Bill James: The Man Who Changed Sports Forever

By  //  April 28, 2021

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Bill James was not a star athlete. He wasn’t involved in sports in any formal way. In fact, James was not a known entity in the sporting world at all.

He was just a baseball fan. Like so many across the nation, James had a bit of an obsession with America’s pastime. Unlike most, however, he took that passion, did something with it, and sent it out into the world. The result would eventually end up changing all of sports, forever.

Pork & Beans

In the mid-1970s, Bill James began writing about baseball. He was in his mid-twenties at the time and had recently finished a stint in the army, as well as completing a college degree from the University of Kansas. Many of his early pieces were written while he was on duty as a security guard during the night shift at a pork and beans cannery. It was a textbook case of humble beginnings. 

A Different Kind of Sports Writer

Bill James was not your average sportswriter of the ’70s. Until that point, sports writing was all about the big screen vibe. Sportswriters would generally stick to romanticism, telling a story about a ballgame as if to entice lead actors into taking up the roles of the players.

Against that backdrop, you had Bill James. James came in with articles about the statistics of different players’ performances in various situations, along with comparative analysis. While this type of sports writing is quite prevalent now and has a large audience, it didn’t really fit in with what was being produced at the time, and many publishers were wary that their readers would not be interested in this type of sports writing.

The Bill James Abstract

The challenges that James often faced in trying to get his writing published led him down the self-publishing route. In 1977 James wrote and published the 1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can’t Find Anywhere Else. It ended up being the first edition of a yearly series, known commonly as, The Bill James Baseball Abstract.

The first abstract sold a grand total of 75 copies. While the sales numbers didn’t represent more than a flap of a butterfly’s wings, decades later the hurricane would hit.

While not many people purchased the booklet that started it all, it seemed to get into the right hands. The next year, sales number more than tripled up to 250 copies. Sales figures grew year after year, and James’ work began to garner much praise and respect. He continued publishing the yearly abstract until 1988 when he decided to move on to other baseball writing pursuits.

As Bill James’ success grew, many other writers began to follow in his footsteps. Soon he had completely changed the landscape of sports writing. However, changing the way people write about sports was hardly his most noteworthy contribution to the sporting world. The ideas that James presented would eventually go on to change the way that sports were played.

Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics

James’ fame expanded beyond the baseball world with the release of the 2011 film Moneyball based on the book of the same name. Moneyball tells the story of A’s general manager Billy Beane. It chronicles how he adopted many of the ideas first presented by James to help the Oakland A’s stay competitive when there were so many other teams with a far higher payroll.

James did not simply present sports statistics in his writings. He created them. He looked at things that had never been tracked before and gave an analysis of the value of different baseball stats (or lack thereof). Bill James tried to show the baseball world that there was a better way to craft the ideal team and that it required an in-depth look at the statistics that ruled the game and an evaluation of what made a player good.

While James had many fans, until Beane, nobody in a position to strongly influence the game had ever moved to put his ideas into practice. Once it happened, though, others began to take notice. The analytics concepts presented by James were quickly adopted by other teams, after seeing the success that Beane’s A’s had with them.

Beyond Baseball

While more and more baseball teams began to incorporate James’ ideas into the way they ran things, the concepts started to leak beyond the baseball world. People in other sports began to take notice of these ideas as well. While obviously, they would not be using the specific ideas created by James, the general idea of looking deeper into the analytics of different sports caught on.

Teams in various sports across all of the country and even across the world began to demand a more in-depth breakdown of the statistics that ruled the game and an evaluation of what really made a player and a team good beyond the eye test. In the 20 years since James’ ideas were first adopted by Beane, nearly every professional sports team in the world has changed the way they operate based on the work of Bill James.

We live in a strange world where some late nights spent at a pork and beans cannery can change everything.