There comes a point when an author can overwhelm a book. I’m not talking about the author’s style or manner of prose, although both of those can be true. Rather, what I’m referring to in this case is when the personality of the author overwhelms whatever it is they are trying to write. In book format, this creates a particularly tough sell because it’s not like with a column or article where one can read a few paragraphs and then quickly move on. With a book, if you want to finish it, the personal views of that author stay with you the entire time and can’t be escaped from in such an easy manner.
The reason I’m concerned with personality and viewpoint is that it has reached a point with Bill James’ writing that I can no longer look past who he is as a person and simply read the words he has written on the page. In Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? there is one small section where James is talking about baseball development and where baseball players come from. He writes, briefly about San Pedro de Macorís in the Dominican Republic. His core argument is that this tiny town of 30,000 people can’t sustain a minor league team, so how are they producing so much talent? Only, they do have a professional team, an unaffiliated one that has been around for decades and is insanely popular to those people in that town. Baseball is a part of their culture and various identities because of Estrellas Orientales. James either omitted their existence in his argument out of ignorance, which is bad, or due to his inherent racism, which is even worse.
That’s the problem with reading Bill James these days. Sure, there are parts of his writing that are very smart and break down the game of baseball in a way that very few other baseball writers can. However, all of it, from the smart to the banal, is couched in the racism, sexism, and misogyny that have come to define Bill James the person. So, one reads his brief passage on San Pedro de Macorís and the first place the mind of the reader goes to is that this is yet another instance of James being racist. Maybe it isn’t, maybe at the end of the day, James is being a different type of bad baseball researcher in this case and ignoring the existence of Liga de Béisbol Profesional de la República Dominicana because he doesn’t care about any baseball that isn’t affiliated with Major League Baseball in some way. Or, he’s being racist, both are plausible reactions to what he wrote in the brief passage.
I could deal with the fact that James and I view baseball quite differently. If that were all this were an issue of I would be telling everyone that Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? is a rich text that flies by and is well worth the time to read. The Madonna joke, his passage on Dick Allen, or his paragraph devoted to Alvin Dark’s racism towards Orlando Cepeda being justified because Cepeda maybe had a few too many lapses on the field don’t allow me to say as such. Rather, they leave me thinking that the more of James’ work I read the more obvious his racism, sexism, and misogyny becomes. The more it becomes clear that he judges white players differently than he does players of color and that in his mind players of color should just shut up and take the racism hurled their way or they’re just being malcontents.
Bill James has always been a racist and a sexist, we just ignored it for far too long. In Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? his racism is impossible to ignore or to get past. Every page drips with it, even when James isn’t being overtly racist. All of his writing should be called into question because it is quite clear, not just in this book, that his perception of baseball and the world around him are deeply colored by his racist and sexist beliefs. Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? is yet another Bill James effort that is more racist than it is enlightening about the game of baseball.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Free Press