From my new book review in Taki’s Magazine of the already canceled biography of novelist Philip Roth:
Roth vs. Updike
by Steve Sailer
I hadn’t planned to buy the new authorized biography of novelist Philip Roth, author of Portnoy’s Complaint and American Pastoral, because I am at best a lazy admirer of Roth, having read only a handful of books by the indefatigable novelist who died in 2017 at 85. But when I saw it on the bookstore shelf, I grabbed it because the biography is being permanently taken out of print by its own publisher, Norton, for #MeToo reasons.
Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth is already unavailable on Kindle. In the coming digital dark age, it may be prudent to have some physical books stashed in your basement so you can at least say, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
Indeed, the only thing unexpected about the cancellation of the biography of Roth, a contender, alongside his friend and rival John Updike, for the title of The Great American Horndog, is that the justification wasn’t Roth’s own history of philandering but his biographer’s.Read the whole thing there.
I’m interested in career arcs. Here’s a graph I made of the number of Goodreads ratings for each of the novels of Updike (blue) and Roth (red) with each author’s age at publication along the horizontal axis. (I could have also used year because the two were born only 366 days apart in the early 1930s.)
Click to enlarge.
Both got off to fast start in their 20s. Updike, on the basis of his Rabbit novels-dominated Roth in mid-life, but then Roth became very popular in his 60s as Updike faded.
Updike viewed himself as a sort of literary athlete and expected, like an athlete, to decline from a fairly early age. I sometimes wonder whether Updike was a little complacent about the inevitability of decline and could have driven himself harder as he got older to write one more great book.
Roth was a huge baseball fan as well, but he didn’t identify as much with athletes. He had major health problems with his heart and back in his late 40s and 50s, but then came back very strong in his 60s.
By the way, I finally read Updike’s famous 1960 New Yorker article about Ted Williams' last baseball game “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” It’s offers an interesting look into the way that an extremely intelligent fan thought about hitting statistics before Bill James. I’m interested in the intellectual history of baseball statistics both because I’m interested in baseball statistics and because I find the history of baseball statistics analysis a way to gain insights into how thought develops over the generations.
Ted Williams was a huge figure in his own day, both because sportswriters tended to dislike him and look for reasons to put him down, while ordinary fans recognized him as a great hitter—if they went to a ballgame, Williams was most likely to be the offensive star of the game. Updike writes:
My personal memories of Williams begin when I was a boy in Pennsylvania, with two last-place teams in Philadelphia to keep me company. For me, “W’ms, lf” was a figment of the box scores who always seemed to be going 3-for-5.
Updike wants to make the case that Williams lived up to his stated ambition:
“All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say ‘There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.'”
But Updike is up against the then regnant conceptual tyranny of batting average as the measure of hitting.
In sum, though generally conceded to be the greatest hitter of his era, he did not establish himself as “the greatest hitter who ever lived.” Cobb, for average, and Ruth, for power, remain supreme. Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Joe Jackson, and Lefty O’Doul, among players since 1900, have higher lifetime averages than Williams’ .344. Unlike Foxx, Gehrig, Hack Wilson, Hank Greenberg, and Ralph Kiner, Williams never came close to matching Babe Ruth’s season home-run total of sixty. In the list of major-league batting records, not one is held by Williams. He is second in walks drawn, third in home runs, fifth in lifetime averages, sixth in runs batted in, eighth in runs scored and in total bases, fourteenth in doubles, and thirtieth in hits.
Batting average was invented in the 19th century by the New York Times cricket reporter Henry Chadwick (who came from one of those English liberal intellectual families that seem to come up a lot here). He divided a batter’s number of base hits, whether singles or four-baggers, by the number of at-bats. He chose to not include walks (when a batter is awarded first base by not deigning to swing at four bad pitches) in either hits or at-bats.
This became the most prestigious hitting statistic and the player with the highest batting average was considered the “batting champion.”
This proved a useful statistic, although Babe Ruth’s introduction of the power game after WWI exacerbated two flaws in batting average: singles were treated as being as valuable as homers and wheedling a walk from the pitcher was ignored. Ruth’s strategy of not swinging at pitches he couldn’t hit out of the park stressed the weaknesses in batting average, but it retained some of its prestige.
Still, the repute of batting average can be exaggerated. The MVP award tended to go to power hitters who drove in the most runs rather than batting champions.
Ruth was colossally popular with the public, likely the most beloved American athlete of the 20th Century. But his image remained slightly louche with baseball pundits because of their traditional fixation on batting average as the measure of the man.
Williams had extraordinarily high batting averages, hitting .406 in 1941 (the last .400 hitter) and .388 in 1957 at age 38. He also hit a lot of home runs (although playing in Fenway Park with its deep right field fence, missing about 4.5 seasons to being a fighter pilot in training in WWII and in combat, as John Glenn’s wingman, in Korea, and suffering numerous injuries in his early thirties kept him from challenging Ruth’s record). And he walked extraordinarily often, leading the league eight times.
So, Williams, despite being not a fast runner, led the mighty American League of the 1940s in runs scored six times in his first eight seasons.
But because walks aren’t included in batting average, it almost seemed as if Williams were lollygagging on the job: e.g., he only his 40 homers once in his career.
Modern statistics such as OPS+ (on-base percentage plus slugging average adjusted for the league and the home ballpark) put Williams second only to Ruth as a hitter.
But Williams’ career batting of .344 was only the sixth highest of the 20th century, with Ty Cobb’s .367 leading (Cobb’s average has since been reduced to .366). In perspective, on Baseball Reference’s lists of the top two dozen career batting averages, Williams is the highest ranked photo in color. The only other color photo is Tony Gwynn’s at .338.
Updike in 1960 defended Williams against the dual but contradictory accusations that he only cared about his batting average and that he should have boosted his batting average by punching singles to left:
In addition to injuries, there were a heavily publicized divorce, and the usual storms with the press, and the Williams Shift—the maneuver, custom-built by Lou Boudreau, of the Cleveland Indians, whereby three infielders were concentrated on the right side of the infield, where a left-handed pull hitter like Williams generally hits the ball. Williams could easily have learned to punch singles through the vacancy on his left and fattened his average hugely. This was what Ty Cobb, the Einstein of average, told him to do. But the game had changed since Cobb; Williams believed that his value to the club and to the game was as a slugger, so he went on pulling the ball, trying to blast it through three men, and paid the price of perhaps fifteen points of lifetime average. Like Ruth before him, he bought the occasional home run at the cost of many directed singles—a calculated sacrifice certainly not, in the case of a hitter as average-minded as Williams, entirely selfish.
Updike was very attuned to Williams’ career arc:
After a prime so harassed and hobbled, Williams was granted by the relenting fates a golden twilight. He became at the end of his career perhaps the best old hitter of the century.
Updike didn’t have modern statistics like OPS+ and WAR, but his reading of the statistics available to him (before the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia was published in 1969) suggested Williams was indeed the greatest. Updike imagines that a comprehensive statistic could be assembled in which Williams was the greatest hitter.
But if we allow him merely average seasons for the four-plus seasons he lost to two wars, and add another season for the months he lost to injuries, we get a man who in all the power totals would be second, and not a very distant second, to Ruth. And if we further allow that these years would have been not merely average but prime years, if we allow for all the months when Williams was playing in sub-par condition, if we permit his early and later years in baseball to be some sort of index of what the middle years could have been, if we give him a right-field fence that is not, like Fenway’s, one of the most distant in the league, and if—the least excusable “if”—we imagine him condescending to outsmart the Williams Shift, we can defensibly assemble, like a colossus induced from the sizable fragments that do remain, a statistical figure not incommensurate with his grandiose ambition. From the statistics that are on the books, a good case can be made that in the combination of power and average Williams is first; nobody else ranks so high in both categories.
Was Williams a greater hitter than Ruth?
Ruth was the most important revolutionary in baseball history. He earned, and deserved, a great leap forward over his rivals. On the other hand, Ruth’s statistics relative to his rivals in the 1920s were almost silly: Ruth was playing a different game then they were.
Williams arrived in the big leagues in 1939 a generation after the Ruth Revolution of 1919, competing against hundreds of men who had grown up on Ruth’s revelations.
So it’s a matter of philosophy or taste who was the greater.
Anyway, it’s clear that Updike in 1960 understood a big part of the Jamesian revolution in baseball statistics analysis of the future: that power mattered more than batting average. It’s not clear, though, that Updike quite understood the other part: that Williams’ walks were a huge offensive weapon.
The statistic of what is now called on-base percentage had been introduced in 1954 in a Life article by Branch Rickey and Alan Roth. But it took a long time for the old prejudice against walks as merely an error by the pitcher rather than an accomplishment by the batter to decline. Updike in 1960 cites Williams’ huge number of walks but doesn’t extoll them.
So, the value of power was well accepted long before Bill James, but the value of not making an out because you got walked to first was still hazy in the minds of even the cleverest baseball fans such as John Updike.