SABR, The Sporting News, and Bill James

For those of you who might have read my earlier pitch for SABR but decided to think on it a little more, here’s a little more information for you to consider. Last month, after a long wait, SABR finally got access to the Paper of Records digital archives, including 117 years worth of Sporting News issues. This is fantastic news for baseball fans because it gives everyone – well, SABR members at least – an easy way to access one of the best and more comprehensive sources of baseball reporting and writing from decades long gone. From SABR’s press release:

The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) has made available to its dues paying members access to The Sporting News (1886 to 2003) online, along with dozens of other newspapers, including some years of the Baltimore Afro-American.

This resource will help members with their baseball research and provide more opportunities to fill in player pages at the soon-to-be soft-launched (to members only) SABR Encyclopedia.

This is something I’ve been hoping for for a while now, and I can’t be more pleased to see it. The Paper of Record website has some user-interface issues and could be a little more friendly to researchers, but there’s no denying its wealth of information. And all for the price of a SABR membership (remember, 30-and-younger get a discounted membership rate)? Well worth it!

Poking around with the site over the weekend, I thought I’d look for the first time Bill James, the celebrated sabermetrician, not one of the various ballplayers by that name, found himself in the Sporting News. It should probably come as no surprise that his first appearance came years before his work took off, in the “Voice of the Fan” section. After all, if you were as big of a fan of baseball as Bill James was in the 1960s and 1970s, chances are pretty good that you were reading the Sporting News on a regular basis. Bill’s first appearance came in the January 12, 1974, issue of the Sporting News, as a letter. It was as informative as you’d expect:

(click “Read More” to continue reading)

In the past few weeks, THE SPORTING NEWS has printed two items – an article by Larry Eldridge (Nov 24) and a letter by Jon H. Ashline (Dec 15) – both branding the American League DH experiment a failure and citing attendance figures for support. Without any reference to personal prejudices, the simple facts belie any attempt to dismiss AL gains in attendance as, in the words of Mr. Eldridge, “not enough to indicate that the DH really made any difference.”

AL attendance in 1971 was a lowly 68.5 percent of the NL figure. Due largely to closer pennant races (both NL races were decided by more than 10 games, neither in the AL by as much as six), this crept up in 1972 to 73.6 percent. But in 1973, despite the fact that the NL had closer pennant races, AL attendance was 80 percent of the NL mark. In short, the AL has eclipsed 40 percent of an attendance gap which was created over a period of years by a number of factors, including better locations, better ballparks, and, if you can believe Mr. Eldridge and Mr. Ashline, better talent. That is no “slight narrowing of the gap” (quoting Eldridge again), but rather a major shift in attendace patterns.  — Bill James, Lawrence, Kan.

There’s another letter from James in the September 21, 1974, issue, but nothing again until November 10, 1979, when his findings are first mentioned by a TSN writer:

Was the downfall of the 1979 Dodgers and Yankees as surprising as many believed? Maybe not, according to a study by Bill James published in the Professional Sports Journal. James researched the effect of age on baseball performance, examining major league clubs from 1920-1977 except for the World War II years.

Based on James’ research, it appears these declines adhered to a pattern. He found that a team averaging 25 years of age has a 75 percent chance for improvement the following year, as against a 13 percent chance for a serious decline (10 games or more). A team averaging 30 years of age has only a 39 percent chance of improving. It has a 27 percent chance of a serious drop.

A James conclusion: “If you have a team that averages 26 years or younger, you can rather confidently expect it to improve. If it averages 29 or more, be prepared to add some young blood or accept a decline.”

As James became more and more widely read and accepted in the 1980s, his name started cropping up more and more – in letters, in editorials, in team recaps/reviews. I’ll leave you with my favorite of the early-1980s mentions of Bill James. Don’t forget to check out SABR’s website for membership information so you too can have access to this fantastic resource.

From the May 14, 1984, issue of TSN, in the “Caught on the Fly” section:

Bill James, author of “Baseball Abstract”, offered some stinging criticism of Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson along with his statistical theories in the 1984 edition. “He’s a fat little guy with a beard who has no knowledge of anything,” countered Anderson. James stood his ground during an interview on a Detroit radio station. He said Anderson’s managing had cost the Tigers “100 wins” in his first five years in Detroit. “You want to see how stupid he is?” said Anderson of James, whom he has never met. “From what he says, we should be 475-226. No team ever played at that percentage over a five-year period.”

Someone should ask Joe Posnanski if he knows if Sparky still feels that way about the “fat little guy with a beard”…

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.