Writer Bill James

Sabermetric pioneer reflects on his fascination with true crime stories and talks about how he uses it in his new book Popular Crime.

Known as a stats guru, Bill James has written more than two dozen books on baseball history and statistics. By scientifically analyzing the game in his Baseball Abstracts in the '70s and '80s, he dismantled preconceived notions about America's national pastime. The Army vet was educated at the University of Kansas and, in '06, named to the Time 100 list. He's currently a senior advisor for the Boston Red Sox. James is also fascinated by true crime stories and, in his latest book, Popular Crime, examines our cultural obsession with murder.


Tavis: Bill James is a noted baseball writer who started is widely read “Baseball Abstracts” back in 1977. He’s also a senior adviser for the Boston Red Sox who’s turned his attention to something much different for his latest text. It’s called “Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence.” He joins us tonight from Kansas City. Bill James, an honor, sir, to have you on this program.

Bill James: Hey, thanks for having me on, Tavis.

Tavis: When you say the celebration of violence in our society, I think I get it. What do you mean by that?

James: We pick up these stories of really terrible things that happen and we make popular entertainment out of them. Television is full of fictional and real violence that’s turned into entertainment. It’s an interesting phenomena and I tried to put it in perspective and tried to think through a few of the real questions that this sometimes unseemly business raises.

Tavis: As a society, why are we, to your mind, so fascinated by this to the point of celebrating it in the first place?

James: Because crime stories reveal an aspect of our personality that everybody has, but which we normally keep very deeply hidden. We like to talk about the good sides of ourselves. We don’t like to talk about our hatreds, our distrusts of one another, our secrets, but crime stories drag those things to the surface and consequently they fascinate people and always have throughout all history.

Tavis: To your point now, Bill, years ago, quite frankly because of a conversation like this about crime, I stopped using the phrase, “personally, I would never do that.” Is there something to that?

James: Oh, absolutely. Any of us are capable of doing things we’re not proud of under the wrong kind of stresses. Anyone can become a drug addict if you let yourself do it and, once you become a drug addict, you’ll do whatever you have to to get the drugs. Absolutely, anybody can do it.

Tavis: So the book is really about – it’s a nice-sized dense text. Let me ask you in your own words to explain how it is you think that we need to rethink how we think about crime.

James: Serious people, intelligent people, PBS watchers [laugh] tend to dismiss the whole phenomena as unattractive, which it is. It’s a tabloid business that has – I said in the book that it has more unsightly aspects than Mike Tyson. It has a lot of really ugly sides to it. Because it has, people don’t want to talk about it, but there are serious questions being raised there. The business of popularizing crime is how we expose the faults in our justice system. It’s how we expose police misconduct. It shapes how we think about a lot of different issues and has over a long time. Famous crime stories almost always lead to the passing of new laws. There’s a great many intersections between this unseemly tabloid phenomena and serious social issues and we never get to that intersection because serious people don’t like to talk about that unattractive stuff.

Tavis: Let’s talk about some of that serious and unattractive stuff at the center of that intersection that you talked about, starting with why it is that as a society we are so fascinated specifically, uniquely and almost exclusively with missing white girls.

James: We’re making a little progress on that, I think. It’s because, on some level, we’re racist. I mean, you hate to admit it. You hate to say that it’s true, but there’s an element of racism that has always played a role in making those cases more famous than other cases.

Tavis: Why white girls, though, as opposed to anybody else?

James: The men feel challenged when a woman disappears because – and, again, it’s primitive and sexist and inappropriate, but it is the way society is and has always been. Men feel challenged when a woman is in danger, so those types of stories interest women and they interest men on a level that the crimes against men tend to draw a different visceral reaction. Again, not saying it’s right, but they tend to draw a different visceral reaction, which is that the man was out in the world doing men stuff and something happened to him.

Tavis: On the cover of this book which I’m looking at right now, there are a number of names of individuals and cases that have become famous over the years. I’m almost nervous to ask this, but I want to pull a few names off the cover of the book to get your take on these cases. Let me start with the obvious, the O.J. Simpson matter.

James: Yeah, I tried not to write about the O.J. Simpson case too much because so much has already been said about it, but there are a lot of questions left worth asking. However, the case is very useful to illustrate other points. The case is a common reference point because everybody knows the ins and outs of it, more than any other case in this generation, so it becomes useful to reference other points. In itself, there aren’t that many questions about it that remain unanswered.

Tavis: Let me ask one question that remains unanswered for me about that. You mentioned earlier in this conversation – I’m paraphrasing – that these popular crimes oftentimes lead to new laws and to a great social discourse, etc., etc. Did we learn anything? Did we gain anything? Did anything good happen out of the O.J. case?

James: Well, if anything good happened out of it, it did not offset the evil that came of it, I don’t think. We did have occasion to ask ourselves a lot of pretty serious issues. Is a person who is successful and well off and a sports super star still a victim of racism? Where does his anger come from? Also, we learned from that case that putting cameras in a courtroom is still really dangerous. We learned that lesson in the 1930’s Lindbergh case and kind of forgot about it over the years and we thought, oh, we just have these wonderful cameras now. Nobody will even know they’re there. Yeah, nobody knows they’re there, but the people on stage do, so that’s another lesson we took from that.

Tavis: Speaking of cases that have been gone over and over again and again, is there anything for us to learn from Bill James vis-à-vis the Kennedy assassination all these years later?

James: Well, there are two books that I – this is a book about crime books on a certain level. I haven’t personally investigated any of these cases. I read everything I can find written about them and write about the crime books as much as anything. There are two crime books about the Kennedy assassination that I recommend. One is Gerald Posner’s “Case Closed” which I think does a wonderful job of refuting the kind of speeches and, frankly, silly theories that float around about the Kennedy assassination. The other is a book called “Mortal Error” by Bonar Menninger which explains the theories of a Baltimore man named Howard Donahue. That book is not real easy to read. It’s not what you could call an exciting page-turner. However, if there is a flaw in his thesis, I’m unable to see it, so I do recommend the book.

Tavis: One of the points you make in the book, and you make it well, Bill, and I was fascinated to get to this part of it. The case you make that our fascination with these popular crimes is not new, is not modern and is not even American.

James: That’s right. All societies have these cases. There are many, many crime cases that remain famous from the times of the Romans. The Bible is full of crime stories. You can almost flip to a page. Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers is a crime story. The Bible is full of crime stories.

Tavis: Do these kinds of high-profile cases cause us to be in any way more fearful about crime or do we see ourselves as being removed from these rather spectacular cases?

James: Well, that’s one of the most serious issues. There is a good argument that the exaggeration of these isolated cases causes us to be more paranoid and more concerned about crime than we otherwise would be, and perhaps sometimes that’s a negative thing. Certainly, sometimes it’s a negative thing. On the other hand, if you suggest to a person who has been a victim of a serious crime that we take the issue too seriously, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. So that’s a really tough issue, whether we’re doing more harm than good by paying so much attention to a few cases that honestly don’t normally intersect with our lives.

Tavis: I find this book absolutely fascinating. I could spend hours talking to you. I wish I had that kind of time. Let me offer this, then, as the exit question. There’s been such debate and such conversation in this country ongoing about how to fix our broken system of juris prudence, our system of justice or the lack thereof. You have an interesting way that you put forth here, the notion of a point system?

James: That’s a suggestion of how you could keep score in a basketball game. My favorite line from the book is about a trial. My favorite line from the book is that a trial is like a basketball game in which no one keeps score. The end of the game, you’re asked to vote on which team played better. Yeah, that’s not gonna fix the judicial system, but perhaps it’s a small step. Just perhaps it’s a small contribution to the discussion.

Tavis: His name, of course, Bill James. The book is called “Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence.” I have not done justice to it just scratching the surface. You’ll want to get it, though, I think, and read. Bill James, good to have you on the program, sir. Thanks for your time.

James: Thank you.

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Last modified: May 25, 2011 at 3:43 pm