15 May 2015

Reviewing The League of Outsider Baseball

Gary Cieradkowski's The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball's Forgotten Heroes is a collection of vignettes and vintage style illustrations that wanders through the depths of baseball to find some of the less known fascinating stories arising from our American pastime.  Baseball, like much of history, has narratives that can be hyper-local or transient in their importance.  These stories may be well known at the time, but generally fade away and become long forgotten.  For instance, I imagine many of you respond with a blank face when the phrase "Mystique and Aura" is mentioned.

Outsider Baseball tries to collect those peculiar twists on history in a way that is much warmer and largely lacking a thesis as a similar book we reviewed last year, the Devil Snake Curve.  In that work, baseball was used to illustrate the darker side of the game and how, coincidentally or not, it reflected American society.  In this work, the stated goal is to find those interesting and peculiar diamond-in-the-rough kind of stories that are tinged with colorful nostalgia.  Outsider Baseball fills one with the sense of the great wonder and bootstrap style American tales.

Of course, the focus is squarely placed on the narratives and less so on fine tuning the true reality of the sport.  Baltimore fans would find the story about Steve Dalkowski as quite familiar.  For the unknowing, Dalkowski is a storied figure in baseball for his absurd fastball and his absurd lack of control.  Accolades of his velocity were preached by such illuninaries as Pat Gillick, a former teammate, and Ted Williams, a Spring Training opponent.  After throwing a good hundred warm up pitches or so, the Orioles supposedly used a wind tunnel to measure his velocity with that tunnel set up at home plate.  It measured his fastball in the mid-90s, which means, using today's radar guns, a velocity out of the hand around 110.  An Aroldis Chapman without control.  Eventually, injury and alcohol destroyed his career and severely impaired the rest of his life.

There is an amazing story there and elements have been visited for movies like Bull Durham and The Rookie.  However, some of the stories are impossible.  In the book, it mentions Dalko's fastball as sinking and then rising due to the effect of his velocity.  This is not true.  Basically, it comes down to the Magnus effect.  The velocity in conjunction with the seams on a four seam fastball work together to provide an upward force.  This force does not cause the ball to rise, but for it to sink less rapidly.  An individual who is highly experienced in observing the trajectory of a baseball might confuse the less rapid descent as the ball lifting upward when it clearly is not.

The book though is able to outpace little missteps like this because stories are not exactly about reality, but of a misty remembered reality contributing to an emotional truth that fleshes out the kernels of fact.  The core of the short stories and nearly all of the trappings are amazingly well-researched and accurate.  It makes a great companion for an avid baseball fan who needs to find something to mention for the moments of needed small talk between innings or during a pitching change.

The League of Outsider Baseball
by Gary Cieradkowski
240 pages, Touchstone

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