Moneyball: Mickey Mantle Quote Was Misleading and Exploitative

Harold FriendChief Writer IOctober 3, 2011

FREMONT, CA - NOVEMBER 14:  Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane during a press conference announcing the building of a new ballpark in Fremont, California, on land owned by Cisco Systems, at their headquarters on November 14, 2006 in San Jose, California. The Oakland A's will purchase the land from Cisco and have sold the naming rights for the new ballpark to Cisco Systems Inc.   (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Moneyball starts with a quote from Mickey Mantle: "It's unbelievable how much you don't know about the game you've been playing all your life."

Sabermetics started to influence baseball around 1998-99. Mantle died in 1995. The quote cannot refer to Bill James and Billy Beane’s beliefs having enlightened Mickey Mantle.

Branch Rickey, the great baseball executive who was instrumental in having Jackie Robinson break baseball’s color barrier, made the quote before Mantle. A former major leaguer, Rickey played during the early part of the last century.

The Rickey-Mantle quote sets up the audience to be sympathetic with Billy Beane’s methods of building a team using statistics and virtually ignoring the human factor.

The key is that by having an all-time great admit ignorance of the game, it can make many viewers use the quote to start to think, “Wow, how great Mantle would have been if only he had known what Beane knew.”

Beane built the Oakland A’s with inexpensive players, using descriptive and, most importantly, inferential statistics to predict which players to sign. Most of those players needed as much help as they could get. They needed every little edge to succeed because they were not great players.

Back to Mickey Mantle. He had so much natural talent that all he had to do, with the help of Casey Stengel, Bill Dickey and others, was refine his ability.

The inconsistency of the Rickey-Mantle quote with Beane’s premise must be pointed out. No one had to tell Mantle that it helped the New York Yankees when he walked instead of making an out.

One of the most important statistics according to Beane is on base average (or percentage). Mantle had a career on base average of .421, which is one of the best in history. He walked 1,733 times, averaging 117 walks a season. Mantle instinctively knew what Billy Beane preached.

One of the greatest players of all time, a player some claim was better than Mantle, was Willie Mays. A naïve reporter once asked Willie what was his secret to being such a great player. Without blinking a eye, Mays said simply “They throw the ball, I hit it. They hit the ball, I catch it.”

How would that have gone over if Moneyball had opened with Mays’ quote?

No one is attempting to denigrate bases on ball or on base average. The latter is one of the best statistics to use when determining a player’s value. Only home run hitters can score without first standing on a base.

The quote that opens the film applies much better to Branch Rickey than to Mantle. Rickey started his major league career in 1905 at the age of 23. He played four seasons and batted .239/.304/.324 (batting average/on base average/slugging percentage)

But Rickey was a great innovator. He created the concept of teams having farm systems, helped bring Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers and attempted to form a new major league after the Dodgers and New York Giants abandoned New York.

Crediting Rickey the player with the quote would have been much more accurate, because during his playing career, he certainly needed all the help he could get. Mantle was used because few baseball fans and fewer non-fans heard of Branch Rickey.

Why strive for accuracy when spinning reality makes more money?