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James grew up in Mayetta, Kansas, 14 miles north of Topeka, current population 312. He lived two blocks from the schoolhouse, where he first made enemies using numbers. When he was in sixth grade, he decided, without prompting or encouragement from his teachers, to keep statistics for his grade school's softball team. After six games, he discovered that the freakishly large eighth-grader who hit cleanup and pitched was batting a pitiful .143, just 3 hits in 21 at bats. "As I recall," James says now, "he did not appreciate receiving this information."
For James, a passion for the game and a love for the numbers that serve as its language flourished simultaneously. "I loved to play baseball, but I had no ability," he recalls. "The playing came first, then the fan's perception. I was playing for about three years before I had any real understanding that there were people who did this really well for money."
In the spring of 1960, Post Cereal began printing baseball cards on the back of its boxes of Alpha-bits, Crispy Critters, Rice Krinkles and Sugar-Coated Corn Flakes. James was instantly captivated. An obsessive fan of the game in general and the Kansas City A's in particular, James followed his hometown team closely. Then, in October 1967, not long after he had moved to Lawrence to attend the University of Kansas, the A's left for Oakland.
"That created a certain emotional distance between myself and my team," James says. "I transferred my interest in baseball from a team to the game itself and more or less misused my education to learn to analyze baseball.... Ordinary fandom diverged into analytical craziness."
James, majoring in English and economics, graduated from KU in 1971, adding an education degree in 1974. "I do not say this with pride, but my obsession with baseball -- not baseball statistics but baseball -- always took precedence over my education," he says.
Then he languished at a number of odd jobs. He taught classes at the Kansas State Prison in Lansing, worked as a boiler attendant, clerked at a 7-11, dropped fries at a fast-food joint and finally ended up as the night watchman at a Stokely Van Camp cannery.
Between graveyard shifts, James pondered atypical baseball quandaries, such as whether more fans came to ballparks on the nights that star pitchers started. Using the resources available -- which at the time were mostly newspaper box scores -- James assembled thorough answers to questions no one was asking.
In 1977, James published his findings -- photocopying and stapling them into a slim, 68-page volume he called Baseball Abstract. It's not the riveting read that later editions would become; large stretches of statistics dwarfed his explanatory paragraphs. But even in small doses, James displayed an infectious disdain for baseball's sacred numbers.
"The difference between a .275 hitter and a .300 hitter is one hit every two weeks," he wrote. It's an effective attack on the validity of batting average as an absolute indicator of offensive ability, but James used it in an extended anecdote that pointed out the folly of fielding statistics. He established that the difference between good and average fielders, like the difference between good and average hitters, was "simply not visible" and that the error -- the statistic used to rate defensive players -- was a ridiculous "record of opinions." So he concocted the "range factor," which measured the number of successful plays a fielder made in each game. The fielding essay cemented the formula for James' best work: a convincing indictment of current measures followed by a well-reasoned proposal for a radical overhaul, with intriguing, off-topic asides to reward those who were willing to read between the lines.