Shakespeare, Verlander, and Bill James

by Benjamin Domenech on 10:39 pm August 2, 2010

Photo courtesy of Kevin.Ward


Bill James, the greatest living American writer, has a piece at his website (subscription only) on William Shakespeare and Justin Verlander. Like everything James writes, it is a beautiful read full of real insight not just into sports but into America as a nation and a people. But I wanted to share a disagreement I had with a few of his conclusions.

James is making a point about the way sports rewards success at young age, from the beginning — how unique a thing it is, and why that hasn’t been exported as well to other areas of life. He writes:

American society could and should take lessons from the world of sports as to how to develop talent. How is it that we have become so phenomenally good, in our society, at developing athletes? First, we give them the opportunity to compete at a young age. Second, we recognize and identify ability at a young age. Third, we celebrate their success constantly. We show up at their games and cheer. We give them trophies. When they get to be teenagers, if they’re still good, we put their names in the newspaper once in awhile. Fourth, we pay them for potential, rather than simply paying them once they get to be among the best in the world.

Every city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every ten or fifteen years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every ten or fifteen years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for twenty or twenty-five years, get to be really, really good, among the best in the world, and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.

The sporting world, meanwhile, gets criticized constantly for what we do so well. People get squeamish about young people being “too competitive”, as if somehow this would damage their tender souls, and complain about the “undue attention” that is focused on young athletes.

James goes on to make a few points about racial barriers and how sport has broken them down where other industries haven’t — and that this is a good thing, not a bad one. I have no disagreements with any of this. But then he adds:

Look, it’s not our fault that the rest of the world hasn’t kept up. It’s not our fault that there are still barriers to black kids becoming doctors and lawyers and airline pilots. Black kids regard the athletic world as a pathway out of poverty because it is. The sporting world should be praised and honored for that. Instead, we are more often criticized because the pathway is so narrow.

Which, I agree, is a real problem. I would never encourage my children to be athletes—first, because my children are not athletes, and second, because there are so many people pushing to get to the top in sports that a hundred people are crushed for every one who breaks through. This is unfortunate. We are very good at producing athletes, and we are too good at producing athletes. Sometimes the cost is too high. We should do more to develop the next Shakespeare, and less to develop the next Justin Verlander. But this is not a failing of the sporting world. Rather, it is that the rest of society has been too proud to follow our lead.

Now, here, I have to raise an objection. A simple comparison to Shakespeare is unfair when laid alongside the creative minds of the modern era. Shakespeare was, in his time, an entertainer, writing in the entertainment industry. He was at the top of his game, of course, but his modern analogue is not a novelist or even a literary persona, but rather to a writer and creator of entertainment performed by others — of movies, TV shows, etc. Shakespeare was a creator of entertainment that appeals to the upper crust, the middlebrow, and even the lower classes — we don’t really have someone like that writing or creating today. The Coens and David Mamet are too elitist, but perhaps the success of the Nolan brothers, or John Lasseter, or Brad Bird, or someone writing in television today is close to it.

Have all of these people been successful, both critically and at the box office? Of course. But have they been Jason Verlander successful? Now that’s an interesting question. In financial terms, probably not. Consider that Christopher Nolan’s advance for making Inception, a product of nearly three years of work, was reportedly around $5 million. Justin Verlander will make that amount by the All Star break next year, just from his latest contract (which was viewed as slightly below market value).

The Dickens and Greene comparisons only serve to weaken James’ argument. The reality is that America today is awash with great writers of nonfiction and fiction alike, spanning all measure of genres. Trust me, they’re writing books, even if fewer people are reading them, and many are quite good. But none of these authors are even close to the amount of income Verlander has made already from both endorsements and his salary, and few of them are as prominent outside of the urban centers they call home.

As a major league pitcher, Verlander will average an income of more than $15 million per year for the next five years under his latest deal, plus several more millions from endorsements, even playing in a non-media hub like Detroit. Verlander was a millionaire just thanks to salary by the time he was 24. Find me the phenom novelist who falls into that category — they do exist, but they’re genre authors (mostly fantasy) or celebrities who would never be compared to Dickens, nor would they ever hope to make $80 million in a five year span unless their name was J.K. Rowling. But genre authors like Rowling and Stephen King are the extreme outliers: if you put together all the advance payments for Michael Chabon, a writer in his prime who at age 47 is perhaps the most critically acclaimed author of my lifetime, they wouldn’t pay for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. Now, one can be a writer a lot longer than one can be a star pitcher (unless your name is Livan Hernandez), but to put this in perspective, again: Verlander will make that amount before the All Star break next year.

Considering these facts, I have to conclude James is essentially criticizing the “failings” of capitalism, whether he would put it that way or not. The nature of a marketplace in America is one where people are more entertained by sport, by physical feats broadcast around the country instantly or around the world just as fast, than they are by the printed word or the stage performance. This isn’t good or bad, it’s just different — and there’s nothing about it that is a “failing,” it’s just an expression of what people want, and what they’re willing to pay to see. Americans have always loved the impressive and the physical to a greater degree than the old world: we’re different that way. It is, in many ways, more of a meritocratic system than any literary one.

What’s more interesting is that this is a fact James has in the past acknowledged. From an old out of print collection of his work that I cherish, here’s James writing in 1986:

One of the unwritten laws of economics is that it is impossible, truly impossible, to prevent the values of society from manifesting themselves in dollars and cents. This is, ultimately, the reason why athletes are paid so much money: that it is very important to us to be represented by winning teams. The standard example is cancer research; letters pop up all the time saying that it is absurd for baseball players to make twenty times as much money as cancer researchers. But the unavoidable hard fact is that we are, as a nation, far more interested in having good baseball teams than we are in finding a cure for cancer.

Now look, both of my parents died of cancer, and I fully expect that it’s going to get me too, in time. It would be very easy for me to say that cancer research is more important to me than baseball — except that I don’t do anything which would be consistent with such a statement. I think about cancer research a few times a month; I think about baseball virtually every waking hour. I spend many times as much money on baseball in a year as I give to cancer research — and so do you, and so does almost every g–damned one of those guys who write letters saying that it is ridiculous for baseball players to make more money than cancer researchers…

Dollars and cents are an incarnation of our values. Economic realities represent not what we should believe, not what we like to say that we believe, not what we might choose to believe in a more perfect world, but what our beliefs really are.

Some talents, within the realms of entertainment or sports, are so unique as to be otherworldly. I am not disappointed that America produces so few people, if any, who will ever be compared to William Shakespeare. I am more disappointed that America produces so few people who will ever be compared to Bill James.

Why that is true is, for me, a far more interesting question. Maybe it’s because sports coverage online is one of the largest traffic drivers there is, and yet the online sphere is still managed by corporate entities who don’t truly understand what people want or like — they throw money at something and hope it sticks. Maybe that’s why Bill James is writing for his search engine-barred website, and Joe Posnanski does his best work on his personal blog, all while ESPN is paying Rick Reilly $10 million over five years.

And if that’s true, well — that, my friends, is a failing.

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