I was recently rereading and enjoying Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract (the second edition, from 2001).
But even the Master is not perfect. Here he is, in the context of the all-time 20th-greatest shortstop (in his reckoning):
Are athletes special people? In general, no, but occasionally, yes. Johnny Pesky at 75 was trim, youthful, optimistic, and practically exploding with energy. You rarely meet anybody like that who isn’t an ex-athlete–and that makes athletes seem special. [italics in the original]
Hey, I’ve met 75-year-olds like that–and none of them are ex-athletes! That’s probably because I don’t know a lot of ex-athletes. But Bill James . . . he knows a lot of athletes. He went to the bathroom with Tim Raines once! The most I can say is that I saw Rickey Henderson steal a couple bases when he was playing against the Orioles once.
Cognitive psychologists talk about the base-rate fallacy, which is the mistake of estimating probabilities without accounting for underlying frequencies. Bill James knows a lot of ex-athletes, so it’s no surprise that the youthful, optimistic, 75-year-olds he meets are likely to be ex-athletes. The rest of us don’t know many ex-athletes, so it’s no suprrise that most of the youthful, optimistic, 75-year-olds we meet are not ex-athletes.
The mistake James made in the above quote was to write “You” when he really meant “I.” I’m not disputing his claim that athletes are disproportionately likely to become lively 75-year-olds; what I’m disagreeing with is his statement that almost all such people are ex-athletes.
Yeah, I know, I’m being picky. But the point is important, I think, because of the window it offers into the larger issue of people being trapped in their own environment (the “availability heuristic,” in the jargon of cognitive psychology). Athletes loom large in Bill James’s world–and I wouldn’t want it any other way–and sometimes he forgets that the rest of us live in a different world.