The moment you see Michael Lewis and Billy Beane together, you realise how Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game got written. The book that changed baseball—and then most other ballgames—isn’t so much a book. It’s more a conversation. This morning the writer and the baseball executive meet in the tumbledown Oakland Coliseum, where it all began, and pause only occasionally to answer a question. Most of the time they just continue their decade-old conversation.
Lewis, who lives around the corner in Berkeley, noticed in about 2001 that something strange was going on at the Coliseum. The Oakland A’s baseball team were routinely beating teams with several times their budget. Clearly they must be doing something clever. The pre-eminent business writer of our times came to visit.
The A’s’ general manager, Beane, let him in. He had read Lewis’s debut book Liar’s Poker, and he was curious. He cautiously told Lewis how the A’s were using new statistics to find good players ignored by other clubs. For instance, baseball teams had spent a century focused on a hitter’s “batting average”. It turned out that something called “on-base percentage” was much more telling. Beane was increasingly letting his twentysomething Harvard-educated statistician Paul DePodesta choose players on his laptop. The gnarled old A’s’ scouts didn’t like that.
Today, Beane recalls: “Michael said within three minutes: ‘I know exactly what you guys are doing. You’re arbitraging the mispricing of baseball players.’” When Lewis mentioned his own experience of arbitrage on Wall Street in the 1980s, Beane got interested. “We really were looking to Wall Street as a guide,” he says.
The two men kept talking, sometimes about baseball, often not. Out of their conversations came Moneyball, the book, which has sold more than one million copies worldwide. Moneyball the movie, starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, is released in the UK on November 25. But “Moneyball” is also a phenomenon, which after changing baseball is now sweeping almost all ballgames, from British soccer to Australian rules football. And it’s a phenomenon that reaches beyond sport. With hindsight, what Lewis captures in his book—the triumph of the highly educated over the lesser educated—is exactly what happened in the American economy.
At 49, Beane still sports something of the Charles Atlas physique that once lured half the country’s baseball and football scouts to his parents’ house in San Diego. This morning he also sports a fresh coffee stain on his shirt, timed just right for the FT’s photo session, “because I’m me”. Lewis has an imperfectly tamed southern accent, a pink preppy shirt and an expensive watch befitting a journalist who reputedly earns $10 a word. We settle into one of the Coliseum’s poky offices—Bulgarian ministry of transport, c1976—and they reminisce about how they met.
“It was in spring training of ’02,” says Lewis, whose articulacy will drive the conversation.
“March of ’02,” says Beane, who is happy to play backup. Like many autodidacts, he feels his lack of formal learning, and his conversation is peppered with phrases such as, “I wish I had a better term for this….”
Lewis says: “What triggered it was I had been thinking about doing a piece.”
“A newspaper article,” adds Beane.
At first Beane still didn’t want to give much away. However, the two men had scarcely begun their conversations when Lewis’s daughter Dixie was born, and the writer disappeared for weeks. That reassured Beane: “We figured, we were not that interesting.” He was right. Lewis wasn’t even intending to make the A’s the focus of his article. He certainly wasn’t planning to focus on Beane himself. “He’s problematic as a character,” analyses Lewis, “because he’s not that interested in himself, and deflects that sort of attention.”
“I was never a great character,” puts in Beane.