A Great Journalist / Writer – Michael Lewis

Recently on my travels to and from San Diego I had a few hours of uninterrupted time and I chose to read some interesting paperbacks. I usually pick something like a business book or a military history book but this time I decided to liven it up a bit and pick two books by Michael Lewis, one titled “Moneyball” about baseball and “The Blind Side” about football.

I remembered Michael Lewis from reading “Liar’s Poker” in the 90’s about Salomon Brothers, the famous trading firm. The name of the book was from a game that traders would play involving betting on the digits on US currencies, a game that could be played for big stakes.

Liar’s Poker is a fascinating book about a period of time when Salomon was essentially the “king of the world” to borrow a phrase from the highest grossing movie ever. If you are interested in what is happening in the sub-prime market with collateralized debt obligations (CDO’s) or the “securitization” of debt this is a great place to start since Salomon basically invented and popularized the practice for home mortgages.

One interesting element of the book is that Michael Lewis actually was a bond salesman in real life, and this enabled his book to be far more “real” than it would be if written in an interview type format. This was his first book; I think at the time he started out planning to get into finance and then decided to write a book; in retrospect you could also see him going into this business as a writing opportunity. To contrast this with other journalists that we take swipes at from time to time, Lewis clearly understood his material as only a true “insider” could.

For “Moneyball” he followed Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, as he fielded a team with little money (by major league baseball standards) and yet was able to compete successfully against much better funded rivals. Beane used the research based on Bill James and others that showed that traditional baseball measures led to poor decisions and were not based on sound, empirical logic and statistics. For example, the use of batting average was critical while the on-base average was ignored for many years, although bases on balls are incredibly valuable, and hitters that never walk can be a major liability (see Uribe on the White Sox). The other teams, by contrast, used scouts which looked for physical ability and frequently drafted high school players on potential, while Beane drafted college players and traded for those in the minors that actually showed a history of success. These methods were also followed by the Boston Red Sox when they hired a GM using similar methods to lead them to their recent world series championship.

While Lewis never played baseball (unlike “Liar’s Poker” when he was a bond salesman) his choice of Billy Beane as a subject accomplishes two things: 1) it humanizes the book by tying an analysis to an actual person 2) Billy Beane himself was someone who was loaded with potential and lauded by scouts yet was a “bust” in the MLB as a player. Thus the fact that Billy Beane the GM ignores what the scouts say about potential also validates the fact that although he supposedly had the “tools” to be a great major league baseball player, he never proved it along the way in the minors and was promoted to the “big show” and was a failure as a player. Non fiction authors and journalists often pick people to illustrate a concept but the choice of Beane was pure genius since he illuminated the central thesis on two levels.

In “The Blind Side” he talks about the evolution of the left tackle position from a relatively unimportant position on the field, with poor compensation (relative to “skill” players like QB’s, RB’s, and receivers) to a very highly paid position. He walks through a very interesting history of the game showing how players like Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants tore the game wide open by terrorizing QB’s from their “blind side”, or the side they couldn’t see the defender coming from. The epitome of this was Taylor’s breaking of Joe Theismann’s leg on National TV which showed the crushing power of an unblocked defensive tackler.

In parallel, he follows the history of Michael Oher, a super-promising left tackle candidate from Memphis that was completely ignored by organized sports due to the fact that he comes from a totally impoverished side of town and an amazingly dysfunctional family. Mr. Oher basically raised himself as a child and was functionally mute. A local (white) and wealthy Memphis family adopted him, got him a dedicated tutor, and proved that he was able to learn and do decently well in school. In the end of the book we read that Lewis was a childhood friend with Sean Tuohy, the father in the family that adopted him, which probably explains how he was able to get so close to the story.

Often times I think that I can be as good a journalists as most of the “professional” journalists working today; sadly, this can be a low bar. Someone like Michael Lewis, however, who really gets inside a story, knows his facts cold, and integrates relevant and true-to-life people in with his non-fictional work sets the bar immensely high. I really recommend that you find time to read the three books listed – “Liar’s Poker”, “Moneyball”, and “The Blind Side” – you will be entertained and learn something, to boot.

Cross posted at LITGM

7 thoughts on “A Great Journalist / Writer – Michael Lewis”

  1. I entered the workforce via Salomon’s training program in 1989 (Mary Meeker’s class). At that time, the CEO John Gutfreund had been crowned “King of Wall Street” by BusinessWeek.

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