I don’t have any real progress work wise to report to you. Like last week, I’ve been busy mostly with fellowship applications and what not. I am also running into the familiar problem of not getting any responses to my interview requests. As usual, I keep sending off missives into cyberspace I’m starting to get a little worried, especially with the writers because I think they’re going to be key in my analysis.

In any case, I’ve been organizing some of my thoughts and looking through the transcripts and reading, and I’ve come up with somewhat of an issue concerning Bill James. For those of you who don’t know, Bill James probably one of the most important people in the history of sabermetrics. He is generally credited with popularizing sabermetrics with the publications of his baseball abstracts. His name comes up more than any other name both in my reading and in my interviews. This, in and of itself, is not surprising. And I’m sure I could write a lot about how Bill james has influenced sabermetrics through the tone of his writing as he did through his actual research matter.

The issue that I’m struggling about is how to write about an individual in the context of a sociological research project. Like I said, clearly, he is an important figure…actually the important figure in sabermetrics, so I don’t think I could do this project without devoting a section, maybe even a whole chapter to him. But what I worry about is turning it into a personality study. After all, I am interested in things from a institutional and cultural level, and it would be somewhat self defeating if I attribute social phenomena to an individual person. I think of other people that will be mentioned such as Michael Lewis, who wrote Moneyball, one of the touchstone events in the evolution of sabermetrics. But when I mention it, I’m not so much writing about Lewis or the book, as I am writing about the public and media reaction to the book. Or I’m not so much writing about Lewis or the book, as I am writing about the debate over this book ended up providing some institutional legitimacy to sabermetrics. I don’t know how to write about Bill James in this way because he is such a unique figure in that he encompasses many roles throughout his career as a writer and sabermetrician. Yes, the publication of his abstracts was an event that I can research around, but so was his being hired by the Red Sox, and so was his founding of STATS INC., and so other many events. I’m not sure if what I am writing is making sense, but my basic dilemma is how do I write about Bill James without reducing my assertions to “Bill James made this all possible.” I’ve come up with an idea, so I wanted to record it here.

I think that the general role that Bill James occupies in the imagination of sabermetricians is worth mentioning. My sense is that most sabermetricians see Bill James as almost a mythical guru who is imbued with special analytical powers that made it possible for him to oppose the evil forces of conventional baseball thinkers. This special respect is somewhat ironic because it actually equates his penchant for good scientific analysis with his moral quality. This of course parallels one of the chief myth of sports in that excellence in the field is indicative of the moral quality of the athlete. And of course, one of the main thrusts of sabermetrics is to disprove these kinds of myths. This is complicated more by the fact that I don’t think Bill James would situate himself as the guru of sabermetrics. I’m sure he would tell the kind of story that is told in Alan Scwarz’ book, The Numbers Game that traces advanced statistical analysis further back than James. But for whatever reason Bill James, much to his chagrin I think, has assumed the role of the leader of the sabermetric movement. This is also encouraged by the fact that he is employed by the Red Sox who have won two of the last four World Series.

What strikes me as particularly interesting is that James exhibits what Weber would call charismatic authority. Now for Weber and his theory of rationality, rational authority is increasingly replacing charismatic authority as a source of authority in an increasingly bureaucratized world. So it would seem contradictory that the sabermetrics movement, which is all about asserting rational authority via science, which can be viewed as a form of rationality, is so eager to accept a charismatic figure.

So hang with me as I attempt to connect the dots. Sabermetricians say that they are trying to reveal some fundamental truth about baseball, because previously heretofore, what had been parading as the truth has been based on an antiquated power hierarchy that privileged, for lack of better word, jocks. And much of the rhetoric of sabermetrics is aimed squarely at criticizing the notion that people who have played baseball are the only people who can know anything about baseball. The main tool that sabermetricians have wielded in this struggle is the concept of “science” as the source of truth. However, sabermetricians are also prone to use unscientific devices, i.e. the myth of St. Bill James, which is really just the repackaging of another myth, the one of the underdog maybe. So if this is true, then maybe sabermetricians’ goals isn’t necessarily the revelation of truth, but rather the reinscription of a different kind of knowledge, one that priveleges their brand of masculinity (scientific masculinity, for lack of better phrase) over the traditional athletic one.  To drop Foucault’s name, this is a clear case of knowledge being the source of power.

I realize it is a bit of a stretch and it is not a direct causal link, but I feel like there’s something to be said about Bill James in this whole masculinity thing. Anyways, for once, I actually really want people to comment on this in terms of how coherent my general ideas are and if there is any kind of glaring hole in my logic, which I’m sure that there is.

The last thing I maybe wanted to mention is that I think that the mytholization  of Bill James, also represents that an objective truth about the world through science is really not where truth comes from.  That this thing we call progress is not a naturally occurring thing that happens because the right ideas triumph over the wrong ones.  Rather we can see that the process of replacing one system of knowledge with another is a cultural process.  And this would seem to follow directly with the neo-institutional way of thinking about how institutions change or do not change.

Whatever the case, this makes talking to Bill James all the more important for my research. I actually haven’t even contacted him yet. I’m afraid that I’ve succumbed to some of the Bill James mythology, as I want to talk to as many other people before I tackle the guru. I’ve got to have my ducks in a row for the godfather, ya know?

3 Comments posted on "The Bill James Conundrum"
Erik on April 1st, 2008 at 4:33 pm #

I think it’s interesting that you’re using myth as the frame for understanding James’ impact on the sabermetrics movement, but what about charisma?

Wouldn’t Weber have something to say here? And bringing it up to the present, there’s some literature on new social movements (and old school movements too) about charismatic leadership in an insurgency.

If baseball is the institution (or baseball metrics is the institution), then isn’t sabermetrics an insurgency led by a charismatic leader?

Could you write a dissertation about the Democratic Party insurgency (Democratic wing of the Democratic party) in the 2004 presidential election without talking about Howard Dean? Can you understand the insurgency in SEIU without considering Andy Stern? Or look at insurgencies in corporations without looking at charismatic leaders (Steve Jobs, Lee Iacocca)?

I guess I’m just trying to see how your work relates to some of the sociological theory about insurgencies within institutions, and insurgencies within movements. You might be able to compare a figure like James with some similar figures in other fields.

Bob on April 1st, 2008 at 6:09 pm #

Actually, this is what I’m talking about. He is a charismatic figure, but I think it is problematic to mythologize him since the basis of the movement is not Bill James’ heroism, but rather rational science. Perhaps you’re right, problematic is not the right word. I’m just trying to figure out how mytholigizing James fits into the overall ethos of rational scientific thought.

Pizza Cutter on April 11th, 2008 at 7:50 pm #

Maybe the best comparison for James would be the status of Newton among physicists. Newton created the field and formalized some of the basic laws.