By Shawn Coyne | Published: November 11, 2011
A few nights ago, I watched a 1970s era David Susskind interview with legendary advertising executive, David Ogilvy (1911–1999). Ogilvy told a story about what he learned from George Gallup, the founder of the Gallup poll. Gallup put Ogilvy in charge of one of his Hollywood studio accounts. Conventional wisdom at that time (late 1930s-1940s) was that men went to the movies to look at women and women went to the movies to look at men. That’s why the studio system always had male and female leads…to satisfy both parties on a Saturday night date.
But Gallup didn’t buy in to conventional wisdom. He wanted data. So, after wearing out some good old fashioned shoe leather and undoubtedly imbibing a barrel full of martinis, Ogilvy sat down to quantify the movie going experience. While tallying up responses from theater exit interviews, Ogilvy found that conventional wisdom was absolutely wrong.
Wisely, Ogilvy had asked men and women to list their favorite movie stars. He didn’t ask their favorite actor or actress, just their favorite movie star. The top twelve responses of men were men and the top twelve responses for women were women. Unless every American was an in-the-closet homosexual, the taken for granted Hollywood paradigm—hot babe actress for the men, handsome actor for the women—was wildly off the mark. Men went to see men in movies and women went to see women.
Ogilvy hypothesized that men and women go to movies to bond with characters that remind them of themselves. The more the viewer sympathizes with the lead character, the more he begins to relate his own life experience to the fictional character’s story. Once the viewer unconsciously compares and contrasts his own story to the fictional story (that guy faces the same shit I do), the larger the emotional connection he’ll have to the movie.
What Ogilvy understood was that we process our lives through story. If I find no connection between my inner story and a movie, a novel, a play, a dance, an opera, or any other story based art (all art is story-based in my opinion), I won’t care. And if I don’t care, I won’t engage. For Ogilvy’s purposes as an up and coming adman in, he understood that if he didn’t get people to relate to the “story” he told in his ads, he wouldn’t get them to buy anything. Ogilvy rarely made that mistake.
This brings me to Michael Lewis and his wonderful book Moneyball. Lewis can flat out write. He tells stories so well; it doesn’t feel like you’re reading. You’re listening. The flow of his sentences, the humor, the “show” not “tell,” and the depth of his storytelling lingers long after the last page. It’s almost like a Vulcan mind lock when he’s on his game. By my scorecard, his batting average is Ted Williams times two.
The conventional wisdom is that Moneyball is a book about inside baseball…stats, stats, and more stats. That’s what I thought when the book came out in 2003. I didn’t care. Skipped it.
I’d lost interest in Major League Baseball in 1992 when the Pittsburgh Pirate’s skinny center fielder, Barry Bonds, took the free agent money and ran to San Francisco. I didn’t blame him. He was doing what most of us would do in the same situation. Locking down the most important stat in American life—the paycheck.
After Bonds bolted Pittsburgh and my beloved ‘Bucs began their two decade long collapse, I was done. Baseball had become more about the pursuit of stats at all cost than what I remember it being. It used to be a game that could embrace all kinds of players—the gawky, wild side-armed closer, the fat guy who could crank out the long ball, the scrappy second baseman who didn’t back down from a sliding base runner’s spikes turning a double play.
That was my kind of team—vulnerable facsimiles of average guys doing extraordinary things. And there used to be room for the quirky athletes getting things done ugly—guys that I used to play ball with. Now, everyone is six foot three, two hundred and twenty pounds and can run the 40 yard dash in 4.6 seconds. I can’t relate to that.
This brings me to Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt. An icon. The guy seems inhuman…so far away from the average Joe, it’s laughable. Not only that, he’s a wonderful actor, so good that he gets no props because he’s such great tabloid fodder. When I heard Brad Pitt was going to be in the movie adaptation of Moneyball, not just be in it, but that he was throwing all of his considerable clout behind it to get it made, I was intrigued. Why would Brad Pitt want to be in a movie about stats? The guy can practically do any movie he wants. Why this one?
What clinched full attention from me was finding out that Steve Zaillian was writing the script and that Aaron Sorkin agreed to do a dialogue polish. Now it was obvious to me that there was no way Moneyball was just about stats. Lewis, Pitt, Zaillian, and Sorkin don’t do anything anymore for money. They don’t have to worry about paying their electricity bill or making a mortgage payment. There must be a great story here…something I can relate to.
So what do the fully validated movie stars and writers worry about? The ones who matter worry about Art—trying to do something that reaches other people, something that will make them smile when they’re old and gray. I might have failed with project a, b, c, d, e, and f, but I can die happy knowing that I nailed it with project g… They do projects now for two reasons: fun and meaning. And Moneyball, the book and the movie, are loaded with both.
The lead character is a guy named Billy Beane, the Brad Pitt of the book. His job is to buy the best baseball players he can find for the least amount of money. A failed Major leaguer himself, Beane remembers all of the crap that was fed to him coming up. You’re a natural. Your skill set is perfect. You will be a baseball phenomenon.
He wasn’t. He wasn’t put on earth to be a pro baseball player. But no one could see that. Most importantly, he couldn’t see it. He looked the part, so he thought he must be capable of acting it. That’s conventional wisdom—believing that what is on the surface is truth. But the real truth was that Beane was in the right arena, but in the wrong room. Beane stayed in the Show but moved himself into the front office.
What makes this book and movie so good is that Beane recognizes that the system that picks the best baseball talent is absurd. So he goes out of his way to pick the best players, not based on how they look, but on what they do. That’s where the stats come in, but they have no relevance beyond supporting the theory that performance beats potential. Beane (Pitt) picks the weird pitcher, the fat catcher, the abominably fielding first baseman because he knows that it doesn’t matter how attractive his guys are on the field, it’s how they perform. Winning ugly was not only better than losing pretty, it was cheaper.
What makes Beane, and Pitt’s portrayal of Beane, so relatable, though, is in his inability to appreciate his own work. All Beane focuses on in the book and the movie is the fact that he hasn’t won a world series. All the brilliant machinations and game changing philosophy he has executed, and the fact that he looks like Brad Pitt in real life and exactly like Brad Pitt on the screen, doesn’t mean anything to him. He’s still the guy, in his own mind, that isn’t good enough to make it on the field and isn’t good enough to general manage a World Series winning team.
But without Beane, brilliant, but unorthodox misfit-toy baseball players would never have gotten the chance to make it in MLB. With him, they are valued. The game has become more about how you perform than how you look. Beane brought truth and justice to a game in dire need of both. Still, Beane thinks he’s a loser. He doesn’t recognize his genius.
But Michael Lewis does. And Brad Pitt and Steve Zaillian, and Aaron Sorkin.
Like Beane does with baseball players, Lewis uses Beane to shine a light on the hard working, never quite front page news, artists who contribute day in and day out to their chosen fields.
And like the great writer that he is, Lewis does it by telling a story within the story that is the whole story in nutshell form.
Don’t read the rest if you don’t want the book or movie to be spoiled.
As best as I can remember at the beginning of the book and movie, Billy Beane has drafted a chubby catcher from the College ranks and assigned him to AAA ball. No other team was going to draft him in any round, but Beane drafted him in the first. Beane gets video coverage of the catcher’s progress much later on in the book and movie:
He comes up to the plate to hit. He’s self-conscious and worried about making an ass out of himself. There aren’t fat guys in pro baseball anymore.
But he puts that out of his mind and focuses on a great at-bat…wearing down the pitcher, waiting for his mistake. The pitcher throws a big fat strike right in his sweet spot. The hitter had already noticed that the center fielder was playing him—a left handed batter—to pull the ball to right field. So he knows there will be a bigger gap to hit the ball into left center field. He waits a microsecond longer to swing to send the ball into that gap. He gets all of the ball with the meat of his bat.
But now he’s got to run. And he’s slow. Really slow.
So he concentrates even more on lifting his right leg, extending, planting his right foot, pushing off, lifting his left leg, extending… He peaks into center field. Sees the center fielder with his back turned toward the infield. The ball must be past him…he decides to go for a double. This is a big risk for him. He has to run as fast as he ever has to make it to second base safely. He commits…makes the turn perfectly around first base and chugs toward second.
Then the world falls away. His cleats can’t grab the infield dirt. His legs go out from under him and he lands flat on his face. Screw it. He gets up hearing the laughter from the crowd, the opposing dugout and from his own teammates. Humiliated, he runs back to the first base bag, conceding the double to the Gods. He finally gets the nerve to look into the outfield.
The people aren’t laughing because he fell; they are laughing because he was so concentrated on the fundamentals of the game, he didn’t realize that he’d hit a home run.
How many home runs have you hit that you didn’t recognize?