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The maverick author of The Bill James Baseball Abstract (an annual publication notable mainly for its thoughtful and innovative approach to statistical data) here offers an equally engrossing appreciation that keeps him among the very best of the national pastime's unofficial scorers. James divides his lengthy text into three parts, the first of Which provides a decade-by-decade history of baseball from the 1870's through the 1970's. Among other things, each 10-year span includes a briefing on how, where, and by whom the major league game was played. In the lineup as well are listings that give rundowns on attendance, won/lost records, the closest pennant race, and related matters, plus a wealth of idiosyncratic trivia: Joe DiMaggio is cited as the dullest superstar of the 1940's, Preacher Roe as the worst hitter among starting pitchers. In the second section, James rates great position players and pitchers from all eras against one another on the basis of a generation-spanning system of his own devising. In the case of batters, he focuses on proprietary measures of accomplishments, e.g., contemporary opinion (as expressed in MVP voting) and runs created (which is subjected to formulaic adjustments designed to make stats from one period directly comparable with those from another). Also, James provides to-the-point profiles of his choices that put each in an all-time perspective. Apart from a few dark-horse entries (Ron Santo, a journeyman infielder for the Cubs; the well-traveled Richie Allen), the author's selections for the greatest players of this century (in terms of so-called career value) hold up remarkably well for fans of any age. Individual rankings, of course, are quite another story. There's probably no arguing with Babe Ruth as Number One. But did Stan Musial (#4) earn an edge over both Ty Cobb (#6) and Ted Williams (#10) or Willie Mays (#9), who is 10 places ahead of Mickie Mantle? James is by no means the only revisionist on the diamond scene, a fact he cheerfully acknowledges with a semi-critical tip of the cap to The Hidden Game of Baseball (1984) by John Thorn and Pete Palmer. He is, though, in a league by himself when it comes to original insights and commentary on numbers that seldom have to speak for themselves.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Villard/Random House