Odds are, any regular reader of this blog has already done this, but if you haven’t, you should immediately drop everything and make arrangements to obtain a copy of Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950, by Scott Simkus. Get it for your e-reader, or order it through your favorite online retailer, or (the best option) go to a bookstore and buy it off the shelf.
Clearly, as co-founder with Scott of the (late, lamented) Outsider Baseball Bulletin, I’m biased here. But who cares: this is baseball history written for the twenty-first century.
The phrase (and the book of course) is wholly Scott’s, but I think it’s fair to say that we developed the idea of “outsider baseball” together. It’s based on a simple set of observations. First: baseball was segregated until 1947 (and in truth it was still de facto segregated for a number of years after this). Most players of color were excluded from the major leagues. Second: the farther back you go in history, the freer the minor leagues were from interference by the majors. In other words, talent was less and less concentrated, and the better the minors were in relation to the majors. Third: before television and other mass entertainments and media took hold, a market niche existed for semiprofessional (or in some cases, fully professional) baseball at a local level—the city leagues, town teams, industrial leagues, and barnstorming curiosities like the House of David. Some of these teams were very good, as good as the top minor leagues, and featured many future or former major leaguers.
Put it all together, and you have a baseball world, prior to 1950, in which the major leagues contained much, much less of the available talent than they do now. If you buy Scott’s analysis, at various points before 1950 there was enough star power outside the National and American leagues to fully staff a third major league.
This is the backdrop, the theoretical basis, of Outsider Baseball. So how does Scott follow through? With an entertaining mix of storytelling, serious research, and some (fairly light) sabermetric analysis, a lot of it based on his vast collection of box scores involving outsider baseball teams. It’s a fun read, an introduction to the world outside the majors for the kind of people who read Bill James and Rob Neyer.
Scott looks at the truth behind legends. Did Cool Papa Bell really run the bases in 12 seconds flat? How many home runs did Josh Gibson really hit in his career? How good were those bearded House of David teams anyway? Could the Pittsburgh Crawfords have competed in the National League of the 1930s? Unless I missed it, there aren’t any impassioned arguments to put anybody in the Hall of Fame—but you’re introduced to plenty of people you’ve probably never heard of, and who are worth knowing about, people like Jimmy Clinton, Buck Lai, Eddie Gerner.
The book also digs up historical curiosities like the old “Field Day” events in which players competed in distance-throwing, base-running, and other track and field contests, and calculates how fast pre-radar gun pitchers might have been, based on how far they could throw.
It’s an engrossing treasure house of a book, one of those rare books you read and then think, “Well, that was too short.” It doesn’t exhaust its (many) subjects, not by a long shot. But if you want to know the direction in which baseball research is headed (at least the kind I do), there isn’t a better guide.