July 10, 2003


As I recall, the Bill James study alluded to in the article compared white and black athletes who started off at the same level in terms of talent, pairing two players with similar numbers at the same age, then examining those same statistics for the rest of their careers. The most fair conclusion from his study was that cultural, as opposed to genetic, factors were more important: black athletes excelled because they had less to fall back on if their careers fizzled. I do not think he gave equal weight to the genetic argument, and nothing from his study would advance it.

As to your last point, I think one reason Baker doesn't have to worry about getting fired for his remarks is that he's generally considered to be the gold standard for managers. Al Campanis and "Jimmy the Greek" were highly vulnerable before their ill-chosen remarks, and held positions that made them easily replaceable.

Posted by: Steve Smith at July 10, 2003 04:07 PM

Steve -- You can click on the link & read it yourself, you know.... It's in the '87 Abstract, which is sitting next to me.

I think Baker won't get fired because A) his statements weren't as creepy-sounding as Jimmy the Greek's, B) as Volokh points out, they don't reinforce a bad stereotype of the mental inferiority of minorities, and don't necessarily suggest that he'd actually apply this theory in his management (unlike Campanis, who had the authority to hire managers), C) he's black, and there's a double standard, and (hopefully) D), we are inching away from the era when people are over-punished for their race- or ethnic-related remarks and jokes.

Posted by: Matt Welch at July 10, 2003 04:19 PM

Of course I clicked the link--I was hoping that you had found an internet link to past Bill James Abstracts (incl. the hard-to-find pre-82 work). Since I don't have the 87 Abstract in front of me (or was it from one of this newsletters?), I could only go by memory, but I seem to recall that James made a more convincing argument in favor of a cultural explanation, rather then a genetic.

Posted by: Steve Smith at July 10, 2003 05:07 PM

When I'm not on deadline, I'll read it very closely & misrepresent it back to you ....

Posted by: Matt Welch at July 10, 2003 05:18 PM

BTW, your breakdown of Tim Salmon did credit to you as a sabermetrician. The weather is not often discussed as a critical factor in how games are won or lost, even though the oppressive heat of the mid-summer would probably have as much of an impact on baseball players as freezing temperatures would have on football players. I would be surprised if someone hasn't already done a study of what type of ballplayer plays well in the heat. Speaking of which, the West Valley is hell today...I need a drink.

Posted by: Steve Smith at July 10, 2003 06:02 PM

1. I recall the study vividly. James argued that black players might gain extra motivation from having few other options to go back to after the game. Basically, a poverty thesis.

2. Beware the genetics argument. James also had great fun in his historical book with quotes from sportswriters in the 1890s about the genetic superiority of the Irish to explain their domination of baseball. Similar things were, 70-80 years ago, written about Jews and their dominance of basketball (!). Consider how long those advantages lasted.

Posted by: Crank at July 10, 2003 07:01 PM

Man, I hope we can stop the witch hunt, because I want to see better baseball. I don't think the genetic angle is the right answer at all, but I bet there are millions of cultural influences just going begging for study.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin at July 10, 2003 08:50 PM

Scott -- I don't think there's much of a witch hunt, which is heartening. Though I'm optimistic by nature.

Steve & Crank -- Actually, I'm much more interested in James' *data*, than his speculative interpretations of it. And, in truth, I'm not obsessively interested with it in general -- I'd forgotten about the study entirely, to tell you the truth, and in re-reading it, the most interesting thing is how surprised *he* was at the results (indicating that the anomaly was significant). Any time the numbers jump off the page, it's interesting. But I'm not about to waste my time trying to crunch numbers of how black players age, or whether Dominicans play better in day games -- I'd much rather invent some new basketball statistics.

I actually ran quite a few first-half/second-half numbers this morning -- JuanGone, I-Rod, A-Rod, Jose Hernandez, Mark Grace, Eric Gagne, Eric Chavez, Darrin Erstad, Mike Piazza, Johnny Damon, Richie Sexson, more -- and it's all pretty inconclusive. Some players with big second-half reputations (Damon, Hernandez) don't show much; others with big first-half reputations (Piazza) are the same. Sexson, a whiteboy from drizzly Portland, is an extreme warm-weather hitter, as is Eric Chavez, a slightly colored possibly Latino L.A. dude. Erstad, a borderline albino, is basically a minor-league player in the second half. The rest are all pretty split down the middle. Woo-hoo!

Posted by: Matt Welch at July 10, 2003 09:03 PM

Funny you should mention that Erstad is a "borderline albino", since he's famous for his uncanny resemblance to Ben Affleck.

The racial/ethnic breakdown of who plays well in warm weather isn't interesting to me either, in large part because I doubt that a connection exists. My purely subjective hunch is that younger players might be relatively better in the heat. There is certainly enough day/night data to provide some clue.

Posted by: Steve Smith at July 10, 2003 10:12 PM

Guessing, I'd really think there was a connection to *growing up* in warm weather, and doing well in it. And that might even differentiate with humidity ... but that's just a b.s. guess.

Posted by: Matt Welch at July 10, 2003 10:37 PM

Regarding your comment ;

"Guessing, I'd really think there was a connection to *growing up* in warm weather, and doing well in it. And that might even differentiate with humidity ... but that's just a b.s. guess."

I think there is a big connection in growing up in a warm climate and one's skill in playing the game of baseball. Those who grow up in warm climates -- in their skills development years -- log countless thousands of hours more in playing time than those in cold climates who are unable to play due to winter weather.
Granted, cold climate folks do play other sports and stay in shape but the skill sets of other sports are not all readily transferrable to baseball. Kids in Southern Cal can and do play baseball pick up games in January or February, where, as you mention in your article, "a disproportionate number of Major League baseball players grew up".

Taking environmental factors to extremes to further the point you do not see many Eskimoes in the major leagues. Tough getting a pick up game going in the old igloo on those long cold winter nights.

On the politically correct side it is nice to see that these genetic vs environmental differences can be more openly discussed.

On the stat side it opens the door for more intelligent prioritizing of raw data to better understand, manage and play the game.

My own feeling is that sports have become so corporate that there is too much emphasis on the business management side as opposed to the playing side and there are now two distinctly different types of fansjavascript" language="javascript">

rth examining since he's the one who started all this.

Posted by: Crank at July 11, 2003 09:18 AM

Warren -- Somewhere in my searching I saw a remark somewhere (on baseballprospectus.com, baseballprimer.com, or espn.com) that *pitchers* from *cold*-weather states might have an advantage precisely because they don't wear down their arms at an early age, on account of the horrible weather.... It will be very interesting to see what new info comes out in the next year or two about factors in avoiding pitching injuries...

Posted by: Matt Welch at July 11, 2003 11:39 AM

Matt, seems to me your take on this is exactly right. A couple of points/questions though- 1)Compared to other species, including other apes, human DNA is remarkably, maybe even dangerously, undiverse 2) Most of what diversity there is occurs within Africa, witness East African distance runners, West African sprinters/jumpers, along with pygmies and hottentots, 3) The enviros may have a good point when it comes to the question of expectations, witness the relative success of European whites in jumping/sprinting and now basketball when compared to American whites.

Posted by: Lloyd at July 11, 2003 04:08 PM

Matt -- I think the guy that made that remark was the same guy that then, based on that info, went ahead and cut back his sexual activity to once a month in order to not wear out his penis and improve his performance.
When they asked his wife -- a woman who read comic books and did her nails whenever they made love -- if she noticed any difference, she replied, "Nah, it didn't make a bit of difference to me."
For statistical purposes I would weight this more on the environmental side than the genetic.

Posted by: Warren Celli at July 12, 2003 03:45 PM

Holy crap, Warren! You need a "don't take a drink" sounder when you're posting something like that. Now it's Coors everywhere.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin at July 12, 2003 04:34 PM
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