Niches can meet known or unknown needs.
The latter was the case with Bill James, who in 1977 was working as a night watchman at a Van Camp’s pork-and-beans cannery in Kansas City when he began his assault on Major League Baseball’s conventional wisdom.
James, a solopreneur in every sense of the word, created a new niche that eventually:
• Changed the way professional sports in America are managed and played
• Inspired a multi-million-dollar sports-data industry
• Spurred the creation of a political website that uses James’s principles to predict election results
• Helped break an 86-year-old jinx
• Led to the creation of a movie starring Brad Pitt
How did it happen?
Stories Used to Explain Stats
Bill James was born in 1949 in Holton, Kansas. He earned English and economics degrees from the University of Kansas and then enrolled in the U.S. Army in 1971. After leaving the army, James was an aspiring writer and obsessive baseball fan.
So he began writing esoteric essays about baseball. A typical James piece posed a question (“Who was faster: Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?”), and then presented data and analysis written in an informative, humorous style that offered an answer.
A Triumph of Self-Publishing
Editors at baseball publications in the 1970s considered James’s pieces so unusual that they were unsuitable for their readers. (Ironically, many of those publications now are out of business; they would be data powerhouses today if they’d recognized and capitalized on the potential of James’s work.)
Unfazed by the rejections, James placed a bet on himself in 1977: he self-published a book titled “The Baseball Abstract.” The cover said: “Featuring 18 categories of statistical information that you just can’t find anywhere else.”
The book presented 80 pages of in-depth statistics compiled from James’s study of box scores from the preceding season. James offered the book for sale through a small ad in The Sporting News.
1980, 750 (including an order from Norman Mailer. James returned Mailer’s five-dollar check, but Mailer sent it back to James with a note: “If ever an author earned his five dollars, you have.”)
As of 1981, James hadn’t cracked the $10,000 barrier yet for revenue. “It’s been discouraging,” he said “but not as discouraging as having to get out of bed in the morning and go off to work.”
Then two things happened:
• National media found him. Esquire magazine asked James to write a baseball previews. Sports Illustrated published a long, admiring review that said, “James softens the relentless march of statistics with his writing, which is spry and graceful.” (When SI interviewed James, it said he was working out of “the tiniest room in the tiniest house in Lawrence, Kansas.”)
• James’s bold predictions regarding player performance ended up being correct.
By 1982, Ballantine agreed to publish and distribute future editions. James’s reputation took flight soon thereafter.
The Book of James
I first read Baseball Abstract in the early 1980s. I was a baseball fan, a stats freak, and I played APBA Baseball for countless hours. James’s writing blew my mind. His viewpoints went against everything I thought I knew. His writing was heresy, the baseball equivalent of being told the Earth wasn’t flat:
• RBIs are a grossly overrated statistic
• Fielding averages are worthless (James said field average is “an excellent measure of a player’s ability to get out of the way of a potential error”)
• Bases on balls correlate to winning more than home runs do
Essentially, James was saying to the baseball establishment: for 100 years you’ve been using flawed information to draft, play, and pay your baseball players. Time has proven that he was correct.
James’s approach eventually came to be known as sabermetrics. Attempts to imitate James’s work spawned a torrent of books, articles, games, and websites that continues to this day.
The Ultimate Validation
By the late 1990s, people who grew up reading James’s work began reaching decision-making positions with Major League Baseball teams.
One of those teams was the 2004 Boston Red Sox, which employed James as a consultant and hired sabermetrics believer and whiz kid Theo Epstein as its general manager. The 2004 Red Sox won their first World Series title since 1918, thereby breaking the “Curse of the Bambino.”
The Red Sox triumph was the ultimate validation of James’s work.
Sports franchises are copycats, and every MLB team began using James-based principles. Sabermetrics spread to basketball, football, soccer, and then beyond sports.
Applied to Politics
Eventually a baseball sabermetrics pro named Nate Silver applied statistical models to the study of politics, particularly elections, and published the results on his blog FiveThirtyEight.com, which has developed partnerships with The New York Times and ABC News.
The Brad Pitt Connection
Author Michael Lewis wrote “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” which was published in 2003. “Moneyball” told the story of the Oakland Athletics baseball team and its general manager Billy Beane. “Moneyball” focused on the team’s sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, despite being a “small-market,” low-revenue franchise.
The 2011 film “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, was based on the book.
Why Bill James Succeeded
Bill James wasn’t the first individual to analyze baseball statistics in new ways. Indeed there were other people crunching numbers in their basements in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Why did James’s work catch on when other people’s didn’t?
1. He had an obsessive passion for his subject.
2. He fearlessly challenged conventional wisdom.
3. He didn’t try to appeal to a mass audience. “I was very happy to spend eight pages discussing how many camels could rest in the on-deck circle of a theoretical ballpark. Some people liked it, some people didn’t.”
4. By sprinking analysis onto a commodity (raw data), he created a valuable asset. The dominant baseball publication of the 1970s, “The Baseball Encyclopedia,” traded in commodities. James’s stuff was value-added. In the introduction to one of his books he writes: “This is an effort to put on record a couple of types of information which escape the Encyclopedias…I figure that I sell two things, a novel way of looking at the statistics which brings out insights you can’t get otherwise and the general truths which emerge from that.”
5. He took risks (shopping his first articles to publications).
6. He didn’t let rejection stop him.
7. He was extremely self-reliant (self-publishing was rare in 1977).
8. He possessed unwaivering belief in his work.
9. He used proof and storytelling to sell his ideas.
10. He created a community, the Society for American Baseball Research, for the study of baseball analytics. It’s a rabid community with a membership of more than 7,000. SABR has taken baseball analytics further than James could’ve himself.
Today, James still writes books and provides advice to baseball teams. He publishes a subscription-based website, BillJamesOnline.com.
 Sports Illustrated, “He Does It By the Numbers,” Okrent, Daniel, May 25, 1981
 Sports Illustrated, “He Does It By the Numbers,” Okrent, Daniel, May 25, 1981
 APBA Baseball was a baseball-simulation table game that used cards to represent each major league player, boards to represent different on-base scenarios, and dice to generate random numbers.
 The Curse of the Bambino was baseball lore that evolved from the failure of the Boston Red Sox to win the World Series in the 86-year period from 1918 to 2004. The curse supposedly was the result of the Red Sox owner Harry Frazee selling Babe Ruth (the Bambino) to the New York Yankees in order to finance the production of a Broadway musical.
 In 1981, James correctly predicted that Fred Lynn’s offensive production would fall dramatically after being traded from hitter-friendly Fenway Park to pitcher-friendly Anaheim Stadium. James was one of the first people to identify that specific ballparks significantly affect players’ statistics; today it’s a given.