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Thinking Baseball Renowned scientist Stephen Jay Gould was no snob when he focused his intellect on his favorite game

by Stephen Jay Gould (W.W. Norton & Co.,343 pages, $24.95)

Intellectual snobs will often tell you that they like baseball
because it's "the thinking-man's game." Stephen Jay Gould, the
famed paleontologist who died of cancer last May, was an
intellectual but no snob. He was a hard-core baseball fan who
focused his brilliance on such metaphysical questions as How come
nobody hits .400 anymore? and Why do lefties tend to hit so much
better than righties? If brainiacs love baseball, he said, it's
because unlike other sports, it's for everyone, the pompous
egghead no less or more than the guy who cracks up watching The
Man Show.

Gould was the opposite of a snob: He used his intelligence to
demystify complicated stuff--the fossil record, batting
averages--for everyone to appreciate. This book succeeds most
spectacularly in eight essays grouped under the heading "Nature,
History, and Statistics as Meaning." A treatise on why lefties
have an advantage at the plate also allows him to deflate the
gross oversimplification that everything rational occurs on one
side of our brains and everything intuitive on the other. The
essay "Jim Bowie's Letter and Bill Buckner's Legs" explores how
myths are created in the public mind despite abundant evidence
that they may be false. Example: It's widely misremembered that
Buckner's notorious 1986 error came when the Red Sox were "one
out away from winning the World Series." Actually, the score was
tied, and Game 6 was an out from going into the 11th inning. This
sort of false memory may be no big deal in baseball, but Gould
shows how more serious historical fallacies frequently get shaped
into myths.

The book's most profound and challenging essay is "Why No One
Hits .400 Anymore." Gould was obsessed with the subject because
it involved the sticky problem of comparing "an elusive past with
a different present"--the main task of a paleontologist. "The
disappearance of .400 hitting," he writes, "is a sign of
improvement, not decline" in the talent of professional players
as a whole. The .400 hitter is most likely to thrive when there's
a wide difference between the best players and the average ones.
Modern players are far better trained, so there's less variation
in performance--everyone hits closer to the league average.

Granted, readers who snoozed through high school math may drift
off again as they try to follow some of Gould's charts and bell
curves. But there's something here for everyone. In the end, for
all his brilliance, Gould was a typical American who grew up with
baseball in his blood and loved the hell out of it till the day
he died.


COLOR PHOTO: YVONNE BARON ESTES (INSET) SWING THEORY Gould says no one has hit .400 since Ted Williams because players overall are better.


In the Feb. 17 issue a review of Larry Platt's Only the Strong
Survive (Regan Books) mistakenly reported that the author
referred to Allen Iverson as a "heroic moral exemplar." In fact,
Platt used the phrase to describe a view of Iverson held by
others with whom he does not agree. SI regrets the error.