Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Outsider Baseball by Scott Simkus

Before a combination of World War II, television, and integration forged the giant monolith known as Major League Baseball into the country-spanning organization we know today, thousands of players across hundreds of teams played America's pastime in various leagues that had no official standing, but were often more popular--if not higher quality--than those preserved in the record books of history.

From the obvious (Negro Leagues) to the lesser-known (a series of barnstorming, bearded men called the House of David) to the strong semi-pro teams in baseball hot spots like Brooklyn and Chicago, there's a lot of baseball history that's been unaccounted for--until now.

Men and women like Scott Simkus, who have a love of the game that dwarfs mine and the desire to research everything from box scores to census records, are putting together an admittedly incomplete (so far) look at these players and their role in baseball history.

You see, these players and teams don't just exist at the fringe of the established clubs. For decades, they interacted, both directly and indirectly. Some players, like Babe Ruth, made tons of money taking his baseball friends around the country, playing minor league teams (which were not bound in an unfair agreement to the majors at this time), Negro League teams, and going off to countries such as Cuba and Japan. Others, like Rogers Hornsby, began their professional careers in these places, and then moved to the majors. Hornsby's first paid baseball work found him in drag, playing for an "all-girls" team, which often used 2-3 men to balance out the team.

This is absolutely fascinating stuff if you love old baseball. Some of these I already knew about, but Simkus leaves no stone unturned, and unearths many little slices of baseball history of which I was previously unaware, such as the attempts to get black players onto the field well before Jackie Robinson. (In one case, they looked to pass off a talented African American as an American Indian, because that was okay. Gotta love the varying degrees of racism in the early 20th Century. No wait, gotta hate them.)

When speaking of the Negro Leagues, Simkus grows a bit apologetic. Because so many are so horrified by the separation of baseball talent for so many years, there's a reverence placed on the games played in the Negro National League and elsewhere. Unfortunately, when you get the actual box scores from these games, it's a bit more sobering. Like modern Japanese baseball, the Negro Leagues, while featuring players who were unquestionably as good or better than their white counterparts, did not have enough overall talent to be a major league. Using a measurement system and head to head records, Simkus shows that while certain teams (say, the Pittsburgh Crawfords) would have been world beaters, about half the Negro League teams were minor-league quality of varying range, ranking more closely to the Pacific Coast League at best or a modern A-ball team at worst.

But before you get too far on his case, understand that using the same guidelines, Simkus shows the Union Association was in no way, shape, or form a Major League, despite its current designation. For that matter, he's of the opinion that the case for the Federal League is sparse as well. Statistics and increased information, while anathema to some long-time baseball fans (Do you know there are people who still think "wins" is the best way to judge a pitcher?), serve to help give us context.

Now stats can do a lot of things, but they do give us ways to discuss things from logic rather than emotion, such as Josh Gibson's probable home run total or whether the "woman who struck out Babe Ruth" really was any good as a pitcher (Spoiler Alert: Nope!). You can argue a bit with the methodology, but seeing how certain minor league teams could dismantle a National League line-up or how the NL's quicker embrace of integration gave it an edge in competition are part of the joy of this book.

But the best parts, without a doubt, are when Semkis takes us into Rube Waddell's marital problems or the crazy schemes of a religious nut who managed to con his way into a financial empire and a baseball franchise that wasn't quite as good as advertised. When you read about how certain players stayed in semi-pro ball because *it payed better* the reality of what life was like before Free Agency, no matter how much trouble it causes now, hits home like a player sliding spikes-up.

This book is a total joy to read, and is breezy in tone despite the focus on stats. Simkus clearly loves his subject and it shows. If you have any interest in old-time baseball at all, run, don't walk to get this book, and start reading about the time John McGraw flipped out because his team was losing to Cubans. This one gets my highest possible recommendation.