The book: “The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes”
The author: Gary Cieradkowski
The illustrator: Gary Cieradkowski
The vital statistics: Touchstone/Simon & Shuster, 233 pages, $25
Find it: At Amazon.com, at BarnesandNoble.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com
The pitch: There’s nothing quite like seeing a creation by Gary Cierad-
For those of us who have known his distinctive art work on the Infinite Card set blog since 2010, a detour from his amazing graphic arts company once located in Long Beach, and then maybe saw his magazine called “21: Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball,” the arrival of this book is Opening Day all over again.
We have, in fact, saved it as the best for last in this annual series.
Credit MLB historian John Thorn for nailing it as far as what Cierad-
kowski’s art most resembles – he says it reminds him of the “poster kings of yore – Edward Penfield, J.C. Leyendecker, Fred G. Cooper.”
Can you picture that? Google it instead.
The story behind how Cieradkowski even set out to design these cards, shaped like the old vertical tobacco inserts that frame this mental journey even more profoundly, and now having these stories attached to them, can be traced back to the 1970s. Growing up a Mets fan, he got into frequent baseball history discussions with his late father, a Brooklyn Dodgers die-hard devotee. They took a page from historian Scott Simkus and became immersed in those who were on the fringe – Negro Leaguers, town team players, players stuck in the low minors, those overseas who became legends.
And even the guys who couldn’t handle the pressure.
Those who have been part of his blogging resume over the years have finally gotten on the same page. Or, at least within the same covers.
These are stories that are not just rehashed, but revived, as Cieradkowski uses his magic pen and imagination in some kind of time warped creation.
They are divided up into “Bush Leaguers,” “Could-Have-Beens,” “International Game” players, “Bad Guys,” heroes of the “People’s Game,” the “Race Game” participants, and “Odd Balls.”
They are, for all intents and purposes, us.
“The main reason for this book’s existence,” Cieradkowski writes, “is fun. … Today it’s easy to get distracted by the petty controversies, salary disputes and silly correctness that sometimes take precedence over the game itself. Writing these stories and drawing the illustrations make me remember what the game was all about for me and my dad.”
So there’s Sandy Koufax, in a University of Cincinnati uniform, with the story of how he went to the school for one season before the Brooklyn Dodgers scooped him up. What would Koufax have looked like? Cieradkowski admits he has no photographs of the players when he creates them, just what’s in his mind.
There’s Tommy Lasorda, pitching for the L.A. Angels, and Jackie Robinson, getting ready to play a game for the Montreal Royals at Jersey City Roosevelt Stadium.
Steve Dalkowski, throwing through a tire at the Baltimore Orioles’ training camp, wondering where the hell the ball was going.
Eiji Sawamura, Japan’s greatest baseball player, lost during World War II. He gets a six-page retrospective.
There’s ol’ Bill Rumler, who supposedly took a bribe to throw a Pacific Coast League game in 1919. He returned from a banishment with the Hollywood Sheiks some 10 years later, hit .386 as a 38 year old.
What would Fidel Castro, Dwight Eisenhower and John Dillinger look like with baseball uniforms? Here’s a glimpse.
Who the heck is Eddie Klep? A white player who actually integrated the Negro Leagues in 1946.
Kitty Burke, a nightclub singer who in 1935 demanded, and got, to step in the batters box and take a cut with the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field against the St. Louis Cardinals in one of the first night games played. She’s depicted as only Cieradkowski could imagine that happening.
At this point, we’re really just filling space, to give us more opportunity to drop in more photos from the book, and from Cieradkowski’s portfolio.
One-of-a-kind portraits, outlined in thick black ink, with a stark shadowing effect, and an intelligent choice of intense coloring. Add to that a colorful description of the person as well as Cieradkowski proves he can match things up very well with the writing process involved. The SABR member could have easily found someone else to do the text for him and stuck by his specialty, and that might have been fine. But this total package makes the reader feel like an insider.
Now, the secret’s out. For Cieradkowski, living in Kentucky and maybe better known professionally (and by pop art experts) by what he’s done for Folgers Coffee cans, Bicycle playing cards and Oriole Park graphics, creating a sequel to this book might be asking for too much.
But we will anyway.
More to know:
== Update on May 2: A Q-and-A with Cieradkowski with NPR’s Scott Simon
== From a review of the book in today’s Chicago Tribune by L.A.-based writer David Davis: “What began as a form of therapy has become this season’s most beguiling and idiosyncratic book … That sense of ‘Field of Dreams’ timelessness pervades his portraiture. On his blog, the ballplayers are depicted as if they were on tobacco cards, circa 1910. Thankfully, Cieradkowski has expanded beyond that rubric in the book by mixing in colorful, full-page illustrations.”
== From a story about Cieradkowski that appeared in the Sports Collectors Digest in 2014: “Cieradkowski plucks his flowers from the entire baseball garden, so that the Infinite Baseball Card Set contains cards of players and personages as diverse as Japanese Hall of Fame pitcher and Russian native Victor Starfin, Negro League pitcher and murderer Lefty Brown, handicapped Federal League player Fred “Humpty” Badel, fictional Cheers television character Sam “Mayday” Malone, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Joseph Styborski, the mysterious man in the 1927 New York Yankees team photo . . . unidentified for years who turned out to be a batting practice pitcher who’d recently graduated from Penn State University.
“If some of the players on Cieradkowski’s art cards seem a bit obscure, half the fun in collecting the cards is learning the players’ stories, which are presented in brief on the card backs and in detail on the blog. Discovering such players and researching their stories is also a large part of what drives Cieradkowski, as the educational value of The Infinite Baseball Card Set is unequalled in the hobby.”