The James Gang
Help, I need somebody,
Help, not just anybody,
Help, you know I need someone, help.
--John Lennon and Paul McCartney
My older brother Tom wrote a letter to Bill James in early 1983 inquiring about purchasing the 1977-1981 editions of the Baseball Abstract. Bill's wife Susan wrote the following hand-written letter to my brother in March 1983 (one month prior to the release of the 1983 Abstract):
March 8, 1983
Mr. Lederer --
Thanks for writing. Glad to hear from anyone who greatly enjoys Bill's work.
Concerning previous editions of the Baseball Abstract -- we published #1-5 ourselves and have re-prints (exact duplicates of the originals except the word "re-print" appears on the cover) available at the following prices:
1977 (covers '76 season) $6.00
1978 " '77 " 8.00
1979 " '78 " 8.00
1980 " '79 " 10.00
1981 " '80 " 13.00
Price includes cost of mailing.
Thought I should mention to an "aspiring sabermetrician" that Bill is looking for an assistant. If you subscribe to The Sporting News you might keep your eye out for a classified ad describing the position. But briefly . . . you would need to re-locate in Lawrence, KS; have a facility for statistics as well as writing ability and preferably knowledge about computer operations. I have no way of knowing what your station in life is but if this interests you, send us a resumé and whatever other info. would be relevant.
* * * * * * *
(B. James' wife)
My brother never applied for the job. James ended up hiring Jim Baker, who responded to an ad in the SABR bulletin in the spring of 1983, as his assistant. Jim applied for the job, took a test, and was one of four finalists who were flown out for an interview with Bill. Jim worked with Bill for a year and contributed to the 1984 Baseball Abstract and the The Bill James Historical Abstract, which made its debut in October 1985. The latter was Bill's first hardcover book, a 700-plus pager that became an immediate classic.
Jim is now an author of Baseball Prospectus and writes the Prospectus Matchups column. Will Carroll put me in touch with him earlier this week. The following is an excerpt from one of Jim's emails to me:
The stats we all take for granted now were so hard to come by back then. For instance, something as simple as platoon splits for hitters required us to jump through hoops to get them. Bill had me send $2.00 and a self addressed stamped envelope to every big league team (except the Rangers because Craig Wright worked there and he was cool). Along with the money and the return envelope I'd send a note asking for the platoon splits on their players. Some teams sent them and returned the money. Some teams sent them and kept the money and some teams kept the money and never sent them.
Now, we just go to ESPN.com and find things like that with a couple of mouse clicks. In 1983, though, it was extremely exotic to have George Brett's batting average against lefties.
Baker was the first of four full-time assistants employed by James. The others were Rob Neyer (1989-1992), John Sickels (1993-1996), and Matthew Namee (2002-2004). Mike Kopf, a long-time personal friend of Bill's, worked on the 1988 Baseball Abstract and The Bill James Baseball Books in the early 1990s. Mike Webber filled in the gap between Sickels and Namee by helping out once a week, and he continues to work part-time for Bill.
Although Namee is not as well known as Neyer and Sickels, he was a co-founder of The Hardball Times earlier this year. Rob is a senior writer and baseball columnist for ESPN Insider, a premium level service. He has also authored four books, including The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers (which was co-written with Bill James). John writes the weekly Down on the Farm column for ESPN.com and has authored The Baseball Prospect Book each of the past two years and Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation.
Like his disciples, James has also gone on to bigger and better things and has been the Senior Baseball Operations Advisor with the Boston Red Sox since November 2002.
Late add: Oh, and my brother? He's gone on to bigger and better things, too. Tom was Manager of the Year for the City of Lakewood in 2003. He is happily married with two children attending Cal State Long Beach, including a son, Brett, who was a first team All-Big West Conference golfer as a freshman last spring.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]