Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Outsider Baseball is way more interesting than MLB

Posted By on 04.08.14 at 11:05 AM

The 1934 Pittsburgh Crawfords, including Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Oscar Charleston. Were they the greatest team of all time?
  • The 1934 Pittsburgh Crawfords, including Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Oscar Charleston. Were they the greatest team of all time?
Part of the romance of baseball is that there's been so much room for tall tales to develop. Unlike pro basketball or football, which have always been carefully controlled and monitored by their leagues, pro baseball grew up in a time before film or even action photography, and before careful record-keeping, when the only proof that things actually happened was eyewitness accounts. And, as the Russian proverb says, nobody lies like an eyewitness.

Besides, some things you'd just rather believe. Like that both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, barnstorming in Tennessee, got struck out by a 17-year-old girl named Jackie Mitchell. Or that Cool Papa Bell was so fast, he could run the bases in 12 seconds flat. (It's also said that he once slapped a ground ball up the middle that hit him in the ass as he slid into second base.) Or that the 1934 Pittsburgh Crawfords, a Negro League team, were even better than the 1927 Yankees.

Scott Simkus's new book, Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950, is a good news/bad news sort of deal. Simkus has done exhaustive research in old newspaper archives and uncovered enough proof to debunk some of these tall tales. Ruth and Gehrig most likely allowed themselves to take three strikes from Jackie Mitchell because it was a barnstorming exhibition game and they were there to put on a show. Bell's fastest recorded time rounding the bases was 13.6 seconds. And the '34 Crawfords were probably not better than the '27 Yankees, even with statistics adjusted to reflect the differences between MLB and the Negro Leagues.

But the good news is, Simkus has dug up some true stories that are even better than the tall tales.

outsider_baseball.jpg
  • Chicago Review Press
Probably the best is the saga of the House of David, a religious cult based in Benton Harbor, Michigan, that sponsored a group of baseball teams that barnstormed across America, playing locals and major leaguers alike, all while sporting long beards. It turns out they weren't as good as they were hyped to be, but they really did wear beards, and after the House of David cult itself became embroiled in a sex scandal (although members were supposed to be celibate, the leader took it upon himself to deflower every young girl in the compound), the baseball teams drew more fans than ever.

But there were also the Bloomer Girls, a barnstorming league comprised of both women and men in drag, including future MLB Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. And the Chicago City League, led by the Logan Squares. (If the Logan Squares still existed, they could play the Brooklyn Bushwicks in a Hipster World Series.) There was the 1926 contest between the Ku Klux Klan baseball team and the Hebrew Stars of Washington, DC. (The Klan won.) There was Jimmy Clinton, a great semipro pitcher who declined to try for a career in the major leagues because he preferred his steady and lucrative day job as an insurance salesman.

And, of course, there were the Negro Leagues. Not all of them were great, Simkus finds. But their best teams could have held their own with the best of the majors.

Scott Simkus
  • Joyce Simkus
  • Scott Simkus
How does Simkus know this? Because he has come up with his own system for comparing teams across time, the STARS system. It stands for Service Time, Age, Rating System, and it's a complicated thing. Simkus calculates the individual STARS scores for each of the top 17 men on each team's roster, which is based on several factors, including the number of years he played and whether he made it to the Hall of Fame. (There are additional, unspecified modifications for players who spent their whole careers in the Negro Leagues.) Then he averages the STARS scores for each team, or league, or whatever, and voila! An impartial means of comparing the 1927 Yankees (STARS score 391) and the 1934 Pittsburgh Crawfords (362).

The STARS system is an interesting idea, even though I'm not quite sure I understand it completely. (To be fair, Simkus admits that the explanation he has here does not begin to do the system justice, but a full description would require a whole other book.) Fortunately, Simkus doesn't bombard his readers with too many statistics; instead he hits the sweet spot between stories and numbers. His tone is slightly pedantic, but in the style of your favorite high school teacher. And the amount of research he's done—not to mention his number-crunching—is heroic. Just for that, Outsider Baseball deserves to be read by every baseball history junkie. It's far more worthy than another sentimental paean to Wrigley Field.

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