Bill James, Solid Fool's Gold: Why can we develop athletes and not writers?

The stadium scene.
March 30 2011 6:57 AM

Shakespeare and Verlander

Why are we so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers?

Justin Verlander. Click image to expand.
Justin Verlander

This piece is excerpted from Solid Fool's Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom. (Copyright 2011 by Bill James, used with permission of ACTA Sports, all rights reserved.)

The population of Topeka, Kan., today is roughly the same as the population of London in the time of Shakespeare, and the population of Kansas now is not that much lower than the population of England at that time. London at the time of Shakespeare had not only Shakespeare—whoever he was—but also Christopher Mar­lowe, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, and various other men of letters who are still read today. I doubt that Topeka today has quite the same collection of distinguished writers.

Why is this?

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There are two theories that present themselves. One is that the talent that assembled in Shakespeare's London was a random cluster, an act of God to locate in this one place and time a very un­usual pile of literary talent. The other theory is that there is talent everywhere; it is merely that some societies are good at developing it and other societies not so good.

You may choose which side of this argument you wish to squat upon, but I am on the (b) side; it is my very strong belief that there is talent everywhere and all the time, but that London at that time was very, very good at calling out the literary talent of its citizen­ry, whereas most places and most times are not nearly so effective along this line. I believe that there is a Shakespeare in Topeka today, that there is a Ben Jonson, that there is a Marlowe and a Bacon, most likely, but that we are unlikely ever to know who these people are because our society does not encourage excellence in lit­erature. That's my opinion.

This observation is nowhere near as gloomy as it might seem. Our society is very, very good at developing certain types of skills and certain types of genius. We are fantastically good at identifying and developing athletic skills—better than we are, really, at almost anything else. We are quite good at developing and rewarding inventiveness. We are pretty good at developing the skills necessary to run a small business—a fast food restaurant, for example. We're really, really good at teaching people how to drive automobiles and how to find a coffee shop.

We are not so good at developing great writers, it is true, but why is this? It is simply because we don't need them. We still have Shakespeare. We still have Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson; their books are still around. We don't genu­inely need more literary geniuses. One can only read so many books in a lifetime. We need new athletes all the time because we need new games every day—fudging just a little on the definition of the word need. We like to have new games every day, and, if we are to have a constant and endless flow of games, we need a constant flow of athletes. We have gotten to be very, very good at developing the same.

There are people who believe that when baseball leagues ex­pand, this leads inevitably to a decline in the quality of talent. In my view, this is preposterous. Talent—like stupidity—lies all around us in great heaps: talent that is undeveloped because of a shortage of opportunity, talent that is undeveloped because of laziness and inertia, talent that is undeveloped because there is no genuine need for it. When baseball leagues expand, that simply creates a need for more talent, which creates more opportunity, which leads—in a soci­ety like ours, which is brilliant at developing athletic ability—in very quick order to the development of more players.

Baseball could expand in such a way that it outpaces the available latent talent, true—if it grew too rapidly, or if it expanded to, let us say, 5,000 major league teams. There probably is not enough talent to stock 5,000 major league teams in a place the size of North America without some small slippage in ability, even if the transi­tion from 30 teams to 5,000 was carefully managed. If we went from 30 teams to a mere 300, on the other hand, carefully managing the expansion, it would make no difference whatsoever in the quality of talent. That's my view.

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?