I don’t know exactly when Bill James was first given prominent mention in the media, but on May 23, 1982, Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post gave “THE BILL JAMES BASEBALL ABSTRACT, (Ballantine. 213 pp. Paperback, $5.95)” a pretty extensive review. A Lexis/Nexis search shows it as the first real notice of James. Here’s Yardley on sabermetrics and James:
For six springs James, a practitioner of a black art called sabermetrics, “the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records,” has been publishing an “abstract” of the previous season’s statistics. Up to now he has been his own publisher, churning out primitively bound and printed volumes from his house in Kansas and circulating them to “a number of people who could congregate peacefully in the restrooms in the left field bleachers in Yankee Stadium.” He jests. His audience has grown sufficiently large to warrant his capture by a leading paperback publisher, who now makes James’ crafty work available to the large readership that it certainly deserves, in a handsome edition that is, by contrast with its five predecessors, entirely legible.
It should be conceded that James is something of a baseball snob and a statistics snob; he has little patience with those (I certainly am among them) who do not share his infinite fascination with the game’s most trivial nuances or his fine hand with numbers, and his condescension comes through in his prose. But never mind. His stats are wonderful, his irreverence is delicious (“If all the newspaper stories that have been written about Billy Martin were put in a pile in the middle of New Jersey, it would be the best place for them”), and following the workings of his mind is an endlessly surprising and rewarding task. Of the Detroit pitcher Milt Wilcox he writes:
“Neither rain, nor sleet, nor hail nor gloom of strike shall stay this sturdy courier from winning 12 or 13 games. Last four records have been 13-12, 12-10, 13-11, 12-9. Sounds like one of those SAT questions. What is the next element in this series? The logical answer would be 13-10.”
Discussing the Milwaukee slugger Gorman Thomas, James veers off into a characteristic digression:
“Did you know that players named Thomas have hit 682 home runs in major league play, the ninth highest total for any surname? They passed Mays last May with their 669th and are closing in on the Joneses, whose first in 1982 will be their 700th. The top 10 names for home runs are Williams (1,762), Robinson, Johnson, Smith, Jackson, Aaron, Ruth, Jones, Thomas and Mays. More stuff you’d never know if you didn’t read the Baseball Abstract.”