically argues that Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, could not have been her murderer’s first or only victim. His take on the Kennedy assassination, based on ballistic evidence from a single source, is less convincing yet disturbingly plausible in an Occam’s Razor kind of way.
James engages in some bravura historical profiling of the Cleveland Torso Murderer, aka the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run. He even plays favorites. It galls James that the enterprising serial murderer H. H. Holmes has been the subject of only one book, Erik Larson’s acclaimed The Devil in the White City, when by contrast “Jack the Ripper, as much as the British love him, was just some dumb jackass with a knife who ran around slashing hookers. And there are 75 books about him.” Only Bill James could view a man who built a “torture castle” near the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair like an undervalued infielder who draws a lot of walks.
The book is at its best when dealing with how crimes are reported and by extension remembered. James astutely assesses the evolution of the American press, noting that in the wake of the Lindbergh kidnapping—Bruno Hauptmann done it, in James’s opinion—media consolidation kept sensationalistic impulses in check until the next “Crime of the Century,” O. J. Simpson (also guilty), when the cable news landscape resembled the earlier era.
James consumes true crime books, rightly observing that aside from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood the form is largely ignored, and peppers Popular Crime with terse, unsparing reviews. While he admires The Devil in the White City, James disdains the author’s “turn-up-your-nose-at-the-crime-story attitude … Did you ever know one of those people in college who was a good guy but so responsible that you always wanted to set his shoes on fire? It’s 5 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and he’s studying his Latin. Larson is kind of like that.” Jolene Babyak’s book on Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” suffers because it includes excerpts of Stroud’s own unpublished manuscripts. “Stroud’s writing is trim and graceful, while Babyak’s is harsh and blocky.” James also comments regularly on the once de rigueur TV movie and miniseries adaptations spawned by these books, which rightly or wrongly are as much a part of the recollection of such crimes as police reports and trial transcripts are.
But 500 pages of such detail-oriented fixation takes it toll. The opening chapters are like falling into conversation with a cantankerous but engaging fellow at a bar. A few drinks later, you find yourself eyeing the exits and wondering “Is this guy nuts?” James compares the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, which presented the two radicals “as simple men swept up in a tide of onrushing events,” to Che Guevara and Fidel Castro “finding themselves portrayed by their lawyer as Gilligan and the Skipper.”
An obvious observation made in a book about the Jon-Benet Ramsey case—the Ramseys are innocent, by the by—is met with the timeless rejoinder “No shit, Sherlock.” He interrupts his train of thought for digressions both relevant (the excesses of the Warren Court) and not (how to save the American automobile industry). He addresses readers directly, identifying passages written years earlier and hinting at ideas he’s hoarding for a future book.
The last third of Popular Crime is something of a slog, focused largely on a subject James doesn’t care for:
The stories of serial murderers are repetitive and gloomy, but I will tell a few of them and then meet with my editor to decide which ones to throw out, and the ones we throw out I will throw up on the internet.
And then—then—are James’s efforts to bring his vaunted statistical analysis to bear, crafting a sabermetrics of crime. James lists his eighteen categories for classifying a crime by level of public interest; devises a new ten-level penal system; and develops a six-tiered ranking of witness descriptions offered to the police. Most impressive and deeply foolhardy by turns is the value system he assigns to evidence, weighting various types in wholly arbitrary fashion with a score of 100 required to convince a skeptic.
Michael Lewis wrote that Bill James set out to prove in baseball “that the statistics were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible.” But here James’s efforts fall woefully short. Evil, for lack of a better term, is a lot like that ineffable quality in sports known as heart. It’s an intangible. It cannot be measured.
But that willingness to make the attempt is why I found James’s bizarre opus so compelling. He claims, “I am trying to write here about the serious consequences of the trivial events.”
At other times, Popular Crime is a prickly defense of his interest in a subject frequently frowned-upon by cultural arbiters. Ultimately, though, the book is a sincere attempt to identify what it is about the darkness that fascinates and lures so many of us.
See also Bill James’s memorable appearance on the Colbert Report….