This is a truly unique article for me. I created the Deja Reviewer website less than a year ago to allow myself to share my enlightening views on film, not literature. I didn’t intend to discuss books at all. I also never considered introducing religious ideas on this website, and I do so now with great apprehension, for I know it invites bitter criticism. But I was simply amazed by the similarities between two seemingly unrelated books – Moneyball and The Book of Mormon – and I just had to bring them to my good readers’ attention.
The similarities didn’t leap out at me until I read the Afterword in Moneyball. Indeed, I intend to focus on the effects of these books more than on the actual material contained in them. With this in mind, I humbly invite you to join me on this journey of bold ideas.
Inside Baseball’s Religious War
First of all, what can baseball possibly have to do with religion, especially one as odd as Mormonism? A lot, in an interesting way. Author Michael Lewis spends a lot of time in Moneyball questioning traditional ideas about how baseball games are played and how to measure a team’s success or failure. The ideas in that book have the power to shake professional baseball to its very core and cause revolutionary changes for the better in owners, managers and players. But there are many who resist its ideas and prefer to do things the way they’ve always been done, despite their inefficiency.
The Book of Mormon likewise challenges many religious traditions, such as the idea that God would not give any more scriptures other than the ones contained in the Bible to His children, or that baptism was unnecessary to salvation, or that prophets and apostles are no longer required in the Church of Jesus Christ. It was first published in 1830.
It’s important at this point to bring up the two main people I’ll be talking about in connection with Moneyball and The Book of Mormon: Billy Beane and Joseph Smith, respectively. Beane is the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, and he is at the center of Moneyball. He started using batting and fielding statistics that few people paid attention to (on-base average, walks, pitches per at-bat) to draft players with hidden talents. He was able to sign players for much lower prices than their true value using this method.
Smith claimed that he saw God and Jesus Christ in a vision and that he was commanded to translate an ancient record known as The Book of Mormon. Both of these claims are contrary to established religious traditions. The very existence of The Book of Mormon has needled many religious scholars because they need to find an explanation for where it came from. And the only plausible source of its existence is the account Smith gave of receiving it from an angel and translating it by the power of God. Smith, a young farmer with little formal education, could not have imagined such a detailed narrative or come up with such profound answers to life’s questions. For example, there are more answers to questions about the meaning of life in the second chapter of the book of 2 Nephi than have been produced in centuries of philosophical speculation.
In most of the following sections I will begin with quotes from Moneyball and either The Book of Mormon or Smith’s own words. I will offer some background when necessary. Then I’ll explain how the two quotes relate.
“This book… began with a simple, obvious observation: some baseball executives seemed to be much better than others at getting wins out of dollars.” (p. 288)
In 1820, Joseph Smith was a 14-year-old boy trying to decide which church to join. Unfortunately, as today, there were many claiming to be the true church, which led to a lot of confusion. “In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” (Joseph Smith History 1:10)
Both Moneyball and The Book of Mormon began with a simple question: Who among the baseball teams/churches is right? In Moneyball, that meant “who is trying something different to both save money and get better-performing players?” The Oakland Athletics were the only ones who were attempting to buck the old system, driven by a low budget and a fierce determination to succeed despite the odds.
Technically, Smith’s question about which church he should join wasn’t the genesis of The Book of Mormon because the book had already been compiled and written on gold plates more than 1,000 years earlier and buried in a hill near his home in Palmyra, New York. However, Smith’s confusion led him to pray to God for guidance, which resulted in God and His Son Jesus Christ appearing to him, and beginning the process of restoring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth. A big part of that restoration was the translation and publication of The Book of Mormon for all the world to see that God is not silent in our day.
“As always happens when the material is strong, the story became telescoped in the writing. I felt compelled to jettison everything that didn’t have to do with putting together a baseball team. The result wasn’t anything like a biography of a man; it was more like a biography of an idea.” (p. 289)
According to its Title Page, which is said to have been written by the ancient historian/prophet Mormon himself, The Book of Mormon is written for several divine purposes, including “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” Jew, in this instance, refers to any member of the House of Israel, even ones who don’t realize they are members of that ancient lineage because many of the tribes were scattered.
The Book of Mormon was mainly compiled by a prophet named Mormon, which is why it bears his name. He was born around 300 A.D. He had access to the writings of every preceding prophet in his civilization’s history. Condensing all of that information into a comprehensible volume must have been a daunting task. The Book of Mormon basically flows chronologically from Jerusalem in 600 B.C. to the American continent in 421 A.D.
Because the book was written with the goal of convincing people to come unto Christ, many things were left out or glossed over so that the author could focus on the most important parts and help readers see specific patterns and lessons. For example, we constantly see one group of people become righteous, get blessed by the Lord, become prideful because of their wealth, fall into wickedness, get humbled by famine, war or other hardships, repent and return to righteousness. This is referred to as the pride cycle, and it’s instructive for all people. We also see the important role that parents play in shaping their children because the records were mainly passed down from father to son for many generations.
Just as the lessons in Moneyball would be extremely beneficial to virtually any professional sports team, the teachings found in The Book of Mormon can help anyone be a better person and enjoy a happier life.
Contributors Had No Knowledge of the Finished Product
“Until they saw it, the Oakland front office had only the faintest notion of what my book would be like.” (p. 289)
Nephi is the first prophet to write an account of his life in The Book of Mormon. “Wherefore, the Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not.” (1 Nephi 9:5)
Contrary to popular belief among baseball managers and executives, the Oakland Athletics didn’t expect to be the focus of Michael Lewis’ book. Lewis interviewed managers and players at a lot of baseball teams. A’s general manager Billy Beane was the only one who was doing something radically different, and so Lewis naturally decided to focus on them because they were so interesting.
Nephi, Alma and other prophets in The Book of Mormon write that they’re not sure why they should record certain events or pass on records from father to son, but they feel inspired to do so, and so they obey those promptings. In reality, the Lord was guiding their efforts and making sure the finished record would contain all the things we need to know today in order to prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
The Book of Mormon focuses most of its attention on the century preceding the birth of Christ, and then it covers many of the events following his death and resurrection. Then it quickly fast-forwards to several centuries later when the people became irredeemably wicked and were destroyed. The prophets warn us not to follow in their footsteps.
Who Is the Real Author?
After publishing Moneyball, Michael Lewis expected to be attacked by all the baseball insiders he had contradicted. “What happened next… was something new in my experience as a writer. The Club of people who made their living just off the field of play – GMs and scouts, along with some of the noisier members of the Women’s Auxiliary, the writers and commentators – flipped out. Not at me, mind you: at Billy Beane.” (p. 290)
“Here was the nub of the problem: Joe Morgan hadn’t read the book but he was certain Billy Beane had written it. Even people inside the Club who understood that some other human being had actually taken the trouble to scribble down the words in Moneyball took the book, at bottom, to be the work of Billy Beane.” (p. 293)
As I mentioned earlier, Joseph Smith saw and spoke with God the Eternal Father and His Son Jesus Christ in a vision in the spring of 1820. “Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had. I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.
“I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me.” (Joseph Smith History 1:21-22)
Michael Lewis is undeniably the author of Moneyball. I’m sure his publisher, family and close associates can all vouch for that fact. Joseph Smith is clearly not the author of The Book of Mormon. Eleven people besides Smith bore solemn witness that The Book of Mormon was translated from gold plates by the power of God. And none of them ever denied this, even when some of them turned their backs on Smith. Their witness was founded on more than just friendship with this man, but on something powerful enough to stake their lives and reputations on.
Besides these witnesses, a serious study of The Book of Mormon shows that it could not be the work of just one man, especially one with no knowledge of Jewish customs, ancient civilizations or warfare. There are many details, large and small, that point to the book’s authenticity as a product of a completely different time and place than 19th-century America: chiasmus, Jewish poetry, and Middle East geography, to name a few.
Can’t Deny the Truth
“What seemed apparent to me, terrifyingly so, was that baseball insiders were going to compel my subjects to recant – to say that this book about their organization was laughably off-target and could safely be ignored… The public pressure on Beane, especially, was intense: no man was ever accused of saying more things he never said, or doing more things he never did… But the Oakland A’s didn’t recant.” (pp. 290-291)
“I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.” (Joseph Smith History 1:25)
It’s interesting to note that all Joseph Smith was saying at this point was that he had been visited by God and Christ. It seems like people, especially preachers, would have been excited to have their faith vindicated that God indeed lives and still loves His children enough to speak with them as He did time after time in former days. But that was not the case. People tried to get Smith to deny that he had seen a vision and they treated him poorly as a result of his sharing his account. But he would not deny what he knew to be true.
Later, after Smith translated and published The Book of Mormon, some people tried to come up with other explanations for how it came to be. But all of these theories have been proven false. The testimony of Smith and the 11 additional witnesses is the only explanation for how The Book of Mormon came forth that has stood the test of time. Just as Smith bravely resisted the temptation to deny what he knew to be true, Beane also never gave in to critics’ demands that he deny Moneyball’s depiction of him and his team.
Good and Evil Spoken of
Billy Beane received a lot of criticism for not always living up to the standards he set for choosing baseball players. “The point is not that Billy Beane is infallible; the point is that he has seized upon a system of thought to make what is an inherently uncertain judgment, the future performance of a baseball player, a little less uncertain.” (p. 291)
Several years after his First Vision, Joseph Smith was visited by an angel. “He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.” (Joseph Smith History 1:33)
Perhaps I should have called this article “Billy Beane and Joseph Smith” because so many of my ideas come down to the fact that both of these men challenged an established order and stood firm when they were unjustly criticized. Beane deserves credit for having the “intellectual courage,” as author Michael Lewis puts it, to use statistical analysis to try to fill a baseball team with unconventional players whose talents had been overlooked by everyone else. He didn’t care if he was laughed at by other coaches or called crazy by the press; he was only interested in results.
Both Beane and Smith have numerous critics and defenders. The critics like to point out character flaws and other foibles. The defenders note that no one is perfect, and these two men were just that – men. They’re not perfect, nor do they claim to be. They just performed an amazing task that others might have thought impossible. Beane created a new way of managing a baseball team, and Smith translated a new book of scripture and brought forth a new church, both of which endure to this day.
“What egomaniac claims that he discovered all these statistics? The Oakland A’s never claimed to have discovered sophisticated statistical analysis… I had gone to some trouble to show that all the ideas Beane slapped together were hatched by someone else’s brain.” (p. 292)
The final prophet to write in that book lamented to the Lord, “Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words.” (Ether 12:25)
Billy Beane built on the work of many statisticians who had come before him. He benefited from the complex programs others had developed, and he worked to shape them into something even better. Joseph Smith didn’t claim to be exceptionally gifted intellectually, nor did the writers of The Book of Mormon. They simply claimed that the Lord spoke to them, and they attempted to convey what He wanted them to say.
“I Don’t Have to Read It to Know It’s False”
“The people most certain they had nothing to learn were other Major League Baseball teams. But of course they didn’t! They weren’t a business, they were a Club. In a business, if someone comes along and exposes the trade secrets of your most efficient competitor, you’re elated. Even if you have your doubts, you grab the book, peek inside, check it out. Just to see. Not in baseball. In baseball, they were furious. In the Club, there was no need to read it – baseball executives routinely bragged that they hadn’t read it – because, well, it was offensive.” (p. 294)
Many people who criticize The Book of Mormon have never actually read it all the way through. They may have heard negative things about it and are sure it can’t be good, so they have decided they don’t need to read it to know it’s false. Moroni, in the final chapter, encouraged people everywhere to read the entire book and then ask God in prayer if it is true or not. If they pray with full purpose of heart, being open to the answer they will receive, they will have the truth revealed to them.
Inspiring the World
“Meanwhile, outside the Club, the level of both interest and reading comprehension was as good as it gets. The Oakland front office had calls from a cross section of American business and sporting life… Every nook and cranny of American society, it seemed, held people similarly obsessed with finding and exploiting market inefficiencies – and the Oakland front office inspired them.” (p. 294)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was established by Joseph Smith in 1830 with just six members, has grown rapidly both in the United States and internationally. There are now 14 million members, more than half of whom live outside America’s borders. The gospel that the LDS Church preaches and the lessons found in The Book of Mormon resonate with people across vast cultural gaps.
Moneyball and The Book of Mormon are difficult books for many people to come to terms with. They both pose significant problems to the status quo. If what they say is true, then the established way of doing things is greatly undermined. Although their authenticity may be questioned, their authors misunderstood, and their messages ignored, these two books stand as bold witnesses that there is a better way to do things.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.