Bill James is a significant name in the history of baseball. It’s often associated with the father of sabermetrics, but is a name known in baseball circles long before the acclaimed statistician ever put pen to paper.
Born in 1892 in Iowa Hill, CA, the “other” Bill James was the son of a miner chasing the lure of the gold rush. A booming town at the time, Iowa Hill was once considered to be a candidate to become the state capital, with more than 10,000 residents in the mid-to-late 19th century. Today, there are not enough residents to register on a census survey, as the declining population forced the only school in the town to close back in 2010.
While a job in the mines seemed like a natural route for any resident of Iowa Hill at the time, James had other aspirations—playing baseball. He served as the water boy for the “Iowa Hill Dusty Roads” baseball team, sparking a love for the game that would sustain his passion even after his father moved to Oroville and took a job as a dredge operator when James was 11.
At that time, it was all but a forgone conclusion that James’ future was operating a dredge with his father instead of chasing his boyhood dream. But James caught the eye of the Seattle Giants after several standout seasons at Oroville Union High School. He was signed to a contract in 1912, effectively punching his ticket out of the mines. Rumor has it that James’ dad gave him $50 plus enough to buy a ticket back if things didn’t work out.
But James never bought the return ticket. He went 29-7 with a 2.17 ERA in 1912 for Seattle, reeling off 16 consecutive wins at one point in the season. Devoid of talent, the cellar-dwelling Boston Braves came calling, inking James to a major league contract. The Braves hadn’t had a winning season in nearly a decade, and were 52-101 the year they signed “Seattle Bill.”
In his first season with the Braves in 1913, James was 6-10 with a 2.79 ERA, bouncing back and forth between the starting rotation and bullpen. The Braves still finished well under .500 at 69-82, adding to their streak of losing seasons.
Halfway through 1914, there wasn’t any real indication the Braves were destined for anything other than the cellar. Boston was in last place at 26-40 at midseason, with James pitching well but not well enough to right the ship. Banking on a miracle isn’t a sound strategy, but the Braves certainly needed one.
But the miracle came—the Braves went 68-19 over their last 87 games, catapulting them from last place to first at 94-59. From July 9 until the end of the regular season, James was 19-1 with a 1.51 ERA—his lone loss coming at the hands of the Pirates (3-2) after James pitched into the 12th inning. The “Miracle Braves” had won the pennant and were heading to the World Series to play the heavily favored Philadelphia A’s.
Interestingly enough, the Braves had abandoned their long-time home field (South End Grounds) earlier that year, renting the newly built Fenway Park from the Red Sox instead. It was long before the “green monster” was built in 1934, but a large wall plastered with advertising stood behind the crowd in left field. Whether Red Sox owner Harry Frazee was funding Broadway productions with the rent money isn’t entirely clear, but he would sell off Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 to fund the musical “No, No, Nanette.”
After a breakthrough 1914 campaign that saw James go 26-7 with a 1.90 ERA in the regular season, the 6’3” right-hander continued his dominance in the World Series. After winning Game 1, James would pitch a complete game shutout in Game 2, allowing just three baserunners—two of whom he picked off.
Two days later, James was called on again—this time out of the bullpen. With the game tied 4-4 in the 11th, James entered the game in relief and earned the win by posting two scoreless frames. The Braves won in the bottom of the 12th on a throwing error, giving them a commanding 3-0 series lead.
James finished the series with a 0.00 ERA and led the Braves to the first ever four-game sweep in a World Series—a sweep that even the shrewdest betting man couldn’t have predicted.
It was a swift rise to the top for James, one that prompted John J. Ward of Baseball Magazine to say, “The further acquisition of experience should (make him) one of the greatest all-round pitchers in history.” While James talent was obvious, no one at the time knew the 22-year-old James would only win five more games the rest of his career.
The cost of the Boston Braves miracle season may very well have been James’ arm health. He had thrown 332.1 innings in 1914, which included 30 complete games. With no pitch counts being recorded, it’s likely James threw 200-300 pitches in many of his starts.
On June 2, 1914, James threw 13 innings in a 3-2 win. He faced 55 batters. A reasonable average for pitches per at-bat is 4-5, which puts James in the 200-250+ range. About a month later, on July 4, James threw an 11-inning complete game, facing 48 hitters. He would throw 10 or more innings on seven separate occasions in 1914, a workload that would get any modern-day manager fired for overusing such a promising young arm.
James would pitch only 68.1 innings in 1915 before insufferable pain in his arm forced the Braves to rest him for the remainder of the season. The next year, teammate Johnny Evers told reporters what was becoming obvious: “His arm is gone. Bill knows it and we know it.”
Two surgeries later, James still was a shell of his former self. He tried to regain his form with the Braves in 1919, but his velocity never returned. He pitched one game that year, going just 5.1 innings—which proved to be the last time James would ever pitch in the big leagues.
He is remembered as the most notable one-year wonders in baseball history. After his career, James would go on to be a bomb-throwing instructor in the Army, a truck driver for an oil company and eventually the Butte County (CA) Assessor. Because of his short-lived success, there isn’t a long list of baseball cards or memorabilia featuring the tall right-hander from Iowa Hill, but there are still a few items circulating that capture his incredible talent and contribution to baseball history. Here’s a look at four that are still available online.
1. 1915 Cracker Jack #153
The 1915 Cracker Jack Baseball set featured 176 unique cards and were inserted into boxes of the snack that was so synonymous with baseball that Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer inserted it into their 1908 song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” While the song wasn’t played in ballparks until 1934, Cracker Jack had been a staple in baseball culture long before it was played across loudspeakers at games.
While the majority of 1915 Cracker Jack cards feature the same illustrations from the 1914 set, James’ card was printed in the final group (numbered #145-176), which are all new illustrations in contrast with cards #1-144 in the set.
Described as a “spit-ball pitcher” on the back of the card, it’s one of James most sought-after due to it’s scarcity and the popularity of the set. According to PSA’s population report, there have been only 78 graded—none of which have ever received a PSA 10 grade. Low-to-mid grade examples will cost you several hundred dollars, but there are still a few floating around.
2. 1914 Egyptienne Cigarettes “Tobacco Blanket” – B18 Blankets
With pre-war cards gaining in popularity, Egyptienne Cigarettes added a new level of innovation and creativity with their B18 Tobacco Blankets. Measuring 5 ¼” on all sides, the unique cloth pieces were folded and inserted into packs of cigarettes. The set featured 90 of the best players in baseball, which included a pitcher who’d become one of the game’s new stars..
A few of these still are available online, but many were likely lost or sewn together as a quilt.
3. 1915 “The Literary Digest” Cat’s Paw Ad
During the Middle Ages, cats became a symbol of witchcraft, leading many to believe that some witches could shape-shift into black cats so they could go undetected at night. Animals with dark black fur were often seen as bad luck during these times, as ravens, crows and buzzards often signaled the end of a life.
In Italy, black cats were believed to be a harbinger of death if they laid on the bed of a sick relative or friend. Even a black cat crossing someone’s path has been deemed as a misfortune by folklore.
Strangely enough, Bill James was featured in 1915 in “The Literary Digest” for an ad selling Cat’s Paw rubber heels for shoes. The ad shows a black cat next to James and includes an endorsement from the 1914 World Series champion: “I’m more afraid of a slippery sidewalk than a pair of flying spikes. So I wear Cat’s Paw Rubber Heels with the Foster Friction Plug.”
Coincidence or not, the magazine was published in May of 1915—James would be shelved by the Braves two months later in July and wouldn’t pitch again until 1919 in a relief role. Coincidence? Or further evidence of the black cat legend?
There are a few of these ads that have been pulled from the magazine and are available online, which feature a facsimile signature from James who signed the initials of his first name, “William Lawrence James.”
4. 1925 Zeenut Pacific Coast League
Having not pitched in a big league game since 1919, James can be found in the 1925 Zeenuts release that featured the popular names from the Pacific Coast League. Nearly ten years after leading the Braves to a World Series title, it was the last time James would be featured on a card from that era. It’s not always easy to find, but generally inexpensive when you do.
James would retire after the 1925 season, as the Braves left him in the minors for several seasons hoping the life would return to his arm. It never did, prompting him to finally hang up the spikes and move on to new pursuits. James and his wife Harriet Newman had his only daughter, Janet, one-year later in 1926 and would live in Oroville until his passing in 1971.