'The League of Outsider Baseball' looks at sport's weird history

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
'The League of Outsider Baseball' looks at baseball's weird history

What I love most about baseball is its weird history, the oddities and misfits who give flavor to the sport. When I was a kid, I used to pore through “The Baseball Encyclopedia” looking for the one-line careers, those players who only made it to the majors for a single year, or even a single game.

Some of these figures linger with us now for other reasons: Sparky Anderson, for instance, who played the full 1959 season at second base for the Philadelphia Phillies and then disappeared for a decade before emerging as a Hall of Fame manager in Cincinnati and Detroit. My favorite of them remains Moonlight Graham, who threw one inning for the 1905 New York Giants and was never heard from again.

Graham resonates for another reason: I first heard about him in the pages of W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 novel “Shoeless Joe,” which imagines a baseball afterlife for him, tracing his life as a small-town physician called back to the field of dreams.

Now, Graham has shown up again, in the pages of Gary Cierdkowski’s “The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes” (Touchstone: 234 pp., $25). The book, which grew out of the author’s blog, the Infinite Baseball Card Set, offers a lavishly illustrated, deeply researched collection of portraits of the unexpected and the obscure.

Did you know about Jack Kerouac’s fantasy baseball league? You’ll find that story in these pages. The nine-game minor league career of Dwight D. Eisenhower? It’s here as well.

From George H.W. Bush to the House of David, Fidel Castro (who threw two innings in a 1959 exhibition game, “striking out two and grounding out to shortstop in his only at-bat”) to Kitty Burke (who batted once, against Paul Dean, in a 1935 game between the Reds and the Cardinals), Cierdkowski takes ephemera and spins it into baseball lore.

Lore, of course, is what baseball does best; it is a game with a deep past, after all. “The League of Outsider Baseball,” though, is not interested in myth, but rather in the underpinnings, the lost history. Sometimes, that means reading about names we recognize, albeit in a different context: Roberto Clemente’s lost 1954 season with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Montreal farm club, or Tommy Lasorda’s role in the so-called “Fight of ’57,” which unfolded when the future Dodger manager was a pitcher for the old Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League.

Most moving are the stories of the Negro Leagues — “Bullet” Rogan, who won 52 games in 1918 and had a lifetime batting average of .338; Cyclone Joe Williams, who in a 1917 exhibition game reportedly “no-hit the pennant-winning New York Giants for 10 innings before losing 1-0 on an error.”

Here, we get into the murky middle ground between legend and legacy: as Cierdkowski writes, “Though many players have claimed to have taken part and fans recalled the game, no box score or newspaper account has ever surfaced. Something tangible from that lost afternoon would be an important find.”

In that sense, “The League of Outsider Baseball” can be read as a reclamation project, although it is also more than that. The illustrations, rendered in vivid throwback style, recall “the beautiful old tobacco cards that were manufactured at the turn of the century.” Based not on photographs but rather on research and imagination, they offer a new lens through which to look at, or think about, these players, a way of bringing them to life.

Weird history again. Oddities and misfits. Baseball as a function of the mind, in other words, as much as of the playing field.

twitter: @davidulin

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