Not every great ballplayer plied their trade in an MLB ballpark, as you’ll see in Jesse Goldberg-Strassler’s review of Scott Simkus’s noteworthy new book, Outsider Baseball.
Within Scott Simkus’s Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876–1950, there are two books volleying back and forth. The first book introduces a formula, STARS, to determine the true measure of a league, be it the American League, the Eastern League, or the Negro National League. From this formula, Simkus judges the best minor league, negro league, and renegade league teams, calculating how they stack up against each other and against their contemporary Major League teams. It’s highly analytical, aimed to start (and then end) a great deal of erudite conversations. The second book is a cockeyed history of baseball like you’ve never read before.
According to my own formula: Take the first book as you like, and see if STARS wins you over. It’s the second book that is the real winner.
In Outsider Baseball, the insiders are the Major Leagues themselves. The outsiders are everyone else, from the color-barred to the blackballed, and this is their history. Forget Babe Ruth, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and Joe DiMaggio. Scott Simkus is more concerned with the frolics and abuses of Rube Waddell, the almost-breaking of the color bar by Charlie “Tokohama” Grant, and the merits (and demerits) of Jackie Mitchell, who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig while pitching for the Chattanooga Lookouts.
Mitchell’s chapter exemplifies some of Simkus’s best work, combining exhaustive research with biting honesty. (In his worst moments, certain sentences and sections are written with noir voice or clear 1940s radio dramatic organ! in mind.) That same tone is applied to examinations of the the traveling Bloomer Girls, featuring bewigged males whose names you’d recognize, the bearded House of David touring teams, and Cuba’s finest. After pouring through hundreds upon hundreds of exhibition games, the results are here, reading in baseball’s familiar standings format, and thus revealing how successful these teams really were. The House of David boasted of beating “75% of their opponents,” but did they?
Each historical chapter uncovers even curiouser facts and moments. “Tesreau’s Bears” tells of the Giants’ spitballing ace Jeff Tesreau, who quit John McGraw’s outfit in the prime of his career to start up his own semipro team. Imagine if the likes of Felix Hernandez up and quit the Seattle Mariners in favor of buying and running his own club, which then challenged all comers from across the country. Then there’s the “Stranger Than Fikkktion” chapter, which opens with the Ku Klux Klan’s baseball team, whose outings (including against the “Hebrew Stars”!) were recapped in the Washington Post, and later proceeds into a profile of the “Kanaka Korker,” Barney Joy, who was nearly the first Pacific Islander to reach the big leagues.
Such is the delight of the research that went into Outsider Baseball. I dare say that Simkus’s historian license is reaching fantastic heights, with this book following on the heels of his work on the Negro League Database.
If history was solely the book’s focus, it would be an unqualified success in baseball research. But Scott Simkus’s STARS system is at Outsider Baseball’s heart and thus requires examining, considering how large of a percentage of the book is devoted to using it as chief measurement tool. STARS stands for Service Time, Age, Rating System. To sum up without revealing the entire formula, the system values length of career, quality of career, and proximity to a player’s prime for the upper echelon of a team’s roster. In order to justify this formula, Simkus offers a series of rhetorical questions, including “Do most (but not all) of the best baseball players make it to the major leagues?” Amount of MLB service time figures significantly in determining a STARS score.
The book, though, starts off with a pertinent quote from Bill James, whom, I would guess from his mentions within Outsider Baseball, Scott Simkus admires greatly. (I agree.) “For one thing,” James is quoted as writing at billjamesonline.com, “it is absolutely amazing how many minor league organizations in that era (1900-1920) didn’t know a baseball player from an opera singer.” After giving examples to justify this point, he concludes, “These people didn’t have a clue what they were doing — and because they didn’t, many of the best players in baseball players out their careers in the minors, while players had substantial major league careers just basically because they were in the right place at the right time.”
Upon reading this quote, I suspect James would not have answered “Yes” to Simkus’s aforementioned rhetorical question. Most of the best baseball players in the minors did not make it to the majors in those first two decades of the twentieth century, and thus my opinion of the merits of the STARS system is cast into reasonable doubt.
Thankfully, the backbone of Outsider Baseball is in its outsiders, the majority of whom never did reach the majors, and here the Simkus’s work serves as a worthy addition to any baseball trivia lover’s collection.
Jesse Goldberg-Strassler is the voice of the Lansing Lugnuts and the author of The Baseball Thesaurus, now available in a second edition at augustpublications.com.
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