There has been a tsunami of baseball books released this spring, but the most beautiful and entertaining is Gary Cieradkowski's "The League of Outsider Baseball," published this month.
Cieradkowski is an immensely talented graphic artist (he designed the clock at Camden Yards while in college) who regularly creates baseball cards for his website infinitecardset.com, which I wrote about a couple years ago. An enormous fan, he uses the cards to tell the tales of ballplayers both famous (Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax) and virtually unknown (Eddie Klep and Farmer Dean). The best of these are collected in his new book.
In addition to the colorful cards that brim with life, the book is filled with gorgeous illustrations of players. Jackie Robinson kneeling before a scoreboard. Ducky Medwick sitting in a dugout holding up a candy bar that bears his name. Willard Hershberger (a Reds catcher who committed suicide) standing forlornly in front of an outfield fence. The illustrations are so dazzling they should be hanging on a museum wall.
And the accompanying stories often are just as powerful.
While Cieradkowski tells fascinating and little known back stories of famous players, the most intriguing tales are those of players who never reached the majors and are virtually unknown to even the most devout historians.
Among the many interesting stories is a spread on the Stanczak Brothers semi-pro team, 10 Polish immigrant siblings in the Chicago area ranging from age 15 to 33 during their heyday. Among these brothers was Mike, a second baseman and Catholic priest. They traveled extensively, beating teams and every band of brothers who challenged them. Among those opponents were the Deikes brothers of Fredericksburg, Texas, a team that included one non-sibling ringer -- future president Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Johnson isn't the only president featured in the book. Cieradkowski also highlights the George H.W. Bush, who played for Yale in the first College World Series as well as Dwight Eisenhower, who quite possibly played minor league ball in Kansas under the name "Wilson" in order to raise tuition money to attend West Point.
Eisenhower is featured across the page from Fidel Castro, whose legendary baseball talent is revealed to be much more legend than reality.
Bush, Ike and Castro are part of a fun section on unlikely ballplayers, including Frank Sinatra, who formed a team called the Swooners that included Nat King Cole and Anthony Quinn. Authors Stephen Crane ("The Red Badge of Courage") and Jack Kerouac (who created his own fantasy league game) also get their own cards, as does John Dillinger.
Other featured players include Arnold Preedin, who played on the Moscow Foreign Workers Club after his parents moved the family to the Soviet Union in the 1920s. That team, and others with American emigrants, started a Russian interest in baseball, an interest that ended abruptly after the Soviet secret police killed them.
Character and stories such as these would not only make great 30 For 30 documentaries; they would make wonderful feature-length movies. But they definitely make for a book as eye-popping and fascinating as a full major league season. "The League of Outsider Baseball" is not only a perfect graduation or Father's Day present; you should buy it for yourself as well to page through and while away the summer in sublime fashion.