Sports are big business. The athletes are treated as commodities, and they are salesmen. They aren’t just coached on how to play their sport, but also on how to speak to the press. (It’s in cliches and non-answer answers. Really riveting stuff.) Sometimes it seems the true measure of an athlete’s accomplishments isn’t how many rings they win but the number of sponsorships they get.
Beneath this veneer of brand-spokesman blandness, corporate PR and the talking hairdos on 24-hour sports networks, something weird is still going on. The rules are arbitrary, the feats of physical accomplishments are freakish, and this slick business culture is built on a simple obsession over games. Yes, the fans can get obsessive, but the athletes themselves? They need an intervention. Ridiculous salaries for a few can make us forget how many people there are still playing their sport for very little. How many players in the Minor Leagues are sharing small apartments with teammates compared to Major League players with shoe contracts? Or Olympic athletes training early in the morning before work? It gets under their skin, and they have to play the game. Weird.
“The League of Outsider Baseball” captures some of that obsessive weirdness. Author and Illustrator Gary Cieradkowski has put together a collection of beautifully illustrated profiles of baseball players. Some are household names, like Babe Ruth, but most are lesser known or forgotten players, like the ones you meet in the chapter, “The Could-Have-Beens.” Some of these players could have been household names too, but dumb luck or bad life choices derailed their promising careers. Take Pistol Pete Reiser, whose combination of physical skill and unbridled enthusiasm for the game gave him a penchant for playing through serious injuries and running into outfield walls. Once he was knocked unconscious so long a priest performed last rights. The chapter, “The Oddballs” is populated with unlikely contributions to baseball history from a one-armed pitcher, a hunchbacked orphan, one team composed entirely of brothers and another from an apocalyptic sect. This is the scruffy underbelly of baseball, and it’s fascinating reading.
This project started for Cieradkowski as a way of coping with the loss of his father. Swapping stories of obscure baseball players several times a week was one way they stayed connected. When his father died unexpectedly, Cieradkowski realized he didn’t have anyone to share this obsession with. He started a blog, The Infinite Baseball Card Set, to honor that relationship with his father and share his passion for these forgotten players with the rest of the world. Reading “The League of Outsider Baseball” is akin to a friend sharing their prized collection of baseball cards with you.
A few more books that give you a tour of baseball’s scruffy underbelly (The titles say it all):
“Outsider Baseball. The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950,” by, Scott Simkus.