Review by David Steinberg

Summertime goes with ice cream and picnics … and baseball. Here’s a baseball book the whole family can enjoy.

“The League of Outsider Baseball” by Gary Cieradkowski (Touchstone) has my vote for the most informative – and  most entertaining – baseball book of the year. It rates that high because of Cieradkowski’s investigation into his subject and his innovative illustrations.

The book’s subtitle, “An Illustrated History of Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes,” is somewhat misleading. Because stepping up to the plate on its pages are players heroic and infamous. And still others who fall into other categories. The book’s press release hits it on the head: “….the stars on the rise, the comebacks, the could-have-beens. Oddballs and outcasts. Mysteries and misadventures. Brawlers and blowers. Bush leaguers and barnstormers.”

The heroes include Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig, Sandy Koufax, Willy Mays, Roberto Clemente and Walter Johnson. Those are names baseball fans know but the vignettes – in deed, this is a book of vignettes – tell less well-known slices of their lives. Example: Jackie Robinson led his Montreal Royals team to victory in the 1946 Little World Series. Example: When the Dodgers brought up Sandy Koufax to the team, it demoted a pitcher named Tommy Lasorda, who has his own page in the book. Example: Lou Gehrig played semi-pro ball under assumed names so he wouldn’t be disqualifed for college baseball.

There are many more heroes in the book who are obscure. Like Lucas Juarez, Pancho Coimbre, Joe “Bullet” Rogan, Eiji Sawamura and Wu Ming-Chieh.

Juarez, nicknamed “El Indio,” was a pitcher and a catcher who began playing professionally in Mexico in about 1900. Juarez also hit for power and was fast on the base paths. He was one of the first to be inducted in the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame.

Coimbre was an early baseball star in Puerto Rico. At the age of 17 he turned pro in 1926.

Rogan was a pitcher who with five army buddies formed the nucleus of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League.

Sawamura was a Japanese high school student who struck out Babe Ruth when he played for a visiting American all-star team. Ten years later Sawamura died when an American submarine torpedoed the hull of a Japanese troop ship that he was on.

Wu was the star pitcher and cleanup hitter on a 1931 team that made baseball  the national sport of Taiwan.

And what about the infamous? Plenty. You’ll find the Chicago Black Sox of 1919 here, of course.

The could-have-beens? Take Monty Stratton, who tripped while rabbit hunting after the 1938 season. His pistol went off, blew a hole in a leg, severing an artery. Left with a wooden leg and a life without baseball.

Willard Hershberger was a  terrific catcher but after his father’s suicide he was never the same. A member of the 1940 Cincinnati Reds, Willard committed suicide halfway through the season that saw his team win the World Series.

Author/illustrator Cieradkowski, born and raised in Jersey City, N.J., said in a phone interview that he was always interested in baseball (a Mets fan) and was always an artist.

The book had its origins in his blog. “That went on for a couple of years. People suggested I turn it into a book. I didn’t have time to take off work to write a book,” he said.

Then a literary agent also suggested a book. Cieradkowski met with him, then put together a proposal. “Two days later Simon & Schuster called. It was luck. …They trusted me to do what I wanted with the book,” he said.

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