Monday, March 3, 2014

Q&A With Scott Simkus, Author of Outsider Baseball

Scott Simkus has a fantastic new book out called Outsider Baseball. I recommend it to all people who like things that are good. Simkus has conducted a massive amount of research into baseball played outside the realm of "organized" ball, meaning anything that isn't MLB and their affiliated minor leagues. I asked Scott to do a Q&A, and here it be:

Congrats on finishing up a great book, one that obviously took a huge amount of time to research. When did you start doing the research, and when did you actually make it a goal to write the book?

          First off, thanks for the kind words, I really appreciate it. The origins are difficult to pin down. I mean, I read Only The Ball Was White by Robert Peterson back in 1982 or '83, and that was certainly part of the research, although I never would have realized it at the time. I was twelve years old. In the middle 1990s I began looking at microfilm, mostly sports stuff and family history and that was certainly part of the research as well. Learning how to navigate old newspapers.
          In the early 2000s, the internet was maturing and I noticed there were Strat-O-Matic baseball fans who were posting things online about wanting a Negro league set and the company would always respond in the negative. SOM, of course, is a baseball board game and computer simulation that has been around since the early 1960s. I loved the game as a kid and I realized with the new online portals, giving us access to thousands of historical newspapers, that it would be possible to compile a small set with credible statistical profiles and produce something in conjunction with the game company. So I called them and told them about my idea and they said no. And then I called them later with another pitch and they said maybe. And so I called them later on, and sent them a bunch of my material (taking a leap of faith) and they finally said yes. At that point, I'm not thinking about writing a book yet. I wanted to put together a database for a game company.
          After signing the contract with Strat, I had to collect Negro league box scores and I had to weed out a lot of games---a lot of the games published in the papers for the Homestead Grays, for instance, are NOT Negro league games. They were non-league games against white semipros, featuring stories about the Grays playing against the all-white Brooklyn Bushwicks, and the Jewish All-Stars, and the House of David. I stumbled across newspaper articles about these interesting teams from Japan and Hawaii touring the U.S. In the 1930s. And I was like, whoa, who are all THESE teams and why hasn't anybody written anything meaningful about them? And so it was during the research for Strat that I became interested in writing a book about independent professional baseball teams---of all colors. These teams and players are what I started to think of as “outsiders,” they're not part of the historical record but many of these teams were as good, or better than, Triple-A clubs.

One of my favorite chapters revolves around trying to estimate how many homers Josh Gibson may have hit. It's pretty clear he hit fewer than Ruth, but also in fewer games. Do you have an estimate of how their HR/AB rates compare?

          I love Josh Gibson. He was a beast, in the same way Babe Ruth was a beast. The most credible data for Gibson is at the seamheads.com web site, for his 1933-34 seasons. I did most of the 1933 research, Gary Ashwill helped finish it and he also compiled the entire 1934 season. Josh hit 26 home runs in 410 at bats, or one every 15.8 abs. On the other hand, in 1920/21, Babe Ruth hit 109 home runs in 998 at bats, or one every 9.16 abs. But it's not really apples-to-apples.
          Ruth was a dead pull hitter playing in the Polo Grounds at the time, which was incredibly cozy down the line. And then a couple years later, Yankee Stadium would also have an inviting right field line. Gibson, a right-handed batter, hit straight up the middle and towards the opposite field gap. I've plotted over one-hundred and fifty of his home runs, based on game accounts, and he rarely pulled the ball---he was mostly gap to gap, hitting monster shots to the deepest parts of the field. And he did this playing in mostly HUGE home parks during his entire career. He played in Forbes Field, Greenlee Field and Griffith Stadium. As amazing as Gibson was, most people don't realize he played most of his career in ballparks which were not friendly to his style of hitting. And yet: when all is said and done---Josh will be near the top of the Negro leagues in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, OPS+. Everything.  
          In my opinion, if the big leagues had been integrated, Gibson would have probably been moved to first base at some point and depending on which team he played for he would have challenged the home run records of Ruth, Foxx, Greenberg and Gehrig. He was just an outstanding overall hitter, like a cross between Rogers Hornsby and Jimmie Foxx. Just amazing.

Was there a favorite player, team, or story to research and write about?

         Hopefully this won't seem like a cop out: but at one time or another, every single chapter became my favorite and that's why its in the book. From the House of David to Buck Lai to the stories about fast balls, my adrenaline would rush when I realized I had something important to get down on paper and share with people. I get physically excited during the writing phase, pacing and laughing like a mad man in between tapping things on the keyboard, or digging into the papers to find connections between my various ideas. If you're not having fun writing, then you're probably not chasing the right muse.

I'm a little envious of your ability to make baseball history come alive on the page, as opposed to a stale recounting of research you've turned up. Any tips or insight on how to write history in such a lively way?

          Read lots and lots of fiction and steal liberally from the fiction writer's tool box. Look at how they construct paragraphs and chapters and entire books. Write a story or book that you'd be willing to pay your own money to read.
          My sense of what has occurred is baseball books have changed tremendously over the past seventy or eighty years. You used to have guys like Jimmy Powers and Russ Hodges publishing books intended for children. They were filled with funny, silly stories and when we go back to check the facts of these old dusty volumes, we discover 90% of the material is untrue or unverifiable. And we don't care, because they made us smile and they were true in that they captured the essence of players long gone, if not all the factual details.
          Instead of boozy journalists cranking out fun, folksy books for children, today we have tweedy, academics writing much of the baseball history. The books are written for adults, the scholarly techniques yield books which are footnoted, with innovative source material, and they are 90% accurate. And sadly, many of these book are nearly impossible to enjoy. The writing is shitty. The footnotes and commitment to scholarly standards sometimes sucks the soul out of the material. They become text books and nobody buys text books unless they're required to. And all that being said, my library is FILLED with academic style baseball books because they have much to offer, if one can get past the snore-inspiring composition style.
          With Outsider Baseball, I tried to combine the tools---using scholarly techniques for the research and tools I've learned from my favorite fiction writers. I didn't want to write a Jimmy Powers-style book, which would never get published in this day and age, and I certainly didn't want to put out a text book. I'm not sure how well I've pulled it off, but it's my first effort and I hope to write more books down the road.
         
You introduce your STARS system, a cool way for rating the relative talent level of any given teams and leagues. Have you gone through and done STARS rating for most leagues throughout history? (Personally, I'd especially love to see the full ratings for the Negro leagues and how they compare to the various levels of "organized" ball each year.)

          I've processed a number of seasons which do NOT appear in the book, but certainly not all of them. I have a long way to go. It's time-consuming. I want to dig deeper into the Negro leagues, of course, but one of the more interesting things STARS has already unraveled is the “truth” about the famous Baltimore Orioles of the early 1920s. This did not appear in the book. The Orioles were one of the greatest minor league teams of all-time. Led by Lefty Grove, they won multiple International League championships. Part of their domination was because they had an incredibly talented roster, yes, but STARS shows us part of their success was due to the fact that the International League was actually less-talented than the other two Double-A leagues at that time (American Association and Pacific Coast League). Significantly so. Double-A was the highest classification in the minors at the time and STARS suggests the International League was probably the least talented of the three. The Orioles won three of six minor league World Series. They were great, but we now know things about the context in which they performed.

The book proposes that historians and statisticians build a new Ultimate Baseball Database. (I'll leave it to the readers to find out what that would be.) Is this something you intend to spearhead yourself, or just an idea to throw out there?

          It's already happening and there's nothing you or I can do to stop it! Sean Forman has added blackball data and Japanese data at baseball-reference.com and I imagine his wonderful site will continue to grow, becoming more and more eclectic. If the idea gets legs, I'd like to serve in an advisory role, participating in discussions about how and why certain levels of baseball should be classified a certain way. I hope it takes off. I've spent thousands of hours in front of newspapers and would like for some of the younger SABR-types take a crack at their own tour of duty in front of papers. I could point people in the right direction and tell them what to look for. I know where the gold is hidden.

Am I crazy for thinking Bullet Rogan is one of the top 20 players of all time?

          No, you're not! Rogan was fantastic. It's funny, but over the past year or so, I've been collecting Bullet Rogan's games from Hawaii, from his time with the 25th Infantry ballclub. He was famous, a real hero, on the island, years before the Negro National League existed. I'm hungry to learn more about Rogan, try to pin down his place in history.

You can pick a concert lineup of three bands to see, past or present. Who ya got?

          Three bands is unfair. Off the top of my head, I'd have the Dave Matthews Band, the Beatles and NWA. The next week I'd want David Bowie, the Smiths, and Duke Ellington. After that: the Rolling Stones, Hank Williams Sr., George Gershwin.
          I mean, c'mon. I can't pick just three. I have a hugely eclectic musical taste, from Jazz to rap to rock and roll. I like a lot of the new stuff, too. Adele, Fitz and the Tantrums, Pink. I appreciate all these people for the talents they have. Listening to them makes my life better.
          When I was writing the book, I listened to popular music of the 1930s, when I was working on database type stuff.

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