In Little League, I was a slow-moving, multilingual catcher from a Jewish family. So as I read Gary Joseph Cieradkowski’s “The League of Outsider Baseball,” I sought the most famous slow-moving, multilingual Jewish catcher ever: Moe Berg, who toured Japan with a 1934 All-Star team alongside Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig. Why? He spoke Japanese and charmed his hosts into letting him take panoramic photos of Tokyo – which came in handy during bombing runs years later.
Berg is in this fascinating book, along with a hundred other case studies: Guys with one arm or one leg, thugs who redeemed themselves on ballfields or missed and went back to crime (John Dillinger), people who were the Babe Ruth of Mexico or Japan or Cuba or the Negro Leagues, even the first white guy to integrate black baseball (Eddie Klep).
Cieradkowski’s work leaps into my top 5 nonfiction baseball books for three reasons. (The others are Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” Lawrence Ritter’s “The Glory of Their Times,” Christy Mathewson’s autobiography “Pitching in a Pinch” and Sadaharu Oh’s autobiography, “A Zen Way of Baseball.”)
First, he illustrates it himself with poignant, old-fashioned drawings of baseball cards. Second, he shows compassion toward everyone from Black Sox crooks to egomaniacs, yet he’s ready to debunk legends. (Fidel Castro barely missed a major-league career? The heck he did.)
Third, North Carolina plays a crucial role, from Ruth’s legendary home run in Fayetteville to Jim Thorpe’s semipro games in Rocky Mount, which later invalidated his Olympic gold medals. (Those were eventually restored.)
There’s even a section on Fayetteville’s “Moonlight” Graham, who played in exactly one game in the majors. You may know him as the brother of former U.S. Sen. Frank Porter Graham; baseball fans recognize him as a key character in the movie “Field of Dreams.”
The League of Outsider Baseball
Gary Joseph Cieradkowski
Simon and Schuster, 240 pages