Ted's Reviews > The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James
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's review
Feb 13, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: games, beach-mixed, have, baseball, americana

See ** note near bottom for new OBS numbers.

This is a TOP TEN book in my baseball library.
Availability. In Print.


I’ve been a fan of Bill James since I started to read his annual abstracts back in the 80s. I doubt there is any better baseball book that combines writings about the history of the game with player ratings than this one. In the 2001 revised edition James includes not only a decade by decade account of the game and its stars (from the 1870s through the 1990s, roughly 300 pages), not only his ratings of and comments on the 100 best players at each position (600 pages), but also something of his Win Shares player rating system (the last 50 pages), which he also published around this time, and used at least partially in the "100 best" part of the book.

The historical part of the book also contains a chapter (between the 1930s and 1940s) on baseball in the Negro Leagues. James is quite clear that he believes many of the greatest players to play the game played in these leagues before (and even as) Jackie Robinson (and Branch Rickey) were integrating American baseball in the late 1940s. In fact, in the Player Ratings section, James has adopted a slightly arbitrary, but informed, policy of including about one Negro League player in each group of ten players.

James goes to some pains to explain why he thinks this is a correct approximation (he has 12 Negro League players in his top 100), and why it makes his list different from six other lists that he compared his to. This explanation appears on pages 358-60 of the hardcover edition. One of several comments he makes is this:
The most inclusive of the other lists included five Negro League players. [The others had none.] But the Negro Leagues also produced five of the top 100 [who nobody argues about, since they established their credentials in the Major Leagues] in seven years in their death spasms – Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella (1946), Willie Mays (1949), Hank Aaron (1952), and Ernie Banks (1953). If those leagues could produce five players like that in seven years, what about the previous forty?


In the book’s first section, each chapter follows a loosely similar format. I’m going to take the 1950s as an example here, since that’s when I became old enough to begin paying attention to baseball. (Most of these sections appear in most of the chapters.)
(view spoiler)

Most of the decade chapters end with a little tidbit called
I Don’t Know What This Has to Do with Baseball, But I Thought I’d Mention It Anyway

The 1950s section examined above has for this an old story told by manager Joe McCarthy.

He was in heaven, organizing a game between players he could round up there, and a team of the devil’s. McCarthy had all the great players: Ruth, Gehrig, Walter Johnson, Christie Mathewson. McCarthy tells the devil he doesn’t have a chance, “I’ve got all the ballplayers”. “I know,” says Satan, “but I’ve got all the umpires.”


In this, the longest part of the book, James starts with a 40 page section where he explains the methodology he used in coming up with his ratings. The main articles included here are
(view spoiler)

after this introductory section …

come nine sections, one for each of the baseball defensive positions. Each of these has James’ rankings for the 100 greatest players in the history of baseball at that position. (Actually he tacks on a paragraph at the end of each, with the next 25 players,101-125, he just can’t hold himself in.)

These sections average about 60 pages. So it’s way more than just a list. True, the players are listed in order, but then there’s written material about the player, varying from a paragraph to, sometimes, a few pages. The longer pieces can be an extended biography of the player, or something comparing several players at that position in some specific manner, all sort of different stuff. Maybe an extended piece on why James thinks this particular player should be rated this high (or this low) when others have rated him differently.

Here are his number 1 players at each position, and their very abbreviated lifetime stats.

** I've added On Base + Slugging for these players, very popular and useful stat in recent times.

Catcher – Yogi Berra (1946-1965, 2120 G, 358 HR, 1430 RBI, .285 BA, .830 OBS)
First Base – Lou Gehrig (1923-1939, 2164 G, 493 1990 .340, 1.079 OBS!)
Second Base – Joe Morgan (1963-1984, 2649 G, 268 1133 .271, .819 OBS)
Third Base – Mike Schmidt (1972-1989, 2404 G, 548 1595 .267, .907 OBS)
Shortstop – Honus Wagner (1897-1917, 2792 G, 101 1732 .327, .858 OBS)
Left Field – Ted Williams (1939-1960, 2292 G, 521 1839 .344, 1.116 OBS!!)
Center Field – Willie Mays (1951-1973, 2992 G, 660 1903 .302, .941 OBS)
Right Field – Babe Ruth {1914-1935, 2503 G, 714 2213 .342, 1.164 OBS!!!) plus he was a great pitcher for a few years!
Pitcher – Walter Johnson (1907-1927, 417-279, 2.17 ERA)

For the Pitcher position, James lumps all pitchers together. Right-handers, left-handers, starters, closers. This could strike some readers as inappropriate, until you reflect that because most pitchers are right-handed starting pitchers, there’s really no justification for trying to find 100 great pitchers of those other categories separately. (view spoiler)

One point that should be recognized – any time a list of x greatest players in any sport is assembled, it immediately begins being dated. There are always great players in any new generation, who, when enough time has passed, when all their accomplishments are visible to be judged, will take their place in such a list, pushing others down a slot. As an obvious example, when this book was published (2001) James, in the Shortstop ratings, stuck two “xx” ranked players in between 17 and 18. These were Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter. I’d be surprised if Garciaparra is ultimately felt to be a top-25 shortstop (after 2003 there were only two seasons in which he played more than half the games); but I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeter is eventually ranked in the top 10, maybe top 5.

Part 3 REFERENCE more info on Win Shares

Sections on win shares of individuals, win shares of selected teams, and team comparisons using win shares.
(view spoiler)

There’s a 28 page, small type index.

This is a book that ANY baseball fan would enjoy.

_next TOP TEN_

_Minor Leagues_
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 1, 2002 – Finished Reading
February 13, 2012 – Shelved
February 13, 2012 – Shelved as: games
July 6, 2013 – Shelved as: beach-mixed
September 5, 2013 – Shelved as: have
October 27, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
February 2, 2017 – Shelved as: baseball
October 13, 2017 – Shelved as: americana

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Teresa (last edited Oct 29, 2014 10:50AM) (new)

Teresa Hardest Throwing Major League pitcher: Herb Score.

Not the best name for a pitcher, is it. I feel the same about Homer Bailey.

Speaking of the Reds, though I was a George Foster fan growing up, I've never thought of him as being a player that should be on any all-time lists, so I'm surprised that he's at one of the "highest positions on the compendium."

message 2: by Steve (new)

Steve Excellent summary, Ted. This book and all his annual abstracts prior to it gave me many pleasurable hours of both reading and analyzing data of my own. Between this and The Hidden Game of Baseball by Palmer and Thorn, a young sabermetrician had a wealth of tools and ideas.

message 3: by Ted (last edited Oct 29, 2014 01:33PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Teresa wrote: "Hardest Throwing Major League pitcher: Herb Score.

Not the best name for a pitcher, is it. I feel the same about Homer Bailey.

Speaking of the Reds, though I was a George Foster fan growing up, I..."

Teresa, that's the sort of observation that James likes to make in the book, if he can find a way to slip it in.

As for George Foster, I agree. James has him ranked as the 34th best left fielder. Since there's roughly 10 positions on his Best 100 list for each position, that leaves George way off his Top 100 list. (view spoiler)

That makes your "surprise" about Foster on the other lists a logical reaction.

I'm not really familiar with the other lists that he used to make the compendium, but here they are -> (view spoiler)
Of these six lists, perhaps only two or three might have George Foster on them, but apparently he appeared high enough on enough of them to make the compendium list.

Maybe one or two of the originators of these lists just never got over Foster's 1977 season - hey, if someone hits 52 homers, leads the league in runs and RBIs, and hits .320 to boot, why that puts him in the company of Willie Mays, right? Well, right - for one season.

message 4: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Steve wrote: "Excellent summary, Ted. This book and all his annual abstracts prior to it gave me many pleasurable hours of both reading and analyzing data of my own. Between this and The Hidden Game of Basebal..."

Thanks, young-sabermetrican-of-yore.

message 5: by Howard (new)

Howard Everything you would ever want to know.....and for many people, more.

Ted, is any sport more analyzed than baseball, statistically or otherwise?

message 6: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted I doubt it. Of course one reason is the multitude of statistics that exist, going way back over century - give them numbers and they will analyze, I guess.

These esoteric statistics are beginning to creep into other sports now. I think PGA golf was the first several years ago, and more recently both pro football and pro basketball seem to be picking up various stat freaks who are coming up with things that are working their way into the mainstream sports media.

I've always loved Bill James, he was one of the first to really develop a readership with his annual "Baseball Book" editions, where he would have a section about every team, and talk about interesting statistical topics which were suggested by the team's personnel, management and success.

message 7: by Teresa (new)

Teresa McCue It's clear you read the comments, so I want to say a huge thank you for this! I started following you a few days ago because your reviews are entertaining, but clearly God brought you to me. (Don't know you well enough to know if that offends you, but that's the only way to put it.) My husband has Alzheimer's and has taken up reading non-fiction since he can't follow plots very well, but I have to supply the books and it is hard to find books that I know he will like. He will love this book so much and I never would have found it without you. I just went from a follower to a fan. Thank you so much!

message 8: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Teresa wrote: "It's clear you read the comments, so I want to say a huge thank you for this! I started following you a few days ago because your reviews are entertaining, but clearly God brought you to me. (Don't..."

What a lovely comment, Teresa. I really hope your husband does enjoy the book. I think you grasped that it's a book that talks about lots of little things, so remembering anything that you've read earlier is almost completely beside the point to the bit you're reading now.

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