Guest Post: Sports Talk Radio, Sabermetrics, and Carl Becker

Mark Boonshoft is a PhD candidate at Ohio State University. His work focuses on colleges and academies, especially the networks forged in them, and their role in the formation of revolutionary political culture. 

WFAN 660 AM

“Long time listener, first time caller.” These are words I heard often as a kid. I grew up listening to sports talk radio—mostly 660AM, WFAN-New York—and this is how many a caller introduced themselves. I’ve limited my habit—I no longer keep a transistor radio quietly playing under my pillow while I sleep—but I have not shaken it entirely. Long car rides are still a good chance to binge, and binge I did this July Fourth weekend. Driving through Albany, I called in for the first time ever.

Briefly, the host said that Alex Rodriguez’s career was one of, if not the most disappointing in the history of professional sports. When I asked him by what metric that was remotely possible, he basically responded that A-Rod was a cheater and a jerk. Well, duh. The grad student in me took over. How did that indicate anything about his career, let alone show it was a disappointment. This was a classic failure to define or clarify terms. I never got to say any of this on the air, which is probably for the best. But this interaction got me thinking about the disjuncture between academic historians and the lay reading public. There is an imperfect analogy here, if you bear with me.

First, I would argue that when people have debates about baseball on radio shows, and elsewhere, they are engaged in historical thinking. Throughout their lives, people immerse themselves in the primary sources (games, interviews, newspaper columns, statistics), and familiarize themselves with the prevailing interpretations of baseball history as told by authors, commentators, parents and grandparents, and talk show hosts. Then they craft their own interpretations. (I read somewhere that Forrest McDonald became interested in history when he realized he was already doing historical research while reading thousands of box scores in old newspapers). Even when hosts and callers are talking about the present, they love to make comparative analogies to past players, teams, and trades.

Second, because it is one of the most common ways Americans engage in relatively informed historical debate, it seems plausible that understanding how Americans talk about their national pastime, and the types of arguments that sports-talk-radio listeners respond to, may offer insights into how these same people like to talk about and read their nation’s history. This then may offer insights into the difficulties academic historians find in making their work appealing to the elusive general audience. And there is overlap between the general audience we seek, and people who love sports talk radio.

So what is sports-talk radio like? Its biggest personalities are mostly blowhards who offer strong interpretations, based ostensibly on a wealth of expertise and experience, without really considering the limits of their own or anyone’s knowledge. They ask simple questions: Who is a better player than whom? Which team is the best ever? What was the turning point in the history of some team? And they support their answers with a blend of meaningless statistics (more on that in a bit) and haphazardly compiled anecdotal evidence. They think very little, perhaps not at all, about how to properly weigh evidence from different perspectives, and time periods. And listeners eat it up. They come right back at them with similar types of arguments. And this is how baseball is debated at games, in bars, and amongst friends—it’s certainly how I usually talk about the game.

I have seen no signs of this changing anytime soon. It is somewhat surprising because in the late 1970s, slightly behind the new social history, appeared baseball’s analogous “school,” sabermetrics. It is a complex and nuanced way of thinking about the game using advanced statistical models to account for broad structural and cultural changes in baseball. Bill James—the patron saint of the sabermetricians—and others showed that the baseball statistics most people valued, and which many Americans can rattle off about certain players, were extremely flawed, failing to take context into consideration at all. Sabermetricians brought academic rigor to their work and rethought baseball from the ground up. They tried to understand how games are won and in turn what attributes are important in players for making that happen. It was a massive epistemological shift that opened up questions of how baseball works—not unlike the periodic “turns” that alter how we understand the nature of historical change—that has influenced, in varying degrees, almost all professional baseball organizations.

James and the sabermetricians also tried to reach beyond baseball insiders. They created a statistic—wins-above-replacement—that made comparing players from vastly different time periods more systematic, this being a favorite activity of fans. Nevertheless, people still think about baseball in pretty traditional ways. The Bill Jameses of the world still have less sway over mainstream understandings of baseball than the sports-talk hosts. Don’t believe me? Go look on the back of a baseball card, what stats do you see? Better yet, call in to a regular old sports-talk show or get in an argument at your local bar and bring up wins-above-replacement, runs created, defensive range factor, or my personal favorite, VORP. Let me know how that goes. Some people still downright resent the idea of sabermetric analysis. The current Yankees manager, Joe Girardi, has a binder full of advanced statistical information to help him make decisions. This garnered him the uncomplimentary nickname, “Joey Looseleafs.” Even after Moneyball, many fans still think that baseball is a game best understood through simple observation and gut instinct.

How does this admittedly strained analogy relate to Carl Becker and academic historians? Let me offer up a few thoughts. We tend to blame our failure in connecting with Becker’s “Mr. Everyman” on our reluctance or inability to tell stories and write good narratives, the subject of William Cronon’s recent AHA presidential address, as well as a number of discussions on this blog. If my analogy is at all instructive, the issue is not that we focus too much on argument over narrative; sports-talk radio listeners and baseball fans love arguments. There is simply a wholesale difference between the types of interpretations that academic historians and sabermetricians want to make and how they want to make them, and the arguments the general audience finds interesting. If Moneyball is indicative of anything, I’m not sure accessible writing can overcome this. If that is the case, and I’m playing the über-pessimist here, do we really want to give up on what we do in order to reach more people? At some level, I think we need to recognize that our project is a valuable one, even if we have a tough time convincing a lot of people of that. I think we can acknowledge our inability to find a wider influence, without having to shoulder all of the blame, or even laying blame at all.

10 comments on “Guest Post: Sports Talk Radio, Sabermetrics, and Carl Becker

  1. Alec Rogers says:

    While it’s true that Sabrmetrics isn’t entirely mainstream, it’s become much more popular than it was just 5 years ago, and much of that has to do with the media’s willingness to play an intermediary role, e.g. look at ESPN’s Sports and Info blog. Many of the ESPN commentators talk about WAR, VORP, etc. The Baseball Today Podcast used to be great for this (not so much since it was changed to Baseball Tonight and the hosts were changed).

    What has changed entirely is the baseball world itself. In the past few years every team has gotten an on staff Sabrmetrics analyst. You don’t mention, for example, that Bill James himself was employed for many years by the Boston Red Sox. Now teams that are reputed to be “traditional” will huff and puff about their use of statistics as if they’re being accused of gross negligence.

    Is there a future for a history that gives up on its very subject? Probably not. Take that view and universities will stop funding history departments all together. Why bother paying a bunch of people to chat amongst themselves?

  2. Mark Boonshoft says:

    Alec, thanks for the comment. I did not have space to get into detail, but tried to convey that sabermetrics has had incredible influence on professional organizations.

    I’ll admit I don’t actually read most of the espn stuff. Most of the stories that look interesting are part of their “insider” package, which costs money. Your point about ESPN is still well taken. After I wrote this I was watching some espn show, don’t remember which, and they were comparing WAR of 2 players, but along with average, RBI, etc.

    The reason I used sports talk radio as my point of departure is because it always sounded more like how people I know talk about the game than espn. With WFAN, that was the entire point, to make it sound like New Yorkers talking about sports. I’ve found that to be true in the other cities I’ve lived in, Buffalo and Columbus.

  3. Great guest post, Mark! I’ve been a huge baseball fan since I was a small kid. And, having been historically minded even since that age, I used to spend countless hours devouring and memorizing the stats of older great players from The Baseball Encyclopedia. I also read book after book about the history of the game, particularly of my team, the Yankees (my father grew up 6 blocks from the Stadium). So I both related to and was struck by the idea that arguing about, say, who was the greatest hitter in the history of the game is an example of some of the most informed historical discussion in which the public engages.

    I’ve said this in numerous forums, both on the blog and podcast, but it’s relevant to the questions raised so well here by Mark. I am utterly convinced, as you suggest at the end, that general readers do not avoid academic history primarily because of academics’ writing style. At least in terms of early America, general readers primary concern seems to be topic. That is, they want to read about the American Revolution, particularly about the founding. Popular works on the founding and the Revolution are the modern purveyors of our national origins myth. (Would historians have less animus for David McCullough if they understood him as a mythologist rather than a historian?).

    That is not to imply an unfavorable value judgment against popular history, per se. But we have to stop conflating academic and popular history as being two versions of the same thing. In many cases, especially the most popular works, they simply are not. Once we accept that, we can perhaps get to where Mark suggests we should at the end of his piece, i.e., relieving ourselves of the inherent professional guilt over our academic work not appealing to general readers, which is stoked more by the history establishment than by general readers themselves.

  4. Matt Karp says:

    My own addiction to sports talk radio was nurtured in DC, but didn’t come into its own until I moved to Philly — you know you’re in a dire state when you’re listening to people talking about teams you don’t even care about. I’ve always liked sports talk, despite the idiotic callers and pompous hosts, because its own limited way it really can build a community, a collective gathering of people all passionately engaged in the same enterprise, however absurd or dubious.

    Anyway, I like the idea that discussions about sports represent one of the most common forms of everyday historical thinking, and also, especially, your corollary that “Mr. Everyman” is not so put off by arguments about the past as is sometimes assumed. For me, this analogy actually points in a different and more optimistic. direction than your conclusion seems to allow (as does the triumph of sabermetrics in the past few years — though I have my own reservations about the technocratic arrogance of some sabr-types, who remind me less of than new social historians than first-generation Rankean positivists armed with spreadsheets). Of course there will always be a divide between specialists and a general audience, but as long as the general audience has an appetite for argument, there is reason for hope.

    • I thought the last few lines betrayed the optimism that is the basis of the piece, which is as, Matt relates, that it’s “proof” that Americans are not inherently averse to historical debate and/or interpretation. That’s an important observation when you consider the over-simplified notion that general readers want narrative not analysis (or interpretation). That notion was the basis of Bill Cronon’s AHA Presidential Address back in January and I just think it’s a false dichotomy. General readers aren’t inherently averse to argument and academics are not inherently averse to narrative. That said, I find the dichotomy highly troubling because it feeds on (and contributes to) the desperate mindset that is enveloping the profession. Narrative is not the savior of the academic historical profession. We don’t need to focus on narrative to win over general readers. IF we want to win over a more general readersship (for the purpose of exposing the public to historical thinking, not for that of “saving” the profession), we would do well to slowly but surely learn how to integrate argument into narrative and vice versa in a form palatable to popular readers.

  5. Dave Mazella says:

    I think one advantage we might have over earlier generations of historians is that we no longer assume that academic or scientific forms of history will supersede religious, rhetorical, nationalist, or “precritical” forms of history. Popular histories and their narratives simply coexist with much more sophisticated analyses, in the manner of sabermetrics and sports radio, without necessarily interacting, let alone “correcting” one another. I think that academic history, with its focus on disciplinary debates rather than larger-scale affirmations or narratives of identity, will usually have a much more specialized and credentialed audience. But do the sub-specialties even read each others’ work?

    Loved this post, but now I want to see the Junto-ites take on Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” which I think says lots of interesting things about popular histories.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/arts/television/derek-waters-explains-his-tv-series-drunk-history.html?_r=0

  6. johnfea says:

    “Their talkin’ sports going at it as hard as they can
    It’s Mike and the Mad Dog, on the FAN
    Nothing can get by ‘em, turn ‘em on and try ‘em
    Mike and the Mad Dog
    Sports Radio 66, WFAN!

    Great post.

    • I have nothing useful to add, but I’ve had this jingle in my head (and an odd ringing in my ears about the San Francisco Giants) for 5 hours after reading the comment. Thanks, John.

  7. Mark Boonshoft says:

    Ahhhhh gooood afternoon everybody (that’s for you John). Thanks for all the comments.

    Michael, I’m glad it came through that we agree on this. I was thinking about some of your posts while writing this. What you and Matt have said about my pessimistic end to a somewhat optimistic piece has me thinking. I’m usually a fairly optimistic guy. I think maybe I have trouble imagining what this sort of goldilocks blend of argument and narrative that is satisfying to academics and popular audiences would look like. I certainly hope the optimists here win out and prove me wrong in the long run.

    Also, Matt, I really liked your suggestion that perhaps the sabermetrics folks are more Rankean than anything. As Dave points out, we certainly don’t think we’ve reached some perfect level of historical thinking, and sometimes the sabermetricians act like they have reached perfection for baseball, which does bug me.

    • Mark, I actually meant that your piece was on the whole optimistic in tone and that perhaps Matt didn’t pick up on that because of the one bit of pessimism at the end. I think anyone getting that impression is a matter of tending to remember what we read last.

      I, too, have a hard time thinking of what that kind of work would like. I think that’s why I realized that we need to stop thinking of academic and popular history as two sides of the same coin. They require different skill sets, and, often, different training. Therefore, asking an academic to write popular history is similarly impractical as asking a popular historian to write academic history. Of course, some academics can write popular histories and there are some popular historians who probably could write a more academic type of history. So I’m not making some total generalization. But it is kind of like criticizing a cricketer for not being able to hit a major league curve ball. When you think about it like this, the worst part becomes that the criticizing of historians is actually coming primarily from the history establishment. After all, general readers aren’t sitting around thinking, “When are those academic historians going to start writing books for me?” And it only puts more pressure on a profession that is already in the midst of upheaval.

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