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SSTN Interviews Author, Artist, and Baseball Historian Gary Cieradkowski

SSTN: Today we bring my interview with author, artist, and baseball historian Gary Cieradkowski.

Gary Joseph Cieradkowski is the artist and writer behind The Infinite Baseball Card Set blog. An award winning graphic artist and illustrator, chances are you have visited or bought something he designed: Bicycle Playing Cards, the music department of Barnes & Noble, the Folgers Coffee can, and the graphics for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, still regarded as the best designed ballpark in the Majors.

In addition to a successful career in design, Gary is also a published author, specializing in baseball history. His writing, art and research was recognized by the Baseball Reliquary in 2015 when he was named the recipient of the Tony Salin Award for Contributions to Baseball History, the highest honor a baseball writer, historian and researcher can receive. His book “The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes” was published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster and just this month he has released “21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball, Volume 2” which collects his best baseball research, writing and art from the past two years. Gary has been a guest on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday” to talk baseball with Peter Simon and continues to be a featured speaker at book festivals and libraries across the country. Growing up a New York Mets fan in the 1970s, Gary learned to live with pain and disappointment until he married his beautiful wife Andrea. The two live happily in Northern Kentucky, unless they discuss the merits of the designated hitter rule.

Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News. It is great to have this discussion with you.

You are welcome, Paul… I love your site and am very honored to be on it. Yankees fans are always portrayed as fair weather types who only like the team because they win so darn much. Reading Start Spreading the News you soon learn that is not the case with the real Yankees fans.

Thank you! I am glad you like our site.

To begin, please tell us how you became a baseball fan.

I really have no idea. I guess it was through my father and grandparents. There was always a ballgame on, whether on the radio or on TV. It was just always fascinating to me. Going to Shea Stadium or the old Yankee Stadium was an incredible experience, and each game left a lasting impression on me. The roar of the crowd, the smell of beer and cigar smoke. The crowded cheap seats and watching all those great players play, in real life, right in front of me. And since I was a Mets fan in the 1970s, there wasn’t much good to talk about, so my father and grandfathers would tell me about the history of the game and the players they saw. Through them I learned about the greats like Babe Ruth, Warren Spahn and Jackie Robinson, but also guys like Lefty Gomez, Babe Herman and Pete Reiser.

You and I share a fascination for some of baseball’s forgotten players. Please tell us about your book, The League of Outsider Baseball.

I wanted to make the book I always wanted to find on a bookshelf, but never did. To tell the stories my father and grandfathers told me. Inside my book I have a wide range of players from Hall of Famers before they were famous to one-game wonders and never were’s. I have Negro Leaguers and the first professional Japanese players. Mexican League stars Americans never got to see and semi-pros who could have been big league stars.

You know what I’m talking about, I’ve read your book, The Least Among Them.. Often the more unknown the player is, the better the story.

You have continued much of this work with the Infinite Baseball Card Set blog. Please tell us about that.

The blog actually came before my first book. What happened was in 2009 my father died unexpectedly. I was living in Hollywood at the time, and suddenly I had no one to share my fascination with baseball history and its unique players with. My dad and I talked several times a week about baseball. And now he was gone and so was my outlet for the stories I learned about. So one night I just started my own blog. I drew a baseball card of an obscure player and posted it. But it looked skimpy without explaining who the player was, so I wrote a story to go with it.

Next time I found myself missing my father I did another ballplayer drawing and story. Then another. Soon, I had people writing to ask for specific players. And suddenly it was pretty popular. But more importantly, I had connected with many others who were interested in the same obscure baseball history as my dad and I were. And the most rewarding part was that I had many fathers (and mothers) writing to say that they were able to use my drawings and stories to get their sons and daughters interested in the game. That really meant a lot to me, seeing as it was what brought my father and I together all those years before.

Please tell us about how you work as an artist began and how you were able to reach such prominence.

I had wanted to be an artist since I pulled a book on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster of a store shelf when I was 7 or 8. I didn’t know what that was, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do for a living.

I learned to draw kind of out of necessity. We didn’t have that much disposable income growing up, so I drew the toys I wanted. I loved toy cars, so I drew my own on cardboard and folded them into 3-D toys. I wanted baseball cards so I drew my own sets. Luckily, my parents let me pursue my talent and I went to art school in Baltimore. It was there that I happened upon the chance of a lifetime. Between my junior and senior year, I took my portfolio around to several Baltimore design studios to get a job. Just randomly showing up with no appointment. One door I knocked on was David Ashton and Company. The day before they landed the Oriole Park at Camden Yards job. No one there was really a baseball fan. My portfolio had tons of baseball projects in it. To say I was in the right place at the right time would be an understatement.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards is an amazing ballpark. Please tell us about the work you did there with designs, logos, and such.

I designed the scoreboard, the bird weathervanes, the usher uniforms, stadium logo – all the stuff that gave it a great feeling when you walked into it. I went about the job by trying to make everything look like it had always been there, like the ballpark you dreamed about come to life. I was 20 at the time, my first job. It made my entire career and I’m so grateful for that opportunity.

In your work uncovering some of baseball’s lesser-remembered players, please tell us about one or two that really captured your interest.

In my new book, “21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball, Volume 2” there’s a guy named Carl DeRose. In the years after WWII he was the Yankees best pitching prospect. He was a big, tall righthander with everything needed to make good in the majors. He was playing at Kansas City, at the time the Yanks top farm club, when he threw his arm out. Back before Tommy John surgery there really wasn’t any treatments. DeRose’s arm was so bad doctors told him to never pitch again. But instead of calling it quits, DeRose begged his manager to give him one final start. In that 1947 game, DeRose pitched a perfect game – I mean, you can’t make that stuff up!

I also love the little-known stories about the big players. Also in my book I write about Mickey Mantle’s difficult 1951 season. One thing I came across while researching was how the Yankees were targets of some insane fan abuse during that season. For instance pitcher Eddie Lopat had a cat thrown in his face in Cleveland and firecrackers were rained down on Yankees players in Comiskey Park. Mantle was going back for a catch against the White Sox when some guy threw a whiskey bottle at him, narrowly missing the kid’s head! It got so bad Stengel had to threaten to take his team off the field if the other AL teams didn’t reign in their fans. So besides Mantle having deal with the pressure of being the most highly-anticipated rookie in history, he also had to dodge bottles and fireworks while doing it. Stories like that really add another dimension to the stars you think you already know all about.

And that’s the kind of stories I like to tell.

Why, do you believe, are people so drawn to baseball and its stories, legends, and people?

I think it is because the game is a reflection of real life. There’s no clock, it ends when it ends. You are alone but also work together with many others. Sometimes the call goes against you even if you are right. It’s hard to learn the rules, and there’s always someone who’s better than you. But, on a good day, you can be a hero. And if you are not, there is always tomorrow. Growing up a Mets fan when they were really lousy taught me to never give up. It taught me loyalty and dedication. And 1986 it taught me the sweet feeling of finally winning. There’s no other game that can teach you all that.

And then there are the characters. I mean, take Babe Ruth. A forgotten kid from the streets of Baltimore who grew up to become the most famous man in America. And on the other hand you have someone like Pete Gray who overcame the loss of an arm to grow up and get 5 hits and 2 RBI in a doubleheader in Yankee Stadium.

My family came from Poland, and one of the ways they became Americans was by learning baseball. Once you learned that, you instantly had something in common with kids of all nationalities. You don’t get that through golf or tennis, do you?

There’s a lot of talk about baseball needing to be “fixed.” Is baseball broken? If you were the Commissioner of Baseball what change(s) if any would you make to the current game?

I say leave it alone!

Everything the powers that be try to do, they seem to screw up – it’s like they don’t even like the game. A recent example is when they tried to speed up the game by adding video reviews – how the heck does having a game delay while some guy in NYC reviews the play remotely? I mean, baseball is a game whose beauty lies in fallibility. Players make mistakes, and so do umps. It’s part of the game because it echoes life. If they want more accurate calls n plays, then get rid. Of umpires entirely and make it all robots and laser sensors or whatever. Taking the power of observation and trust away from umpires made them irrelevant and untrusted. If baseball should have been “fixed,” it should have been during the steroid era – then you wouldn’t have all those tainted records and stats. Also, umpires shouldn’t have allowed Barry Bonds to wear his armored arm sleeve during that period because pitchers lost the ability to intimidate him with inside pitches. So basically all he had to do was wait for a pitch he liked or received a base on balls. Imagine what stats players would have if everyone was allowed to wear armor plating on their arm!

In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?

I’m really drawn in the Yankees of the 1930s, especially the 1932-43 teams. I mean, those guys won five World Series’ and four straight – and the last two were sweeps! And this was at a time when the AL had half the number of teams there are today. And manager Joe McCarthy was the man behind it all.

I haven’t read a bio dedicated to just him, though I believe there is one out there. Even so, Joe doesn’t get much ink. It might be because he wasn’t as goofy and press crazy as Casey Stengel or universally respected like Miller Huggins. McCarthy was reserved and some saw him as cranky or moody. Not much of a quote machine for the beat writers. The skipper of the White Sox at the time, Jimmy Dykes, called McCarthy a “push button manager” because he had all these great players at his fingertips and all he had to do was plug them into the lineup. That may have been so, but the thing was, McCarthy knew which button to choose and when to push that button.

A perfect example of how well McCarthy used those buttons to win is Frank Makosky. Makosky was a pitcher from New Jersey who the Yanks called up before the ’36 Series for batting practice because his forkball was close to what the Yanks would face from Carl Hubbell’s screwball. The idea of bringing along a pitcher simply because he could emulate the ace of the opposing team was something that hadn’t been done much previously. But Hubbell had been 26-6 that year and was the best pitcher in the NL. By getting his players acclimated to the movements of Hubbell’s screwball took away the Giants best advantage. Instead of being unbeatable as was expected, Hubbell went 1-1 in both the 1936 and 1937 series’.

That’s what I think is unique about those 1930’s Yankees teams – as a manager Joe McCarthy was so ahead of his time. Maybe more importantly, McCarthy was always a master at handling each player differently, playing to their personalities. He wasn’t a one-dimensional “treat everyone the same” manager. I think it was that personal touch that made all the diverse players under him work at the top of their game.

And then take Ben Chapman. Today he’s remembered as the Phillies manager who baited Jackie Robinson in ’47 with some really sick racial heckling. However, back in the early 1930s he was a Yankees star, able to play third base and the outfield. He was speed demon on the bases during a time base stealing wasn’t popular. He was voted to the first all-star game and as leadoff hitter was the first player to bat in the mid-summer classic. He was a hard-nosed ballplayer who fought with everyone including Babe Ruth. He was a real star with the Yanks until Joe DiMaggio replaced him in the outfield in ’36. Then he bounced from team to team because he was such a bad influence in the clubhouse. When his career ended he managed in the minors, then re-invented himself as a pitcher and made it back to the majors in the 1940s. I mean if anyone’s ripe for a juicy biography, it’s Ben Chapman. There’s so much good and bad going on there.

In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?

For position players it would be Ken Griffey, Jr. When I lived in Baltimore, I went to every game that Seattle played there, just to see that guy. He was amazing both at bat and in the outfield. Years later, when he played for the Reds, I had season tickets and really enjoyed seeing him play there regularly. But he was aging, and his hard-nosed style of play got himself injured time after time. It kills me that those bloated steroid meatheads got all the headlines and records while a complete natural like Griffey receded into the background.

My wife is an Angels fan, so we watch most of the Angels games. Watching Mike Trout gives me the same joy as I had watching Griffey in his prime. Additionally, Trout really seems like he’s enjoying himself out there. Is he better than Griffey? I don’t know yet, we’ll see.

For pitchers it would be Tom Seaver. I don’t think I have to say anything more there.

Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…

What was your favorite baseball team growing up?

New York Mets

Who was your favorite player?

Tom Seaver

What is your most prized collectible?

I probably have to say it’s a 1956 LA Angels yearbook. It has Steve Bilko in it, and he was one of the players inducted in the Baseball Reliquary Shrine of Immortals the same year they gave me my award. So I’ve always felt a strange connection with Bilko.

Who is your favorite musical group or artist?

I’m a big jazz fan and I mostly like the 1940s through 60s stuff. If I had to pick just one, it would be Dizzy Gillespie. Close seconds would be Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker and John Coltrane.

What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?

My two old favorites in Passaic and Jersey City have both closed, but if I went back to Jersey these days I would go with Italy’s Best in Lakehurst for a regular pie and Three Brothers in Seaside Heights on the boardwalk for a slice of Sicilian.

Please share anything else you’d like with our audience.

If you’re interested in the kind of art and stories that I’ve talked about here, please come visit the blog at my site, to see more. And feel free to request a player I haven’t covered yet – I love getting turned on to players and stories I haven’t heard yet.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk baseball, Paul, there’s nothing better than that!

This was great Gary. I appreciate all the time you spent talking baseball with me.

Please keep in touch!

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