by Richard Booroojian, EEEEEE! Contributing Editor
Wednesday, September 20, 2000
"Could he really have existed, or was he perhaps invented by Robert Louis Stevenson, along with the Master of Ballantrae, Long John Silver and the good Dr. Jeckyll? Hal Chase is remembered as a shining, leering pock-marked face, pasted on a pitchdark soul; there is some evidence to say that he appeared in the flesh, but I lean more toward the invention theory."
The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
Okay, so this quote does not come from the book at hand, which is The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers From 1870 to Today (Scribner, 1997). Still, it is one of many indelible images from one of the better baseball books ever written, and that book in turn is the first of three works that, taken together, provide an absorbing, entertaining and thought-provoking retrospective on baseball history. The above quote has stayed in my mind for over a decade because before I read it, I had never heard of Hal Chase, and yet Chase was clearly one of the great villains in that period of baseball history leading up to the Black Sox scandal of 1919. It is this kind of experience Bill James delivers routinely in his books: not just new facts or dry analysis of statistics, but an understanding and appreciation of what life was like in and around professional baseball in all of the diverse eras of the game.
To many, Bill James is the father of baseball analysis, and that kind of reputation is nothing to sneeze at. Certainly his annual Baseball Abstracts back in the 1970s and 1980s helped give a new, deeper perspective on how baseball is and should be played. Along with introducing new and innovative analytical tools, though, James also brought a breezy and enjoyable voice to support his conclusions; his books weren't just informative, they were also fun to read because he wrote in a fun, opinionated, and accessible way. Bill James writes the way we talk, only far more lucidly. No surprise, then, that once James turned his talents specifically to writing about baseball history, the result have also been opinionated and fun to read in addition to being informative.
The first book of the trio was The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (Villard Books, 1985), which covered baseball history on a decade-by-decade basis starting with the Seventies (the 1870s, that is). The book was mostly about players and pennant races (both in the major and minor leagues), but it tended to focus a lot on personalities, evolving game strategies and the look and feel of the game (there is something kind of satisfying about a decade by decade listing of the ugliest players in the game; I hope Julian Tavarez is ready for his potential inclusion in the next edition). It also included a recap of all the significant players at each position and ranked them both in terms of peak value and career value; this is still a useful list, dated as it now may be.
The Politics of Glory (MacMillan, 1994) was not quite as anecdotal, but it also provided historical perspective, this time on most of the best players in the history of the game. In this book, James detailed the beginnings of the Baseball Hall of Fame, reviewed the quality of many of the players enshrined therein (and evaluated the qualifications of many then-candidates), and made a number of suggestions as to how to improve the selection process (mostly by killing off the Veterans Committee). While not as panoramic as the Historical Baseball Abstract, it nonetheless was alternately fascinating and amusing, and it spelled out in some detail evaluative methods (such as Similarity Scores, the Hall of Fame Standards Ranking, and the Black Ink test) to compare and contrast players from all eras. (This book was published in paperback as Whatever Happened to the Baseball Hall of Fame?)
Now we have a book about the history of baseball managers. It is interesting to realize that, on a day-to-day basis, fans probably spend as much time thinking about and talking about their team's manager's performance as they do about the performance of any player on that manager's squad. Giants fans (and the national media) today are obsessed with Dusty Baker, much as they were with Roger Craig 10 years ago and Alvin Dark 30 years before that. And yet, when a manager's time with a team is done, his accomplishments and style fade from memory quickly and the manager once praised (or blamed) for everything the team achieved is ignored in favor of memories of the players who did all of the physical work in the first place. It's not wrong, but it does raise the question of why. Why do we pay so much attention to managers in the first place? Why do managers cast such a large shadow during their reign, and such a small, weak flicker of a shadow thereafter? And why would anyone want to, as James puts it, "work a lifetime for one moment in the shadows next to glory"?
As you might guess, I think this book does a terrific job of answering these types of questions, and it does it by putting a very human face on the job. Again taking things decade by decade, starting with the player-managers of the 1870s through to the wizened old, mostly college-educated skippers of the 1990s, James lists who was successful, who was not, who influenced whom, and who developed the various baseball strategies that we all take for granted in the game today. The book profiles dozens of specific managers, recapping their style and personality, how they used their rosters, their in-game strategies and how they handled their pitching staffs. Through these profiles and numerous sidebar items, James effectively tracks how the job of manager, and indeed the game itself, has changed on and off the field. There was a time when the manager made almost all of the personnel decisions for their teams; this book explores how that came to no longer be so. From platooning to five-man rotations to the emergence of the bullpen as a critical part of the roster, this book tracks how all of these came into or fell out of favor, and the ramifications of such changes not just on the game but on the job of the manager as well.
(Giants fans will want to note that while such disliked managers as Whitey Herzog and Tommy Lasorda are profiled, Tony LaRussa, at least, is not.)
There are any number of interesting and enjoyable items throughout the book. A sample might include:
"The 1937 Newark Bears are believed by many people to be the best minor league team in history, mostly because they played in the New York area, and the New York media can't stand not to have the best of everything."
"In the mind of the typical sportswriter, when you get ahead you're supposed to win. This is particularly true if you represent a media center, New York or Los Angeles, because to a large segment of the media, the story of any season is either going to be the story of how the Dodgers won, or the story of how the Dodgers lost. [...] nobody should have to apologize for losing a split decision to Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali. And nobody should have to apologize for finishing one game behind the 1962 Giants."
Frank Selee managed from 1890 to 1905. Most people have never heard of him, of course, but James makes the case that he is one of the most (if not the most) underrated managers in history. While making this case, James traces managerial lineages from the 1800s to modern times. It puts Tony LaRussa in an interesting perspective to consider him a modern day successor to heritage of Ned Hanlon of the hard-nosed Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s.
The most interesting sections for pure soap opera quality are the items about player revolts and related disputes. James talks about this a lot, detailing incidents involving the likes of Cap Anson, Fred Clarke, Oscar Vitt, Vern Rapp and Frank Lucchesi. There is no mention of Dave Bristol's fisticuffs with John Montefusco, although he is otherwise (and perhaps understatedly) referred to as "a journeyman manager ... with no particular success."
While James does spend a lot of time writing about managers you don't regularly hear about, he doesn't waste a lot of time going over stuff you've seen elsewhere. In evaluating the managerial career of Casey Stengel, James goes over how much Stengel used platooning (about as much as anyone, ever) and the strange but effective ways he configured his starting rotation, but spends almost no time recapping funny Casey Stengel stories. In fact, James even provides evidence that Stengel's popularity was more with the media than with fans by tracing his impact on attendance figures over the course of his managerial career.
(It has little to do with managers, but is relevant to today nonetheless; John Rocker's comments in Sports Illustrated have sparked a great deal of controversy this season, and while this book obviously predates that incident, James does speak to the issue of controversial speech and how baseball does and should react to it. By discussing the events around the Marge Schott and Al Campanis incidents, James makes the point that overreactions by baseball's hierarchy to those types of comments are as dangerous to baseball and society at large as the comments are themselves. In this as in everything else, James does not hedge his opinions at all, but rather states them and supports them with all the facts and logic he has at his disposal.)
No Bill James book would be complete without analysis, and this book is far more than just stories and personality profiles, including as it does long discussions on topics such as batting orders, the relative virtues of sacrifice bunts, player movement trends, bullpen use, and manager longevity. These detailed studies are good, but almost every manager profile and sidebar also offers some interesting insight about how the game is or was played. It's those items, along with the human interest stories attached to them, that provide the most enjoyable and memorable parts of the book.
When it comes to evaluating which manager is the best ever, James lists some candidates (specifically John McGraw, Connie Mack, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Walter Alston, Sparky Anderson, Earl Weaver, Harry Wright, Bill McKechnie and Leo Durocher, with a nod to Bobby Cox as an up and coming candidate) but ultimately hedges his bets. He does present several different ways of ranking successful managers, including a point based system similar to the Hall of Fame Standards Ranking from The Politics of Glory and the more familiar Expected Wins method, but as he points out, the results of any ranking system are necessarily fluid and no one system perfectly ranks the truly great managers of the game (the exception almost always being Connie Mack, who by most accounts held on to the job until long after he ceased to be an effective manager). James does point out that the best managers have one trait that lesser managers never achieve: they know how to avoid becoming ineffective after two or three years at the helm of a team by evolving their own managerial style to meet the needs of the team and to adapt to changes in the way baseball is being played over time.
It is interesting to note that, in wrapping up his discussion on how a manager's great first year does not always lead to the conclusion that the manager himself is going to be a great one, James has the following to say (keep in mind that this book was written after the 1996 season):
"There are long-term advantages to stability [in the manager role], of course. But few organizations can reach those long-term advantages, because few managers are able to do the job over a period of years. It's easy to say that if Dusty Baker was a great manager in 1993 he must be a good manager now, but it's just not true. It's not the way the world works."
Clearly Dusty Baker has come a long way in the world since the end of the disappointing 1996 season, and I think James would likely present him in a different light today, mostly because history would strongly suggest how difficult it is to go through such a sustained valley of non-achievement as he did in 1994-96 and come out on the other end as successfully as he has in the years since. Baker has moved up dramatically in the manager ranking lists included in this book over the last few years, but this book helps us to realize that every manager ultimately needs to be evaluated based on their total long-term impact on the game, not just on any isolated stretch of years. I think there is evidence to suggest that Dusty Baker has the necessary capabilities to be the type of flexible, adaptable manager that James praises in this book, but time will tell that story. In the meantime, this book helps put his current performance, along with that of all the other managers in the game today, into a more proper historical perspective.
Bill James is working on a revised and updated Historical Baseball Abstract, and there is little question that most enthusiastic baseball fans will want to buy it when it is finally released. In the meantime, though, The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers From 1870 to Today is well worth reading in its own right. I heartily recommend it to you.
Copyright © 2000 by Richard Booroojian. All quotes are copyright by Bill James, 1985 and 1997.Last updated 10/31/00
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