Book Reviews, Literary

Bill James, Dave Kingman, and “The Man from the Train.”

This is a not-review of THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN, by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James. (I do not for one minute want to discount the role of Rachel McCarthy James in writing this book, but the book is delivered in Bill James’s inimitable voice, and so I’m going to primarily focus on him, okay?) This is a not-review, because I’m focusing not so much on the book itself, which is (necessarily) repetitive, badly disorganized, and focuses on truly awful carnage. I want to focus on the big idea in the book, which is behavioral analysis. It’s a simple enough term; behavioral analysis focuses on what people do, and not the reasons behind what they do, or their justifications or excuses for why people do what they do.

All I am saying is that the font size for Bill’s name is a lot bigger for a reason.

James uses the super-extreme example of a person he identifies as “The Man from the Train,” who James suspects of killing hundreds of people across America in the early years of the twentieth century by breaking into their houses and bashing their skulls in with the blunt end of an ax. Okay, so that’s a behavior. We’re doing behavioral analysis, so we’re looking at what this guy does, not what sick, perverted fantasies drive him to do this.

But you know, as much as you might enjoy reading about The Man from the Train, the whole thing gets so gruesome so quickly that talking about it is kind of tiresome, and if you’ve read the book, you’re likely sick of it, and if you haven’t, you’ve got a lot of stories about kids getting their faces smashed in ahead of you, so instead let’s talk about Dave Kingman.

This guy. Not some other Dave Kingman, Just so we’re clear.

Why Dave Kingman? Well, The Man from the Train was a strong guy who roamed around the country hitting people with an ax; Dave Kingman was a strong guy who traveled around the country destroying baseballs with baseball bats. It’s a thin connection, but I’m going with it. Anyway, it’s a lot more fun talking about Dave Kingman.

The important thing in behavioral analysis is understanding what a trait is and what a behavior is. Dave Kingman was a guy who played baseball a lot differently from most people, and he was a guy who had a lot of traits, and those traits get used to explain his behavior a lot. Example:

And in New York the much-publicized Dave Kingman character came out — here was the moody Kingman who swung hard at everything, who almost never walked, who pulled everything, who hit 500-foot home runs and 325-foot pop-ups, who ran the bases like a child coming in for dinner, who played defense not just poorly but with utter disdain. — Joe Posnanski, Sports Illustrated, 2008

So some of that is traits: “moody” is a trait, “disdain” is a trait. Wanting to hit every ball that you see 500 feet is a trait; it ties in with impatience and maybe being a little bit of a glory hound. But a lot of these are behaviors; swinging at everything is a behavior, no matter why Kingman did it, playing defense poorly is a behavior.

This is a good example of what I’m talking about. Charlie Brown misses the catch because of his traits, right? But all the official scorer cares about is his behavior — that he dropped the ball. (Baseball, you understand, is the sport that counts your errors, and punishes you for them in the box score.)

One reason why baseball is such a great game is that it melds traits and behaviors. We are attracted to baseball partly because it’s a narrative sport that incorporates the traits of the players — the struggling pitcher who makes good on the game’s biggest stage, the slugger who comes through in the bottom of the ninth, the slick-fielding rookie who turns heads making an impossible double play. But it’s also the most behavioral and analytical of the sports, where everything anyone does is documented and available for analysis. It appeals to the half of our brain that loves stories and the half of our brain that loves numbers.

So when we go to the great and noble Baseball Reference and look up Dave Kingman, you get

.236 BA, .302 OPB, .478 SLG, 442 HR, 1210 RBI, 1816 Ks.

Okay, you can look at those numbers (assuming you know what the numbers mean) and say, “Yeah, that looks like Dave Kingman.” A lot of power — 442 career home runs — but a lot more strikeouts, and a lousy batting average and on-base percentage. That tells you a lot about Kingman’s behaviors — he swung a lot, and missed a lot, but when he connected, the ball went over the fence.

James makes the point that we knew a lot about ballplayers like Kingman at the time, but we know even more about them now, because we have access to the sort of advanced statistical tools that James and others invented. We know more about Kingman than his contemporaries did — we know information about Kingman that he never knew about himself, information that’s only available through modern insights like Value Over Replacement Player statistics, or through the application of modern information technology analytical tools.

So the question in THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN is, well, we have technology and analytics at our disposal now. Can we go back and look at the data that they had then, re-evaluate it, and come up with a recognizable pattern? And once we have that pattern, can we reverse-engineer it to find our serial killer?

To give you an idea about what’s involved, let’s try a thought experiment. I am going to give you the statistics of three players from the 1979 Chicago Cubs; you tell me which of them is Dave Kingman:

Player A: .288 BA, 48 HR, 115 RBI, 131 K
Player B: .272 BA, 19 HR, 73 RBI, 85 K
Player C: .284 BA, 14 HR, 66 RBI, 28 K

Which one is it? It isn’t a trick question; Player A is Kingman. (Player B is Jerry Martin, Player C is Bill Buckner.)

Right? I mean, this is obviously Kingman, you can tell from the high levels of home runs and strikeouts. This was Kingman’s career year; his batting average was fifty points over his career average, and somehow he drew 45 walks, third on the team behind Ivan de Jesus and Steve Ontiveros . (This may be a function of intentional walks, though.) So far, so good, we can find a set of behaviors in a specific year that lines up well with Kingman’s known behaviors.

So what we’ve shown so far is that we can pick Kingman, basically, out of a lineup. Let’s try again. 1976 Mets:

Player A: .238 BA, 37 HR, 86 RBI, 135 K
Player B: .292 BA, 10 HR, 49 RBI, 38 K
Player C: .306 BA, 5 HR, 31 RBI, 35 K

Again, super-easy. Player A is Kingman, Player B is Ed Kranepool, Player C is Joe Torre. This is maybe a little easier because, well, there weren’t any other players with power on the 1976 Mets; Kingman tallied over a third of the team’s home runs by himself.

Well then. 1973 Giants:

Player A: .283 BA, 39 HR, 96 RBI, 148 K
Player B: .203 BA, 24 HR, 55 RBI, 122 SO
Player C: .319 BA, 11 HR, 76 RBI, 73 SO

Did you say Player A? Those certainly look like Kingman-level statistics, but in fact they are not; that’s what Bobby Bonds did for the Giants that year. Kingman is Player B, and Garry Maddox is Player C. Kingman still has a low batting average and a few home runs, and a ton of strikeouts, but Bonds showed a lot more power that year. This doesn’t invalidate the process, mind you; it just shows that we need to be careful.

Another important note; context here is super-important. If you take Kingman out of the baseball context, and just posit him as someone who travels the country like Jack Reacher, well, his travel pattern looks pretty odd. He starts out in San Francisco, on the National League circuit, and then a few years later shows up in New York, and then there’s the one year where he ends up playing for four different teams, one of them being the Yankees for some reason. And then he goes to Chicago, and then back to the Mets, and then Oakland. If you look at what’s basically fifteen years of travel plans without knowing that Kingman was a baseball player, you’d have thought that he was a traveling salesman. (The Man from the Train has his own pattern of peregrination, one that James explains as being consistent with his supposed job as a logger, or miner.)

The job that James has in working backwards on finding instances where The Man from the Train smashed people over the head with an ax is (as he explains) quite a bit easier. There are a lot of people playing big-league baseball at any one point in time; there are not a lot of people who go around murdering families in their beds — so there’s less statistical noise to look at. We’re looking at Kingman exhibiting only a few behaviors (striking out a lot, hitting home runs, not walking, not stealing bases). James has identified thirty some-odd key behaviors related to The Man from the Train, ranging from the time of day of the attacks to covering up mirrors in the house with cloth for some reason. (I will warn you that you will know far, far too much about the signature behaviors of the Man from the Train by the end of the book.)

James is using the book, I think, to make three key points:

  1. Illustrating the power of modern analytical tools — in this case, online databases of old newspapers. This allows Bill and Rachel (mostly Rachel, one suspects) to go through and find data on crimes from over a hundred years ago and link them to their behavioral profile of The Man from The Train — informational tools that weren’t available to local law enforcement (what there was of it) at the time. However, when you’re dealing with press coverage from a hundred years ago… you’re dealing with press coverage from a hundred years ago. Most of it is incomplete, a lot of it is biased, and a good bit of it is just as racist as it could possibly be.
  2. Illustrating the power of behavioral analysis. James has, essentially, made a career out of this, pointing out that a lot of the things that “everybody knows” about baseball isn’t based on behavioral evidence. To the extent that THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN is focused just on the killer’s behaviors, it’s an excellent read. But (as I just said) the record he is looking at is necessarily incomplete, and James, for the sake of narrative coherence, is always throwing in suppositions about the killer’s state of mind; why he did this-and-that instead of thus-and-so, whether he liked cold weather or not, stuff that is just pure conjecture. I think that this, up to a point, is kind of necessary and unavoidable — we can’t help but impose narratives on chaos, it’s what we do. (James even says at one point, hey, you can have conjecture, or you can have nothing.) But it’s a contradictory approach, and it can make for a frustrating read.
  3. In kind of a backhanded way, THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN is about the limits of behavioral analysis. The only way that this book works is because the Man from the Train has a) behaviors that get documented in the newspapers, which in turn got archived; b) behaviors that are on the extreme edge of human experience; c) rather a lot of very distinctive, idiosyncratic behaviors that are easily identifiable and d) a lot of specific data points to look at. But even then — even with a highly organized serial killer with very specific behaviors — there’s a certain level of inconsistency about the whole thing.

It is this third thing that bugs me the most about THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN, and I think it will bother most readers. James spends half the entire book setting up this laundry list of behaviors exhibited by his killer, and then has to spend the other half of the book explaining away inconsistencies. At first, this was kind of maddening. The Man from the Train kills people who lives near railroads — except for this one family who lived in Alabama, far from the railroad. The Man from the Train kills families with prepubescent girls — except for the times that he doesn’t. The Man from the Train kills people in small towns, except for the one time he killed those people in San Antonio, so we have to explain that away, too.

(Come to think of it, this is largely the plot of GRANT, the Ron Chernow biography, where Chernow spends half the book trying to figure out whether a certain time in General Grant’s life coincides with his usual behavioral pattern of alcoholic binges. That got repetitive, too.)

The key to understanding this is that the Man from the Train had just so many of these behaviors — James counts thirty or so — and, well, even if you have thirty personally idiosyncratic behaviors, you don’t do them all every day, do you? There’s always some inconsistency. And people change — the Man from the Train changes his pattern over time, moving out of the Southeast and killing people in the Midwest and Northwest.

Like I said, this is an un-review, and I am not going to do the thing you do in book reviews where I tell you to read the book or not. You make the call. I did not enjoy THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN, but it was a book that I had to wrestle with a good deal, and it’s always a good idea to read books like that from time to time. (I liked POPULAR CRIME a good deal more, despite James’s insistence that President Kennedy was shot by accident by a Secret Service agent, which would be a trillion-to-one coincidence — a shot that the agent probably couldn’t make if he tried.) If you find James’s signature barstool know-it-all ratchetmouth style unappealing, go read something else.