Baseball Books Reviewed: Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950

OUTSIDER BASEBALL: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950  by Scott Simkus. (Chicago Review Press, xxx pg., $29.99). HB, 2014.

Outsider Baseball
     Did you know that Art Superman Pennington played ten of his 15 professional seasons for the Chicago American Giants in the Negro American League, and the remainder in Mexico, Venezuela and Cuba? Did you know he batted over .300 on 9 occasions? Or that he hit a home run off Dizzy Dean and struck out against Satchel Paige? And, in 1959, in the minors leagues, he beat 1959 AL batting champ Harvey Kuenn by 9 points for the batting title
     Scott Simkus knowsthat and much much more about the careers of Negro Leaguers. Simkus helped compile the data upon which the historic 2009 Strat-O-Matic Negro League baseball card set is based. Thousands upon thousands of stats from the Negro Leagues that had never been collected, compiled or analyzed before suddenly became available through the efforts of Simkus and others employed by the Strat-O-Matic game company. Scott was also one of the principal researchers on the Seamheads Negro League Database, which puts him dead center in the efforts over the last decade and a half to recover lost data and records from the Negro Leagues.
     If you’ve never heard of Superman Pennington, join the club. Even the folks at baseball-ref.com don’t seem to know half of what Scott Simkus knows about Superman or many of the other marginalized ballplayers who are the focus of Simkus’ book, Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950. Scott has amazing things to reveal to us about the game we love—a game we thought we were pretty knowledgable about, until now.
     Outsider Baseball is not just about Negro League players. The book brings to light the careers of a host of baseball “outsiders,” players who, for a variety of reasons, never played in the American major leagues and whose remarkable careers have never gotten the attention they deserve. Simkus identifies three groups of players whose records are missing or have been neglected: the Negro Leagues, the Minor Leagues, and the Independent Pro and Semi-pro clubs playing professional-level baseball all across this country until the hegemony of the MLB was secured in the late 50s.
     Of those groups, the one we’ve heard most about is, of course, the Negro Leagues. Most of what we know about the Negro Leagues is a result of the wave of integration that swelled across the major leagues starting in 1947. Once the color barrier was broken, an army of talented black players stormed the citadel of what we now call the MLB.
     Because Robinson, Doby, Irvin, Minoso, Banks, Campanella, Newcombe, Howard, Thompson, Jethro, Mays, Aaron, etc., etc., were so damned talented, and so successful in the big leagues, the world has been made aware of the tremendous talents playing in that parallel baseball universe called the Negro Leagues. The research of Simkus and his colleagues gives us access not just to the reputations, rumors and legends surrounding those players, but more importantly, to the statistics and records upon which those legends were built. Simkus et. al. have filled in the history of the Negro Leagues prior to integration of the majors—a history that was more gap than data—and in so doing they’ve resurrected names and careers that were nearly lost to us, like Superman Pennington. Ironically, the very integration of the big leagues that brought attention to the talent in the Negro Leagues also brought about the demise of the Negro Leagues—and the destruction or loss of most of the records the Negro League teams kept.
     Simkus, among others, has devoted the last decade to finding those records and restoring them. And, in what will perhaps be his most noteworthy gift to the baseball world, Simkus has devised a method of comparing statistical accomplishments across decades and between leagues and levels of organized ball, even when the box score records are spotty. He calls it STARS, which stands for the Service Time and Age Ratings System, and it determines values for a player’s length of career, the quality of that career, and proximity to the player’s prime years. The result is a score that allows us to compare different teams, different leagues, different eras and even different levels of competition.
     For example, to compare the quality of play in the 3 professional leagues of 1890 (the National League, the American Association, and the Players League), the STARS system calculates the value of significant players (excluding bench warmers), awarding points based on each player’s age (more points for being 28, the average peak season for ball players), their years of major league service, and whether they eventually made it into the Hall of Fame. Players’ scores are combined to determine a team’s score, those scores added together for each league, and the total divided by the number of teams in the league to determine a single STARS score for each professional league. In 1890, the National League had a score of 274, the American Association 226, and the surprising Players League 299.
     The ballplayers who in 1899 secretly formed a players’ union and, a year later, a separate professional baseball league (the Players League) were apparently the most talented of the three professional leagues that year. It’s a surprising revelation because a year later, the Players League collapsed under financial pressure from the National League. And a year after that, the American Association went bankrupt, completing the hegemony of the National League, which crushed every other upstart league to challenge its monopoly over major league baseball except one, Ben Johnson’s American League. Unable to bankrupt the American League, the National League simply sucked into its own orbit, creating what we would eventually call the MLB.
     Simkus uses STARS’ comparative scores to tell this fascinating tale, and conjecture on what the 3-way World Series proposed by the Players League at the end of the 1890 season might have been like with 3 such competitive leagues. It’s a fascinating story, one of dozens Simkus uses his data to tell, and it demonstrates how useful a tool STARS can be.
     But Outsider Baseball is also a public rendering of the accomplishments of players in leagues rarely studied before: the minor leaguers and semi-pro players in the second and third groups Simkus researched.
     For the first half of the 20th C., baseball’s minor leagues were not organized into the tightly controlled farm systems we now take for granted. Minor leagues competed with one another for decades, springing up when entrepreneurs saw money-making potential and disappearing just as suddenly when those hopes were dashed or when leagues crowded each other out of the market. Teams came and went, leagues came and went, and the records of many minor leaguers were either lost or overlooked. Many of the most talented players in those pre-1950 minor leagues never played in the majors, and if you didn’t play in the majors, chances were your accomplishments were ignored or lost.
     Have you heard of the Minneapolis Millers (Bill James’ choice for best minor league team) or the Denver Grizzlies? The Millers won the American Association pennant in 1911 with a 99-66 record. The Grizzlies ran away with the Western League crown that same year, winning 111 games while losing only 54. How do minor league teams of that caliber measure up against the major league teams of the same era? Simkus uses his STARS system to compare the talent on the rosters of those two hugely successful minor league teams with the major league clubs of the same year. The 1911 major league teams’ STARS scores ranged from 292 to 377. The Minneapolis Millers fell exactly in the middle, 339, suggesting they would have been competitive with the majors. The Grizzlies, however, could muster a STARS score of only 166, in spite of their impressive win total, suggesting the league they played in was not of major league caliber. Simkus speculates that the Grizzlies would have had a hard time avoiding last place in the American Association in 1911.
     What does all this tell us? It gives us a way to compare relative strengths of ball clubs in different leagues. It tells us that the American Association of 1911 was playing baseball at a level similar to the major leagues. And it makes clear that the Western League was a minor league of a much lower level than the American Association. All of which gives us a useful measuring stick for evaluating the careers of players like Luis Padron, star outfielder/third baseman in the Cuban and Negro Leagues who also played for several integrated minor league teams in the Chicago City League. In spite of the fact that Padron, who had a career batting average of .299, was courted by two major league teams, he is largely forgotten. Why? Because when the Chicago White Sox and Boston Braves tried to sign him, it was revealed that one of his parents was black. Simkus’ research resurrects careers like Padron's and gives us a way of comparing talents that shined only in the minor leagues against those whose records are preserved in the MLB.
     Scott Simkus reminds us that in its early years, the National League battled to maintain supremacy over a host of competitive leagues: the National Association, American Association, Players’ League, Federal League, Union Association, and the American League itself, prior to the deal that established it as the second major league. All of those competing leagues, except the American League, have been officially designated minor leagues, and the batting and pitching records of players who spent their entire careers in these “outsider” leagues have never been part of the records of organized baseball.
     Simkus makes a strong case for including these outsider leagues in the official records and, in turn, recognizing that some of those leagues were competing at the same level as the National League, according to STARS.
     Even more egregious than the gaps in the professional records (major and minor) is the dearth of data available about the Independent and Semipro teams until late in the 20th C. Players like Buck Lai, Eddie Gerner, and Jimmy Clinton are overlooked, forgotten, or ignored because their record is incomplete. Arguably, all of them performed at a professional, even major league level.
     According to Simkus, Clinton was a legend in New York before 1950: “Sportswriters at the time wondered what he might have accomplished in the big leagues had he had the inclination to give it a try.” But Clinton had a lucrative bank job that kept him in NY playing for the Jersey City Club, an independent professional baseball team which, in 1917, played against and beat the New York Giants, Boston Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds. Clinton was the ace of the club, registering 2 wins against major league teams in 1916 and 4 more the following season. In 1925 he defeated a group of major league all-stars that included Babe Ruth. In 1959 he was elected to the semipro Hall of Fame, but the question remains: how good was he? As good as some of the great career minor leaguers? Or good enough to be compared to the major leaguers of the era? With the help of STARS, Simkus tries to answer that question. And the pursuit leads to some amazing discoveries about the connections between independent, semipro teams and the major leagues before 1950.
     Fringe baseball, it turns out, has a fascinating history waiting to be written. Simkus has given us the first glimpses of what that history might look like, once we remove the blinding lens of MLB hegemony, and compare the records of career minor and semipro ball players. It is that history which Outsider Baseball uncovers after decades of obscurity. It remains an incomplete history, but Simkus’ book is a major step in rediscovering the talents and accomplishments of an entire class of ball players ignored and forgotten until now. This book will inspire further histories and fuel many a Hot Stove League debate.
     Outside Baseball is a great story, a collection of amazing, previously unknown statistics, and a first peak at a whole new universe of baseball.

Reviewed by: Bob Mayberry (May 27. 2014)

 

 

 

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