Shakespeare and Verlander

August 2, 2010

Part I—Shakespeare

 

            The population of Topeka, Kansas, today is roughly the same as the population of London in the time of Shakespeare, and the population of Kansas now is roughly the same as 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?

            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, Kansas, today, that there is a Ben Jonson, that there is a Marlowe and there is 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—leads in very quick order to the development of more players.

            Baseball could expand so rapidly that it outpaces the available latent talent, true—if it expanded 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 300, carefully managing the expansion, it would make no difference whatsoever in the quality of talent.    That’s my view.

 

 

Part II—Verlander

 

            Justin Verlander is a magnificent pitcher.   Watching him pitch this afternoon against Clay Buchholz, I was struck by how many outstanding young pitchers there are in baseball today.    Jon Lester of the Red Sox is a tremendous pitcher.   Is he better than Greinke or better than Lincecum or better than Felix Hernandez or David Price or Ubaldo Jimenez?   Well, no—but he’s just as good. 

            I have been a baseball fan for 50 years, and I have never seen the game so flush with tremendous young pitchers.   We had a fling of great pitchers in the 1960s, yes, and another very impressive collection of pitchers in the mid-1970s—Seaver and Palmer and Catfish Hunter and Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan and all those guys.   I’ve never seen the depth of quality young pitching that we have now.

            So is it a random cluster, or is it a rational response to need?

            It’s a random cluster. . .or, at least, I think it is.

            You can’t make rules for the Almighty.   Suppose that you create 100 great young pitchers, and you sprinkle them randomly across history.   Will you get one coming along every year or two, or will you get clusters?

            Obviously, you’ll get clusters.   After Seaver and Palmer and Catfish Hunter and Carlton there were no outstanding young pitchers for ten years, then there was another wave of them, Clemens and Saberhagen and Dwight Gooden and David Cone and others.     We’re at the crest now of another wave—the biggest wave of my lifetime, I believe.

 

 

Part III—Technical

 

            I was thinking, while watching Verlander work, that there is something very unusual here, which is this.   When Verlander was a rookie in 2006, he won 17 games, but he struck out only 124 batters.    Last year he struck out 269 batters.    That’s got to be very unusual, right, to have that kind of an increase in strikeouts after having been successful without strikeouts?  

            When Verlander was a rookie he just basically threw fastballs.   He threw 100 MPH fastballs, so this was effective, and he had a changeup and a curve, which basically he could get by with throwing because his fastball was so good.    Now, his curve is outstanding and he cuts the fastball sometimes so that it, too, has become a strikeout pitch.   It is unusual to see a pitcher improve that much after he is already successful.   The normal pattern is that when a player is successful, he continues to do what he is doing until it is no longer successful.

            I identified all pitchers in history who

            a)  were rookies,

            b)  pitched 140 or more innings, and

            c)  had strikeout rates below the league norm.

            There were 600 such pitchers—an even 600, which we could call the Verlander group, except that to form a true Verlander group, we would need a fourth criterion:  that the pitcher be successful as a rookie.

            Anyway, Verlander last year was +86 strikeouts—86 strikeouts more than an average American League pitcher in the same number of innings.   What I was wondering was, has there ever before been a pitcher who started out below average in strikeouts, and then had a season in which he was almost 100 strikeouts above average?

            Hardie Henderson was below the league average in strikeouts as a rookie in 1883 and then, in 1884, struck out 346 batters in 439 innings, which was 208 strikeouts above average.   This, however, was 1884, and 1884 doesn’t really count.   Two things happened in 1884 which make it peculiar.   First, there was an extremely rapid expansion of immature leagues, which caused a precipitous drop in the quality of talent.  Second, 1884 was the season in which baseball more or less abandoned its efforts to enforce the rule that pitchers were required to throw underhanded.   There was a rapid switch from throwing underhanded to throwing overhand.   Thus, when we draw up a list of the largest “+ strikeout seasons” by pitchers who began their careers with below-average strikeout rates, the top nine pitchers on the list are from 1884, 1884, 1884, 1884, 1883, 1884, 1885, 1932 and 1884.

            Nineteenth century baseball has few of the characteristics of major league baseball, so let’s drop the 19th century pitchers from the list.   When we drop the 19th century pitchers from the list, we get the following list of “plus strikeout seasons” by pitchers who had below-average strikeout rates as rookies:

 

           

 

First

Last

Team

Lg

Year

K Adv

Red

Ruffing

New York Yankees

AL

1932

96

Ben

Sheets

Milwaukee Brewers

NL

2004

87

Justin

Verlander

Tigers

AL

2009

86

Clay

Kirby

San Diego Padres

NL

1971

70

Zack

Greinke

Royals

AL

2009

67

Rick

Sutcliffe

Indians-Cubs

NL

1984

65

Bump

Hadley

Washington Senators

AL

1930

65

Kevin

Brown

San Diego Padres

NL

1998

63

Cy

Young

Boston Red Sox

AL

1905

61

Jim

Lonborg

Boston Red Sox

AL

1967

60

 

 

            One can argue that Verlander is unique, however, because he was successful as a rookie.   Ruffing as a rookie was 9-18, the following year 6-15, the following year 5-13.  One can understand that a pitcher of that quality would tinker with his stuff, trying to learn new pitches.   Ben Sheets as a rookie was 11-10, but with a 4.76 ERA, and, in his next season, 11-16 with a 4.15.   Naturally he would try some other pitches.

            The closest parallel to Verlander, actually, is Rick Sutcliffe.   As a rookie in 1979 Sutcliffe was 17-10 with a 3.46 ERA, 117 strikeouts—very similar to Verlander.   After that season he had some injuries and also some very serious conflicts with his manager, Tommy Lasorda, and got traded a couple of times before re-emerging as a quality pitcher.   He might be more like Greinke than Verlander.

            Clay Kirby, who was a real hard thrower like Verlander, was 7-20 as a rookie although he had a good ERA.   He increased his strikeouts in two years from 113 to 231 and was a good pitcher, although he always had some control issues.

            Verlander just started out good and then got better, which is pretty unique, but then, everybody is unique in one way or another, I guess.   Other pitchers who started out with low K rates and then had big strikeout increases include Darryl Kile, Esteban Loaiza, Daniel Cabrera, Ricky Nolaso and Jeremy Bonderman.

            There clearly are far more of these pitchers in recent years than in any other period in baseball history, which may be trying to tell us something about how pitchers are developed now.  Pitchers in the 1930s/1940s were expected to be able to throw every pitch when they got to the majors, and also were expected to be able to drop down and throw sidearm.   That was one extreme; we may be at the other end now.  Now, if a pitcher throws really hard, we don’t want him to try to do too much in the minor leagues.   Just gain command of the delivery and a couple of pitches to keep the hitter from sitting on your fastball, then we’ll bring you to the majors and you can expand your repertoire once you’re established in the majors.

            A couple of incidental things I learned while doing the study.   Kirk Rueter in 2004 struck out 56 batters in 190.1 innings.   The National League norm in 2004 was 6.74 strikeouts per nine innings, so Rueter was 86 strikeouts below the league norm (actually, 86.45).

            The -86 ties the major league (post-1900) record; a couple of 19th century guys had bigger numbers.    Anyway, Nate Cornejo (2003), Steve Kline (1972), Lew Burdette (1960) and Joe Niekro (1969) were all at -86, although Rueter actually has the biggest number if you carry out the decimals.  I always knew there was something very unusual about Kirk Rueter, as a pitcher.

            Second, Cy Young in 1901 was 33-10, in 1902 32-11, 1903 28-9, 1904 26-16.   In 1905 he was just 18-19, a losing pitcher, but had a career high in strikeouts, with 210.   He was also 61 strikeouts above the league average that year, which was also a career high—61 strikeouts better than average, 58 walks better than average, but he had a losing record.   That’s tough.

            That reminded me of something that I discovered in 1979, leafing through the old Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia. ..no idea whether this is still true.   I was wondering if there was any pitcher ever who led his league in both strikeouts per nine innings and fewest walks per nine innings.

            The only pitcher who had ever done this, I concluded, was Walter Johnson—but he did it in his worst season.  The only season between 1910 and 1925 that Johnson didn’t have a winning record was 1920, when he was 8-10—but led the league in both strikeouts per nine innings (4.89) and fewest walks (1.69).

 

 

Shakespeare and Verlander

 

            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 their 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 awhile. 

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

            Every city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every ten or fifteen 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 ten or fifteen years.    Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for twenty or twenty-five 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 PhD 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 a hundred people are crushed for every one who breaks through.   This is unfortunate.   We are very good at producing athletes, and 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 is not a failing of the sporting world.   Rather, it is that the rest of society has been too proud to follow our lead.

 
 

COMMENTS (34 Comments, most recent shown first)

rollo131
This article revisits a topic BJ brought up in The Politics Of Glory. In that book the context was discussing whether the quality of play has gotten better or worse over time, and how one of the arguments, among many Bill brings up and debunks, is that it has gotten worse because talent has been diluted due to expansion. Perhaps the best example one could cite to demonstrate that this is not true - and Bill does - is the city of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. That small city, population less than 300,000 (and much smaller than that just a few decades ago), has produced a huge number of major league players, many of them outstanding players, including Sammy Sosa, George Bell, Joaquin Andujar, Tony Fernandez, Pedro Guerrero, and Wally Joyner. If an area that small can produce that many major league-quality players, how many could a planet of six and a half billion people theoretically produce?

It's a fascinating premise, to think that in every town of 300,000 there could be many, many persons possessing the talent to become major league baseball players like Sammy Sosa, or outstanding playwrights like Ben Jonson, or great movie directors like Alfred Hitchcock, or great actors like James Brolin, whose ability has gone untapped due to the indifference of our society. However, I think it's unlikely there's another WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE among us. William Shakespeare (actually, Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who was the real author of the Shakespeare plays) was a one-of-a-kind genius, the likes of whom the world hasn't seen in over 400 years. He was to literature (and to Western culture, really) what 20 Babe Ruths would be to baseball.

But I couldn't disagree more that it's healthy for society to promote its young athletes to the degree that we do. The endless discussion of sports is a by-product of the need to feed the 24-hour media machine, and it creates monsters. LeBron James' every move has been considered national news since he was 18 years old. Should it be any surprise that he's become a complete narcissistic d-bag? Stephen Strasburg doesn't appear to be a budding narcissist, but for all the breath expelled about him, is there any guarantee now that he'll amount to anything special as a major league pitcher? All there was to discuss about Strasburg was his potential. Now that his future is in doubt, was he worth getting all hyped up about in the first place?

What truly bugs me is showing REALLY young kids - high school kids, teenagers, even Little Leaguers - on national television, the announcers breaking down their every move, discussing them the way they discuss elite athletes. What a way to give young kids a disproportional sense of their own importance - or worse, if they fail, to magnify their humiliation. It's not healthy for society, and it's not healthy for sports - to quote Bill, It is a disservice to athletes to try to make them into more than they really are.

The media did not do this kind of stuff in London in the time of William Shakespeare.
12:43 PM Sep 9th
 
monahan
Kev-

Actually plenty of individuals could have created the Mona Lisa. Only one man DID. And he was absolutely trained and practiced. It was not the work of a blind 4 year old, it was the work of a very accomplished and prolific artist who created lots of pieces that would not be famous today if they did not bear his name.

Art is of the moment, not of the man.
3:57 AM Aug 10th
 
DanaKing
There's one more reason London might have cranked out writers at a higher than Topeka rate: London was the cultural center of England, so writers of great talent would be attracted there. The equivalent American city of today is New York, not Topeka.

That doesn't address the matter of a country the size of Kansas producing so many great writers. That may come from the fact that, in those days, writers, especially playwrights, were needed in supplies not completely dissimilar to how you described needing major league ballplayers. There were no movies or television, so something new was needed all the time; the same was true of what we call classical music. They didn't think of it as timeless art at the time. Shakespeare needed a play for The Globe, just as Bach needed a cantata for Sunday's service.

That demand alone didn't create so many great writers; there was almost certainly one of the cyclical discrepancies Bill discussed, where an abnormal number of uniquely talented writers were hanging about, but the competition of London, combined with the constant demand for new material, was the crucible that refined that talent so well, not unlike how the inherent competition of baseball will drive this current crop of young pitchers.
6:38 PM Aug 8th
 
Kev
Monahan,

Since yoou insist--only one man could create the Mona Lisa, and he couldn't be trained to do it. And that man is an artist. There is no need for examples of art by artists in other fields, is there? Moron or genius are terms to be applied to a person by a person or persons, and have no place in this discussion.

Kev
8:47 PM Aug 7th
 
monahan
All fair points, but I think we're placing things up on a pedestal as "genius" that aren't necessarily so without context. Shakespeare is indeed brilliant and prolific. But the art he was creating existed only because of both his time and his place, so he is the benefactor of both context and fortune.

And, Kev, at the end of the day, art is measured by subjective means. Your genius may be another man's moron-- and neither of us can truly be incorrect.
11:43 PM Aug 6th
 
abarnold2
Thanks for the article. Part I reminded me of a book I read in graduate school, "American Revolutionaries in the Making," by Charles Sydnor. Though there are probably differences between 18th-century political intellectuals and 21st-century athletes, there are similarities between your analysis and Sydnor's.
10:46 AM Aug 6th
 
greggborgeson
Hi Monahan,

Thanks for your comments, and I agree there are examples of collaboration by talented writers. But in another sense, you make my point when you say that most teleplays are written by teams of writers. That is correct. But what these teams develop is successful commercial art -- not lasting works of genius.

Bill's article was talking about creating more Shakespeares by providing better training and incentives. I agree that we can train and collaborate more and more writers who can master the skills to write plays, and write some pretty good plays. But Shakespeare isn't Shakespeare because he mastered more skills than the other play-writes. Shakespeare, and Joyce, and Twain, and Dylan all were touched by genius that was not trained into them. In truth, their good fortune, and ours, is that it was not trained OUT of them.

I think Bill's premise that other aspects of society can learn from athletics how to produce increasingly skilled professionals is correct. And I agree in general about the power of collaboration. But these principles are not universally applied across all disciplines and walks of life. Great literature does not emerge from either skill-training or collaboration as a rule.


7:00 AM Aug 6th
 
Kev
Monahan,
Monahan,

We speak different languages. I've made my points, and would like to conclude our discussion, as I see from your note to Greg that you include teleplays or screenplays as art. While in rare cases they are, more often they are simply formulaic. (This was not an attempt to get the "last word"). Good luck.
12:19 AM Aug 6th
 
monahan
Kev, I'll rephrase. Your assertion that art either exists or does not exist inside of an individual is factually incorrect. To suggest otherwise is to ascribe a magical quality to the concept of art. An individual need only dedicate time and energy (a great deal of both) to become an artist and create meaningful art. It happens with surprising regularity. I can only assume you are not involved in the arts, as it really is no different than any other discipline (aside from generally paying way less).

Also, Gregg, I agree that literature is often only penned by a single hand. But if you look back at many of the great writers they did not create in a vacuum. CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, et. al. are a great example, as it was their collaboration that strengthened their works. It's why nearly every teleplay is penned by a team of writers and why so many modern screenplays find multiple names attached. Lone genius, if it even exists, is nearly impossible to identify because it is so incredibly rare. Human creativity of any sort not only thrives on collaboration, but relies on it.
12:02 AM Aug 6th
 
glkanter
Regarding expansion and the quality of new players. They will NOT immediately be playing at the same level as the other players. Many are inexperienced. The organizations many of them play for are inexperienced. I guess over time this disappears, but in the short term, they can't be as good as the guys that were already there.

I'm just not sure about how 100 great pitchers would be randomly distributed across years. It's random. I'm guessing a Monty Carlo trial would end up with each year having the same number of pitchers. I don't agree that they would cluster.
12:54 AM Aug 5th
 
Kev
To Still Blank,

(Manute Bol was the basketball player whom I stupidly omitted from my last post--a great man.)

To our discussion: it was you, not I who claimed unskilled ghetto kids would be easy foes for trained GG boxers. You ignore my challenge of presnting reasons for your argument,and stand mute when I refute yours.
But now you introduce, or should I say change, the reasons a fighter wins, or loses, reasons which are correct and obvious, and include components which may be possessed by a GG fighter or a neophyte. Also true, also obvious.
But the discussion began with your equating the training of an athlete to the the development of an artist. They do not equate, and proof of same has been provided. Your points have been contadictory and somewhat evasive, as well as being non-existent in terms of answering my refutations. It's my contention that the artist cannot be "developed". He is what he is, whether he likes it or not, and may or may not attempt to improve. He may receive encouragement, mentoring, or establish cross-century linkage (Plato/Aristotle/Aquinas, the Impressionist School of Painting). It's OK with me if we agree to disagree; I simply took issue with the robot-like ease implicit in developing an artist which I inferred from your remarks.
Respects,

Respects,

12:46 AM Aug 5th
 
Richie
You're setting up a straw man with the Golden Gloves thing, Kev. Clearly not the point there. The real point being, the tough kid with the quick hands, good balance and quite likely a skull that cushions head blows better becomes the champion boxer. Not the tough kid with slow hands, awkward feet and a glass jaw.
8:08 PM Aug 4th
 
Kev
To Blank,

The New York Golden Gloves began in 1927. What evidence do you have to support your claim tnat unskilled kids from the ghetto were routinely defeated? You imply their conquerors had training, thus the result. But Dempsey, Benny Leonard, Jack Johnson, Abe Attell, and Sam Langford among many many, others preceded the GG. Many great champions started in the gloves, and many didn't. Somebody trained them and taught them to be champions. And I don't believe many of the current Latin-American champions fought in the Gloves. Your case doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Regarding the tall kid being equivalent to the artist--I assume you mean they each started with only natural gifts. Good point, but the artist simply follows his gift, whereas the Tll kid must a)find his sport, and b) be trained to excel in it. The NBA has in its time been frustrated by the assumed skills of the late(and very much respected and missed for his selfless charitable work), Shawn Bradley, and others.
6:45 PM Aug 4th
 
Richie
You cannot teach a tough but unskilled kid to be a champion boxer. That's the kind of boxer the tough and talented kids beat up on in Golden Gloves. And an agile tall kid is the equivalent of an artistically talented kid. Probably much rarer, really.
11:01 PM Aug 3rd
 
Kev
Monahaan,

I'm afraid I strongly dispute your saying an artist can be developed, as well as your terming my comment that an artist cannot be developed as "utter nonsense". If by that statement you mean a student with obvious artistic talent can be developed by greater support, finer mentors, etc., then I'll agree--certainly he can benefit from such help; he already had the talent. But art cannot be taught or infused, and it has no timetable; it simply does or does not exist in an individual.

If you mean you can create an artist where no such artistic talent exists, in the manner that you can teach a willing but unskilled tough kid from the ghetto to be a champion boxer, or a tall agile kid to be a basketball player, then I think you can find a spot closer to home for your "utter nonsense" comment.
8:45 PM Aug 3rd
 
greggborgeson
Hi Monahan and thanks for your comments. I'm familiar with Sawyer's book but my recollection is that it talks mostly of business creativity and things like collaborative comedy groups. His theories of creativity being driven by collaboration may well be correct in those spheres. But in the specific area of literature, I think the record stands pretty strong that its works of genius are, perhaps without exception, works of lone genius.
6:18 PM Aug 3rd
 
monahan
I agree that creating supportive communities bolsters development in those areas receiving that support.

But the idea the you "can't develop an artist" is utter nonsense. Artists (and art) are not mystical. The ability to observe and comment on the human condition is a skill that can, and has been taught.

Individuals may be genetically predisposed to certain adaptations, but it's certainly not cut & dry.

A fantastic book to understand the true nature of creativity & innovation is Keith Sawyer's book "Group Genius." It essentially dispels the myth of the lone genius.
4:59 PM Aug 3rd
 
gregforman
Bill:

There's a third reason there might be more great writers in 17th Century London than in 21st Century Topeka: good writers who wanted to be recognized moved from the hinterlands to London to develop their craft and obtain recognition. That's why large cities that have artistic communities continue attract writers from smaller cities or rural areas.

It's not just writing or arts that follow this pattern. Folks interested in computer technology tend to cluster in Austin, Boston and the S.F. Bay area. Muslims, Jews and Gays in America tend to cluster in areas where there are already a sizable number of their group (why else would Dearborn Michigan have so many Muslims?).

The great English writers of the late 17th century congregated in London because that's where great writers of the late 17th century congregated. If Topeka was where the great writers of the early 21st century congregated, Topeka would be a literary powerhouse.
4:03 PM Aug 3rd
 
Kev
Bill,

Writing is an art--you can't "develop" an artist.
Baseball is a sport--you can develop an athlete.

The problem in our society is that a student facing college is often advised that with a Liberal Arts degree all you can do is be a teacher, and in our society, since lamentably the only reason to attend college is to get a job, students seek success in specialized fields such as science and computer technology--all worthy pursuits.

But although you can't develop an artist, there are probably countless high school grads who already have the artist's talent, but are unable to recognize it or to advance to a higher level. Without the exposure to and participation in a strong program, these talents are unable to mature.

We need to develop an appreciation for the Liberal Arts subjects and encourage not discourage students to select Liberal Arts educations. 5th-century Athens, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the fine arts, history, philosophy, and science of those periods could well stir the latent talent of an artist, be it writing, painting, philosophy, political science, or other disciplines. There are many Liberal Arts programs unattended due to the rush to get "an education" and then a job, and too many adults incapable of writing a clear sentence unless it deals with their field of specialization. And not only does Liberal Art provide a strong and broad education, it also endows a student with a well-rounded base from which to seek employment should they not be the "next Shakespeare". Their job search will take longer, but their education will last forever.
3:51 PM Aug 3rd
 
schoolshrink
Thanks for the reply, Evan. I thought about Outliers when writing my comments. I focused on Entine's book as it seemed more applicable to me than Gladwell's, for purposes of responding to Bill's piece. I asked Bill a while back about small pitchers who have made it, who I assume had smallish hands. He gave some examples, including Whitey Ford. But similar to the Branch Rickey comment you cited, Entine offered a similar statement, based on the Woody Harrelson movie, "White Men Can't Jump." Of course some white men can jump, but the vast majority cannot, at the highest levels of expectation.

In Entine's book, he discusses the efforts made in East Germany at the time of the Montreal Olympics to develop their athletes, including tremendous amounts of doping. Try as they did, East Germany never had a runner break 10 seconds in a 100m sprint.

Of many terrific essays Bill has written, one of my favorites is in his revised Historical Abstract. He postulated at the turn of the century that because of the increase in power hitters the time was ripe for a player who would change the game with speed and on getting on base. Ichiro was a rookie the next season after the book came out. As for pitchers, is the time ripe for more finesse guys, or knuckleballers? Who knows, but it is very likely that the game will be dominated by big guys over small ones, and just as Bill described in his piece by guys who will depend on one (Mariano), two, or three pitches at the most to stay in the big leagues.
12:28 PM Aug 3rd
 
evanecurb
To Michael Kirlin: Branch Rickey believed that great pitchers need to have big hands, and specifically, long fingers. There is a famous story where, upon seeing $100,000 bonus boy Paul Pettit for the first time, stated to an aide that he would never make it to the big leagues because of his small hands. Pedro Martinez has very long fingers. I have no idea whether or not anyone has ever studied this issue.

With respect to the greater issue of the development of exceptional talent, the most interesting book I have read on the subject is Gladwell's book that was published last year.

I agree with Bill that there are enough talented athletes out there to fill many more major league teams. Using Steven Strasburg as an example, one would believe that, if the disparity between major league ball and Div I college ball were measured in massive increments instead of smaller ones, then there would be a huge disparity between Strasburg's college stats and his major league stats. The disparity is relatively small, and only a fraction of the hitters he faced in college will ever reach the big leagues.
11:00 AM Aug 3rd
 
greggborgeson
Bill, as always lots of good points in this, but in this case I think the concept of comparing the development of sports talent and literary talent is deeply flawed. There is little question that athletically talented children, exposed to, as you say, early competition and skilled coaching, in general become more highly skilled athletes. But there is absolutely no such evidence that taking talented young writers, exposing them to competition and intensive, high-quality writing coaching and education produces great works of literature. Great literature springs from creativity, inventiveness and depth of understanding of life -- not from honing writing skills. Some great writers emerge from our finest schools -- but masters like Joyce, Twain, Dickens and of course Shakespeare himself had virtually no training or coaching in writing. And if they had been sent to summer camps for aspiring writers, been given signing bonuses as young writers by aggressive publishers -- one can pretty well assume that they probably would not have produced the works that are remembered today. Athletes succeed through a set of physical skills and the accompanying mental discipline -- these indeed can be honed and taught. But Bill, you seem to want to extend that lesson to creative endeavors, and that extension simply doesn't hold up.

The fact is, we can't "develop" the next Shakespeare. And, God forbid, if London had a development program for talented young writers back in 1580, I believe we would not know or remember the name Shakespeare today.
7:42 AM Aug 3rd
 
bokonin
Nice to see Martin speak up; although Bill's main points here are excellent, I too get stuck on the assumption that our society's literary pipeline is less effective than that of Shakespeare's day. Because I've had the chance to act in various Shakespeare plays, I like him a lot better than I did in high school -- the philosophical asides, the beautiful use of language -- but if those contrived plots, endless cross-dressing, long bouts of insults, and twists dependent on each character's total obliviousness are the peak of his era, I have no interest at all in Johnson, Marlowe, etc.

Am I really supposed to consider him the equal, let alone the superior, of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith, to pick five richly inventive British writers? I don't see that he comes close, and if college and grad school curricula didn't fix the game so blatantly, I'm not sure many people would disagree with me. Am I supposed to consider him a greater writer than Kansan Bill James? I don't know how I'd compare the two, but I've studied both extensively, and Will's greater genius isn't obvious, nor would I necessary rank with Iowans Jane Smiley and Robert Coover. Shakespeare's crew versus New York authors Jonathan Lethem, Richard Russo, Jonathan Safran Foer, Matt Ruff, Stephen Carter, Stephen Dobbyns, Nicholson Baker, Thomas Disch? You're right, we don't have time to explore every brilliant writer in Shakespeare-like depth, and we *still* produce them. It would still be nifty to produce many more.

At any rate, this is a side point; great main essay.
4:22 AM Aug 3rd
 
wovenstrap
I disput the premise that there is less output of, shall we say, "Shakespearean" quality, even from Topeka. Every month produces dozens of novels of very high quality -- indeed, I would say there might even be an order of magnitude more "high-quality writing" being produced every year nowadays. The University of Iowa routinely produces many people capable of producing exquisite, moving, heart-shatteringly powerful works of fiction, and they do it. In short, we may have a glut of such works. This is not to say that they're all Shakespeares, but the way we relate to fiction nowadays, combined with the sheer number of such works, forces us into a position of apathy in regard to them.

In short, no matter how wrongheaded this view is, it must be clear that the idea of Shakespeare in this discussion does not denote writing talent or quality of output but *cultural importance.* It is true that we are not producing writers as culturally important as Shakespeare. And furthermore, whatever is being asserted about Shakespeare here is not an objective quantity but rather a subjective assessment, or conglomeration of subjective assessments. Shakespeare and Randy Johnson are simply not comparable here. This becomes clearer if you switch the parameters from literature to science. London had X Newtons and his colleagues (if such there were) hundreds of years ago, and we have no Newtons today, but instead we have thousands and thousands of genuinely brilliant people working in laboratories, and all those brilliant people winning Nobels too. I submit that the novel-writing non-Shakespeares is a lot closer to that than you would assume. We have novelists to fill our labs, so to speak. But none of them get the attention Shakespeare does (for good reason).
1:11 AM Aug 3rd
 
ventboys
I am more curious about the sudden influx of so many dynamic young pitchers than the education system. My own take is that the occurances generally come when there is opportunity. By opportunity I don't mean getting to pitch, but getting to pitch when you have a better shot at being succesful.

Deadball era, WWII, the 1963 strike zone change, and questec. Most of our 300 game winners came from the periods when a young pitcher could get a strike called on a high fastball (especially strike 3), or the period when nobody could hit a ball out of the park. Just my opinion, but I believe that questec has forced umpires to call an honest strike zone. This cuts down the learning curve, as pitchers don't have to get through the league several times to learn the umpires.
12:10 AM Aug 3rd
 
Trailbzr
I'm sure some terrific writers live in Topeka KN, but 1) choosing Shakespeare's London is an obvious selection bias; and 2) not every one of the best writers in Kansas lives in Topeka, the way all the important writers in 17th century England were in London.
However, I have always believed that there were a lot of good writers who had given it up to become accountants or raise children. If I ever become a TV executive, I'll create a show that, after a few episodes to establish the characters about a suburban family, the network would advertize for ordinary Americans to send in scripts. I bet there are a lot of people who could write a great sitcom epsiode about changing health plans or buying a used car, if they only had to do it once. My favorite show until it was recently cancelled was King of the Hill, because the producers obviously understood regular Americans better than Hollywood writers do.
11:11 PM Aug 2nd
 
enamee
I know this is not really relevant, but since you sort of brought up the question of who Shakespeare was -- I've nearly finished reading Contested Will, by James Shapiro. It was published this year, and details the Shakespeare authorship debate. I recommend it highly. In the end, it is clear that the works attributed to Shakespeare were indeed written by William Shakespeare of Stratford, not Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, or anyone else.
11:00 PM Aug 2nd
 
schoolshrink
Good piece as usual. One issue we have long since had in discussing talent is the notion that the development of skills to play baseball, or any sport, substitutes for the development of skills to write or be successful at any other academic endeavor. Both conservative-leaning and liberal-leaning writers have fallen into this trap of assuming that the development of skills is "because" of genetic predisposition. That hasty generalization has been used to justify the outcomes of what occur (e.g., black athletes have a preponderance of representation in sports that we care about: football, basketball, baseball), without discussing whether those outcomes would have been different if we just cared more about writing, swimming, the arts, or any other outlets for our skills. A book titled, "The Bell Curve," by Hernstein and Murray, came out sixteen years ago, and basically insisted that blacks were not as capable as other populations intellectually because years of testing had indicated this to be so. Of course, we have many such examples of wonderfully talented people of all races, and Hernstein and Murray's book was quickly marginalized. About six years later, the columnist Jon Entine wrote, "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We Are Afraid To Talk About It." Entine asserted that there is a naturally genetic component to being an athlete at the very highest level, to allow persons to dominate sports based on their genetic skill sets. Success was based on whether the sports emphasized in an area were related to the natural abilities of the persons from those areas.

Entine would agree with Bill in the respect that emphasis would be needed to develop athletic talent, but he would disagree as well. He would assert that years of training would not alter evolutionary development, and emphasis on skills development would not change that natural propensity of athletes.

I guess with pitchers, my question would be to what extent is there a genetic component to be successful? Baseball is not distance running that East Africans generally dominate, or sprints that are dominate by blacks from West African descent. It is not swimming, a skill set dominated by whites. Successful pitchers range from Jamie Moyer to Chan Ho Park to Felix Hernandez: very different, but all at least somewhat successful. Do you think pitching is a skill that is more generalizable than these other skills? My suspicion is that it is, and that its emphasis is also related to the worldwide appeal of baseball, leading to a balloon in potential talent that is now being realized.
8:32 PM Aug 2nd
 
Richie
Psst: If you think by leaving the 'By: box' blank you can escape blame for your posts, it doesn't work that way)
6:59 PM Aug 2nd
 
Richie
Not at all dragging it off course by bringing in the educational system. As that's where the science training, writing training, and so on, is done.

Unless you're suggesting we have 'Little League' science clubs, writing clubs, etc. Which we do, actually. Just not enough adults care to resource those such as to create American scientists the way we do American athletes. Or anywhere near. Way too few American adults so care.

Which is fine, in my opinion. We got way too many chiefs/stars and too few indigenous-Americans/workers as it is.
6:57 PM Aug 2nd
 
3for3
I think the problem is that sports success is far more objective, whereas a skill like fine writing is more subjective...
5:37 PM Aug 2nd
 
bjames
We may be dragging the discussion off course by dragging it inside the education system. Much or most of our development of athletes is NOT done by the school system. Rather, the school systems feed off of other amateur programs--little league baseball, Babe Ruth leagues, Ban Johnson leagues, etc. America's unusual ability to develop outstanding athletes has very little to do with the educational system.
5:05 PM Aug 2nd
 
schlesinm
If I'm a high school coach and I spend and reward my best athletes, then I have a winning record and get rewarded (money, job opportunities, etc.). If I'm an English teacher, there is nothing I personally get out of a successful writer besides a feeling of pride of doing my job well.

Look at Hugh Freeze. Hugh Freeze was a secondary character in Michael Lewis' book The Blind Side. He has a HS coach who had a NFL caliber offensive tackle dropped into his lap. He reworked his entire offense around this one player and had a very successful year. He used this success to parlay his HS coaching job into a college assistant job (higher prestige, higher pay). If an English teacher in the same high school was able to help a writer become a published author, he would get no additional benefits.

In addition, like Pete mentioned above, the football coach is rewarded for running his whole offense around one star player (possibly to the detriment of other players). The English teacher would be punished for pushing the whole class to get a single student published.
4:46 PM Aug 2nd
 
PeteRidges
Lots of good points here.

But one other thing: the allocation of resources- not between sports and academics, but within each field.

If you're head of athletics in a large high school and you spend all your budget on the best 10% of athletes, you may well be praised highly for the success of your teams.

If you're head of English in a large high school and you spend all your budget on the best 10% of students, then you won't last five minutes.
3:59 PM Aug 2nd
 
 
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