The Professional Amateur: Bill James on American Crime


The Historical Bloody Crimes Abstract. Simon & Schuster, 496 pages, $30.

Near the middle of his new book, Popular Crime, Bill James defends the scientific achievements of Robert Stroud, the so-called Birdman of Alcatraz. Stroud, a two time murderer, smuggled a nest of baby sparrows into his cell at Leavenworth prison. He asked the authorities for a couple canaries; they said OK. He bred the canaries. Began to sell them. He branched out to more exotic birds. Built cages, mixed and matched seeds, sold his blends, advertised in local papers, sold birds, and wondered what were the reasons for some of his birds taking sick. So he watched them, closely. He wasn't allowed a knife, so he performed autopsies, gently, with his fingers. And in the 1930s, he wrote and illustrated a book, Diseases of Canaries, which was a work without precedent in the field. Ten years later he published Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds, which claimed to contain newly-discovered cures for dozens of bird ailments. He was sure he would save the lives of hundreds of thousands of birds. He patented a medicine, "Stroud's Specific," and sold it mail-order from him cell.

Here's Bill James:

Jolene Babyak, in a 1994 biography of Stroud, argues that almost all of Stroud's research on bird diseased was lacking in merit. Although Stroud worked very hard at analyzing bird diseases, she argues, he had no grounding in scientific methods, and no real understanding of them... His cures, most of them, are of little value, and might in many cases be lethal.

I am inclined to think she misses the point. The point is, he did it. He started the research. He studied the subject as thoroughly as he could, developed treatments, and wrote books describing the results. He took his subject seriously. When no one else was interested in the problems of pet birds, he demonstrated that there was a need for such a test. If later researchers could do the job better (with more education and better facilities), power to them. If you had canaries in 1950 and you wanted to know how to take care of them, Stroud was what you had. Nobody gave that to him.

Strikes a chord much, Bill?

Bill James, latter day canary inspector, has written a book on a new subject: the Lindbergh babies and O.J. Simpsons of the last 200 years, and the justice system that tried to get a handle on them. You can think of these crimes, if you like, like baseball games. Snotty people sneer at the excessive public interest, but it's there. That it outstrips excitement about cancer research and the rain forest is not Bill James's fault. If we tried to show an interest in those things, chances are there'd be some expert kindly letting us know we're unqualified to weigh in, so shut up. "Popular" crimes are those rare instances when lawyers lose hold of the law and it becomes something bigger. And the law, of course, is far too important to abandon to lawyers. So goes the book's main thread.

Now I don't claim to have noted down all of Bill's arguments, peppered among the various stranglings of starlets and axeings of mom and dad, (this is my Bill James impression), but it seems to me there are at least seventeen of them.

1. In 50 years the violent crime rate will be about a third or what it is today.

2. The triumvirate of motive, means, and opportunity could not possibly be more useless.

3. Patsy Ramsay didn't do it.

4. The Warren court is responsible for the explosion of violent crimes in the 1960s and 70s.

5. Habitual liars lie well. Juries need to be taught how to evaluate credibility using independent indeces and throw out their horse sense.

6. JFK was quite possibly killed by a secret servicemen's rifle accidentally discharged from a car trailing the president.

7. The excessive attention paid to popular crimes contributes to the good health of society and demands a prominent place in American history.

8. There should be no death penalty.

9. Michael Jackson was never one of the 100 most famous people in the world.

10. Generally speaking, the political right and left are equally shrill and stupid. If society were a dysfunctional family, the liberals are in charge of making sure punishment is woefully infrequent. The conservatives are there to make sure that, when it does come, it's "grounded for the rest of your life, missy!"

11. There is some justification for vigilantism.

12. In the old days, everything was worse. The press was more sensational, the lawyers were more corrupt, and there was much, much more crime.

13. Relatively high American crime rates today continue to be a hangover from the spectacular rates of the period 1840-1895.

14. The period 1880-1920 was popular crime's golden age.

15. Juries should be made privy to a great deal of information currently considered inadmissable or prejudicial. Let the sunshine in.

16. Mark Fuhrman is "likeable."

17. Networks of tiny, crime-appropriate prisons -- about 24 inmates per -- should replace the current, broken "violentocracy" of American jails. All matter of problems would be remedied by this solution, which is perhaps the grandest, most fervently-argued idea of the book.


It should be said that some of these arguments are treated in a sentence and some in a dozen pages. Bill long ago established the proto-blogger precedent of lettering personal interests tyrannize his word counts. That's why The Historical Baseball Abstract is the erratic masterpiece it is, and there are stretches of Popular Crime -- particularly in the book's first half -- that rival its impassioned, discursive storytelling.

As a book, Popular Crime's flaw is that Bill feels the need to supply the cliff notes to an endless sequence of serial muderers knocking off prostitutes. It's a little boring, and not what he's good at. Bill's good at characters, bad at atmosphere. Good at picking things apart, bad at drawing things up. Good at being insightful, bad at being systematic, which is part of the reason why he writes about "Popular" crime rather than crime in general. The latter subject might have produced a more Abstract-like book ("Checking out: Horse and Buggy Theft; Checking in: Securities Fraud"), and perhaps a better one. But we can only ask for so much.

One thing to bear in mind is, Bill James is a beautiful writer. I can't say this clearly enough. This is especially true when you consider that it's so much easier to float along on shop-warn jargon than to master a personal tone and use real-world words well. (Hence there being only one Roger Ebert.) Bill can sum up a man -- Clarence Darrow, say -- in a paragraph that'll make you laugh at his turns of phrase, admire his clarity, then laugh in pleasure at the marvel that is that clarity. And to my ear he's become a much sharper writer since his Abstract days, even if this spotty book is much the inferior effort.

You're wondering if he uses math and numbers. Well, a little bit, and it's pretty silly. Using a basketball analogy, he sketches a point-scoring system for evaluating evidence. DNA evidence might get you 80 points, a positive identification 40, a grudge with the victim 10, a cockeyed look 1 or 2, and if you can add all that up to 100, the prosecutor wins. Bill knows this is faulty. He only wants juries to understand that they absolutely shouldn't convict a person on three cockeyed looks and a grudge, even if it all looks pretty sinister. You're miles away from 100 points. That's a good message, and an important one. But his pulled-from-thin-air scoring methods are much worse than he seems to realize, and he returns to them too often.

What are we left with? Something much less than a new system for looking at crime, certainly. One of the reasons Bill succeeded with baseball is because it autopsies so well. His unaided fingers could pull cleanly at clean joints, and then the other half of him (the balladeer) could admire the messy offal. His new topic -- let's admit it -- is one hundred million times more complicated than baseball. And he sometimes rather badly loses his way. (There are already FJM-style takedowns of some theories on true crime blogs.)

Still, it's almost heroic the way Bill James doesn't even dream of cracking a law journal to help him along. No, those guys are "experts" and Bill's an amateur. He's on earth so that his unique, solitary brain can set to work on what falls under its keen attention, with absolute faith that he'll discover something of interest, and occasionally something of great interest, as he pokes and prods and tells his stories. Yes, if Bill James's subject was the Mississippi, he would sooner be Mark Twain than a hydrologist. 

And which of the two is more scarce?

This FanPost was contributed by a member of the community and was not subject to any vetting or approval process. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions, reasoning skills, or attention to grammar and usage rules held by the editors of this site.

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