How a Cereal Box Changed Baseball Forever
The founder of sabermetrics started out with a box of Post Toasties
The best prize I got out of a cereal box when I was a kid was the sense of satisfaction I got from solving a maze. But my dad, Bill James, legendary baseball statistician and the reason Moneyball exists, got a whole career out of his childhood breakfast distractions. Because of a box of cornflakes in 1961, the game of baseball changed forever.
My grandfather George James loved Post Toasties, a since-discontinued cereal once given the dramatic name of Elijah's Manna. In the spring of 1961, Post cereals printed a series of cut-out baseball cards with 200 players from the recently expanded major league franchises on the back of their boxes.
"Baseball cards were a new idea to me. I don't know that I'd ever heard of them before the spring of 61, and I began collecting them avidly," Dad told me recently over breakfast. "When you're listening on the radio, there's all these players, there's a lot of them but you don't know one from another. These 200 baseball cards [said] 'Here's an identity for this guy, here's his name, here's his picture, here's the date he was born.' It tells you in a sense exactly how good they are at everything."
Finding the cards helped Dad at a critical point in his young life. "I didn't have money to get baseball cards in packs. I remember I found some that someone had dropped—they were wet. And I picked them up and dried them off, and I think I still have them today," Dad recalls. "I know a lot of people find the things that they're obsessed with at that age. What the baseball cards did was create an organized universe. I realized on some level that baseball represented a tiny little universe that you therefore had a chance to understand."
The statistics on the cardboard box were basic: just the player's games, at bats, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, RBI, and batting averages, for the year 1960 and over their lifetime. But the basic statistics got my dad thinking about the numbers in relation to their team's overall success. Eventually, he realized this vision in his groundbreaking series of Baseball Abstracts, coining the term sabermetrics. "The point of the game is to win, so the significance of all other statistics is the relationship they bear to wins. But not only did I not understand that in 1960, [almost] nobody understood it."
Most breakfasts are forgotten by dinner, but the things you learn over a morning meal can stick with you for a lifetime. "I have trouble remembering who was the MVP in 1988 and who was the Cy Young award winner in 1997, but 1960—I know all that stuff," Dad saya. "I could tell you every statistic that was on any of those cards. They were my life for a year or more, and they've been my work for a long time now.
His favorite among the cards was Tito Francona, but Dad struggles to pin down what so appealed to him about the Indians star. "I think it had to do with the balance of his accomplishments, but I wouldn't have understood this at the time. Tito wasn't great at anything, but he was good at everything."
In 2004, Dad won his first World Series ring with the Red Sox under the managership of Tito's son, Terry Francona. In the 1980s, his Baseball Abstracts earned popularity and provoked controversy among those who favored more traditional approaches to evaluating baseball strategies. Eventually, objective analysis of baseball became less of a niche field; the Oakland A's outperformed expectations by adopting sabermetrics, Moneyball was a hit, and Dad was hired by the Boston front office, where he still works today.
I myself am not a breakfast person, but I had to adapt when Dad hired me as a research assistant on a true crime book. Working for Dad involves debating murders over a series of breakfasts. As the book grew, and I kept finding more and more murders, I was promoted to co-author. During these morning meals, we found a new dimension in our relationship: collaborators.
My dad and I aren't peers, even though we are publishing a book that is a product of both of our work. But we found the ways that we are alike over breakfast meetings to discuss something that neither of us could or would have accomplished alone. Our book, The Man From The Train, comes out on September 19 and it will be my first, his fifty-somethingth. Together, we believe we figured out who was behind over 100 previously unsolved crimes, including the infamous Villisca axe murders. "You're as good a writer as I am," Dad told me one morning over breakfast the Big Biscuit in our hometown of Lawrence, Kansas. I won't forget a single thing about that meal.