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?

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 athletes' 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 a while.

Fourth, we pay them for potential, rather than simply paying them once they get to be among the best in the world.

The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 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 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 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. The grossest example is on the issue of race.

People in the sporting world in 1950 were just as racist as people in other parts of society—but people in the sporting world got over it a hell of a lot faster, because we cared more about win­ning than we did about discriminating. Because the sporting world was always ahead of the rest of the world in breaking racial barri­ers, black kids came to perceive sports as being the pathway out of poverty. For this we are now harshly and routinely criticized—as if it was our fault that the rest of society hasn't kept up. Some jackass Ph.D ex-athlete pops up on my TV two or three times a year claiming that a young black kid has a better chance of being hit by lightning than of becoming a millionaire athlete. This is nonsense as well as being a rational hash.

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 100 people are crushed for each one who breaks through. This is unfortunate. We are very good at producing athletes, and maybe 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 situation is not a failing of the sporting world. Rather, it is that the rest of society has been too proud to follow our lead.

Bill James is the author of The Bill James Gold Mine 2009and the proprietor of Bill James Online.

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