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'Outsider Baseball': Tells Tales Of Obscure Baseball Characters


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Baseball history is stuffed with nicknames - The Babe, The Splendid Splinter, The Big Hurt, Derek Daffy, Hammerin' Hank, Leo the Lip, El Duque, and lots and lots of Dutches, Reds, and Peewees. But Gary Cieradkowski, a noted artist, illustrator and baseball historian, has written and illustrated a book about baseball players and stories that are often overlooked and unheralded. "The League of Outsider Baseball" - an illustrated history of baseball's forgotten heroes. And Gary Cieradkowski - who's done previous books on baseball cards and has designed playing cards and coffee cans and parts of Oriole Park at Camden Yards - joins us now from the studios of WVXU in Cincinnati. Thanks so much for being with us.

GARY CIERADKOWSKI: Thanks for having me on.

SIMON: You have a section here that really makes you reflect on life - the could-have-beens, if you please - players who were on their way to becoming heroes when something happens.

CIERADKOWSKI: Right, I got the love of that from my grandfather. He was a Brooklyn Dodger fan going all the way back to the 1930s. And when I was a kid, I was a Mets fan, and this is in the late '70s or early '80s. There really wasn't a lot of good things to talk about when you're a Mets fan. So I would sit on the porch with my grandfather, and he would start talking to me about the old Brooklyn Dodgers. And, you know, he'd talk about people like Dazzy Vance and Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson, but then he'd start talking about a guy named Pete Reiser. Pete played in the early 1940s. And he would get this glazed look in his eye - this sad, faraway look - when he would tell about Pete Reiser. And he would say that he was probably the best ballplayer that ever played. And I was fairly well-read as a kid on baseball history, but I had never heard of Pete Reiser. So it made me get into baseball history and try to find those players that had an interesting story, which led me to find out what had happened to Pete Reiser and his career.

SIMON: There are people who will tell you that Pete Reiser was the best of all time, except for the fact he kept running into walls.

CIERADKOWSKI: He is credited with having five outfield collisions, and 11 times he was carried away off the field on a stretcher. Nine of those times he was unconscious. And today, he's the reason why Major League Baseball has padded outfield walls.

SIMON: Another name that has been lost to history - Steve Dalkowski.

CIERADKOWSKI: Yeah. They say that he's the fastest pitcher there ever was. It's just he really couldn't find home plate. I mean, some of the stories you learn about this guy, it reads like fiction. When he was - I think this is around 1960. He's pitching in the minor leagues, and he pitched so fast he ripped the man's ear off.



SIMON: And Steve Dalkowski didn't make it to the Hall of Fame because...

CIERADKOWSKI: He just couldn't find home plate. And eventually, one of his minor league managers found some way to just simplify pitching for Dalkowski - just throw strikes, just throw strikes. So it all came together for him in the spring of 1963 after about four or five years of trying to get to the major leagues. And he finally makes the Orioles's roster. They fit him for a set of uniforms. Topps baseball cards comes around, takes his picture, makes it on a rookie card in the 1963 set, but by the time the cards hit the shelf, he was nowhere to be seen. In the final game before the season started, he's playing the Yankees and something popped in his arm, and that was it.

SIMON: Boy. And you have a personal friend - Leon Day - similar story about the capriciousness of fate, I guess.

CIERADKOWSKI: Yeah. He played in the Negro leagues. But they had just as stiff competition as the major leagues back then. And for a time before World War II, he was just as good as Satchel Paige, people say, or sometimes say even better. And I met him when I was going to art school in Baltimore. And I didn't understand how great a player he was 'cause he was so soft spoken and all he would do - I'd sit for hours with him in his house and he would just talk about all these great players that he had played against. And I started going to newspaper archives and, you know, you read the contemporary accounts and then you talk to some of the old players that had played with him or against him, and they're saying that this guy was just phenomenal. He actually wound up getting elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. And unfortunately, he was in the hospital at the time. And he passed away a few days after he was notified that he was a Hall of Famer, which is bittersweet, but it's great that he was able to go knowing that.

SIMON: Yeah. I have to ask you a question this week. As I understand it, you designed some of the elements of Oriole Park at Camden yards.


SIMON: And of course we speak this week on a week in which the city of Baltimore has been undergoing a lot of restiveness, including injuries and arrests. What do you make of the fact that you've got Wednesday's ballgame played at Camden Yards, but no audience?

CIERADKOWSKI: I think that's a shame. Much like how after 9/11 I didn't think they should've called the ballgames off, I thought they should still have baseball being played. I think baseball helps people heal. It changes things. Look at Jackie Robinson, what that did for the civil rights movement. I can speak for my family when they came over from Poland at the turn-of-the-century. They combined with other immigrant kids and they all learned baseball because that was one thing that brought everybody together.

SIMON: Gary Cieradkowski - his new book, "The League of Outsider Baseball." Thanks so much for being with us.

CIERADKOWSKI: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.