The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball
By Scott Gray
Doubleday, 229 pp., $23.95
Slaphappy: Pride, Prejudice, and Professional Wrestling
By Thomas Hackett
HarperCollins, 267 pp., illustrated, $24.95
The first baseball article written by Bill James appeared in a magazine called Baseball Digest in 1975. Its title was ``Winning Margins: A New Way to Rate Baseball Excellence."
Nearly 30 years and a great many baseball-related articles and books later, the author got an e-mail from John Henry. He wanted to know if James would like to join the happy band of men dedicating themselves to building a Red Sox team that could win a championship. Until he accepted Henry's offer, James had made the bulk of his reputation by questioning (and in some cases ridiculing) much of what had passed for wisdom in baseball circles since the Boston team played at the Huntington Avenue Grounds. James was also known as the man who coined the term ``sabermetrics," which James's biographer, Scott Gray, defines as ``the search for new knowledge about baseball; the systematic study of baseball questions." For James, the search involved the creation and testing of lots of ways to measure player efficiency and value over time, some of them arcane, and as a result he became known as a numbers cruncher.
As Gray points out in ``The Mind of Bill James," the label is inaccurate, or at least incomplete. Gray compares James with Hemingway, which may be a stretch, but some of the samples included in `` The Mind of Bill James " certainly demonstrate the attractive quirkiness of which James is capable. ``I suppose that it is in the nature of names, as with Peacekeeping Missiles and Security Police, to disguise the truth more often than they reveal it," he wrote in the '83 Baseball Abstract. ``Horace Speed stole only four bases in his career. Vic Power was a singles hitter. Bill Goodenough was not good enough, and Joe Blong did not belong for long."
The extent to which the employment of James by the Red Sox contributed to the result of the '04 postseason is, of course, debatable. James himself has written that ``there are a hundred reasons the Red Sox won the World Series, one no more true than the other." But as Gray points out, during the celebration after the Red Sox had swept the Cardinals, Henry ``poked his finger repeatedly into Bill's chest and said, `You're a World Champion,' " which would seem to be all the endorsement fans in this town require.
Professional wrestling has no Bill James. That's in part because the ``statistics" generated by that entertainment are meaningless. What's the point of keeping track of wins when the opponents have been informed of the result before strutting into the ring?
But the curious spectacle easily dismissed by many people as moronic pretense now has a worthy chronicler. He is Thomas Hackett, and no one can accuse him of not paying his dues. To prepare to write ``Slaphappy: Pride, Prejudice, and Professional Wrestling," Hackett not only attended a great many wresting matches, he rode the rented buses in which the game's most enthusiastic fans traveled hundreds of miles to decidedly minor league bouts featuring anonymous but ``highly dramatic, strangely costumed people desperate to be noticed." A half-hour into one of these pilgrimages by school bus, a young man named Kyle warned the author about what to expect. ``You're not going to find stupider people in the world than at a wrestling show," he said.
Hackett might have left it at that and jumped off the bus. Instead, he undertook a challenge: Could he simultaneously understand that pro wrestling is a loud and witless hoax appreciated only by idiots, and also that the popular spectacle offered not only a curiously appropriate form of entertainment in these sick, dishonest days, but a way to take the temperature of the culture?
According to Hackett, what pro wrestling fans are looking for in the goofy and dangerous game is a place where they can ``be tough." In this case, ``being tough" means screaming insults at the performers and hoping that the performers will scream back -- the ultimate validation for many of the fans Hackett came to know. On a really good night, a fan might not only throw a chair into the ring, but get hit in the head with it when a wrestler tosses the chair back out.
Whether or not you buy this reading of pro wrestling's appeal, it's hard to argue with Hackett's defense of the fraudulence. ``If the country's major investment banks couldn't be bothered to question the sham profits of
If Hackett is fascinated by pro wrestling, he is not seduced by it. He admires the young men who have found happy opportunities to strut and dream in the VFW Hall bouts that draw dozens. But he also chronicles the game's casualties. He visits the dilapidated home of a former wrestler, now dead, where the remaining members of his family are trying to run a wrestling school . Alcoholism, drug addiction, and physical abuse or neglect of anything with a pulse plague the landscape, and Hackett doesn't have to dig much to decide that ``no other branch of popular culture produces so much misery."
Bill Littlefield hosts NPR's ``Only a Game " each Saturday at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. from WBUR in Boston.