Is it possible to find a book both highly valuable and cringe-inducing? I’d never come across a book worthy of that distinction until I read The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. It is in equal measure one of the most important baseball books ever written and a deep look into the disturbing views of a baseball analyst. I spent every page of the book going, “Oh, that’s cool” about some factoid or player revelation. Just as much time was spent trying to wrestle with the outdated and problematic social and political views provided by James throughout his masterpiece.
In terms of insight into the history of affiliated baseball, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract is without peer. I’d like to consider myself a good student of the game, someone who knows his fair share of baseball history. I routinely found myself engaged by new information or ways of looking at historical players that had never occurred to me. Throughout it’s nearly one thousand pages James’ tome is always captivating and made me want to leaf through just one more page before putting the book down for the day. James’ grasp of baseball history is excellent and his ability to take what he knows and present it in a way that I could relate to as a reader was highly impressive.
That’s not to say that The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract is a perfect baseball book. The way that James covers the Negro Leagues is laughably bad. At first, I wanted to give him credit for admitting he’s not an expert on the Negro Leagues. Then I realized he was using that as an excuse to hide the fact that in what he knew would be the definitive history of baseball for the statistically inclined that he felt the Negro Leagues were only worth one chapter. The resources are present to actually research the Negro Leagues and there’s no reason the Negro League players shouldn’t have been rated right alongside white players. They weren’t, but then again James completely ignored the existence of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League or the involvement of women in baseball altogether so at least the Negro Leagues didn’t get that treatment.
Where The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract really begins to falter is when James inserts his political and social views into his writing. I don’t expect James to keep these views to himself, but his views are often abhorrent. Arguing in one section that it’s a laughable idea that women care about sports as much as men. Spending another section arguing that a black player’s violent reaction to the racism of a white teammate was worse than the racism of said white teammate. Always, always commenting on the laziness of black and brown players while finding creative ways to justify the laziness of white players. These takes are peppered throughout The New Bill James Historial Baseball Abstract and they make for tough moments to read.
I both loved and hated Bill James’ epic work. I’ve been pretty vocal about my dislike of James in his later years. He no longer bothers to hide his anti-labor ways and his racism/sexism has become far less subtle than in years past. All of those negative traits are present in this book, but at the same time, there is fascinating research about affiliated baseball that can’t be found anywhere else. I can’t recommend The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract because I can’t recommend the despicable views he espouses within its pages. At the same time, I can’t toss the book in the garbage bin because it is vitally important and engaging. I both love and hate The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract and there’s not much more I can say than that.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Free Press