Abstract Memories

As I wrote in my review of The Numbers Game the other day, much of Alan Schwarz’s book revolves around Bill James. He not only pops up in conjunction with nearly every development in the statistical landscape of the past 30 years, but Schwarz often references him in discussing the work of his precursors, from Henry Chadwick to Earnshaw Cook.

Many of us came to Bill James’ work once his Baseball Abstract series, which began as a homemade 68-page Xerox-and-staple labor in 1977, was picked up by Ballantine Books on the heels of Daniel Okrent’s May 25, 1981 profile in Sports Illustrated, a profile that changed the course of more than a few lives. The first edition I lay eyes on was the Ballantine debut 1982 version, which I borrowed for an extended spell from my friend and frequent baseball card-trading partner, Will M.

Will was two years older than I, skinny as a stringbean, and a bit hyperactive. His mom, who had an endless supply of patience, actually let us play ball in the front hallway of their house, where we’d create buzzer-beating basketball heroics using one of those rubber mini-basketballs. Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, Will, who provided Bermanesque play-by-play commentary as we played, was prone to a bit of a bladder-control problem that he was in total denial about. Occasionally after we had taken turns doing something like re-enacting Darryl Dawkins’ backboard-smashing antics, I’d look down to find that he’d peed his pants. Will’s mom would discreetly break our games up by saying that he had to help her clean up before dinner or something like that.

Will and I had a feud sometime during the ‘82 baseball season having to do with the Cincinnati Reds, of whom he was a fan, and the Dodgers. Recall that in the strike-torn ‘81 season, the Dodgers had been awarded the first-half NL West title, the Houston Astros won the second half, and the Reds, who finished with the best combined record in the West, had missed out on the playoffs. We had been re-enacting a hypothetical Reds-Dodgers playoff when Will, as a card-carrying total spazz, had gone off the friggin’ ranch and even tussled with my little brother, who occasionally joined us. Something about back-to-back inside-the-park homers by Joe Morgan and Pete Rose, combined with an injury, as narrated by Will, to Fernando Valenzuela. Total bullshit for which the Jaffe boys had no reason to stand. We outta…

The upshot was that during the extended period in which we weren’t speaking to one another, I kept Will’s ‘82 Abstract and never purchased that one myself. But I copied down the Runs Created formula and a few others for safe-keeping, and used to calculate the numbers for my favorite players using the stats in The Sporting News. I bought the ‘83 Abstract and kept going through ‘87, along the way learning how to program James’ formulas into VisiCalc spreadsheets on our Apple II+. I even created a Brock2 spreadsheet, which projected entire careers. Great fun.

I’ve still never had a chance to peruse the pre-’82 Abstracts, but Rich Lederer of Rich’s Weekend Baseball Beat has been doing a 12-part series on them that I’ve been itching to mention. Rich does have the early Abstracts (some of them are reprints) and has dusted them off to take a highly enlightening stroll down memory lane called, appropriately enough, “Abstracts from the Abstracts”. So far he’s done all of the pre-Ballantine ones: 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1981. He’s even included shots of their very primitive (literally) covers. While James himself might disavow some of his comments there in the same way many of us cringe at our old yearbook photos, Rich has highlighted many nuggets which trace James’ evolution and make for a fascinating archaelogical dig. Don’t miss this stuff.

One more thing: Lederer also deserves a tip of the cap because the great piece he wrote arguiging Bert Blyleven’s case for the Hall of Fame is one of a half-dozen linked from Blyleven’s own website. Damn, that’s cool.

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