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The insider-outsider perspective (Jim Bouton example)

One theme that’s come up often here over the years is what the late Seth Roberts called the insider-outsider perspective of “people who have the knowledge of insiders but the freedom of outsiders,” and here’s one of many examples.

I thought about this again after reading this interview by Steven Goldleaf on Bill James Online of Mitch Nathanson, author of biographies of baseball players Dick Allen and Jim Bouton. Bouton, of course, is one of the two authors of the classic Ball Four. Goldleaf quotes Nathanson:

The “outsider within” theme/category is something that really took shape as I [Nathanson] was researching. Yes, I know Dick Young called him a “social leper” but I wasn’t aware of how much he was an outsider his whole life. But not a total outsider – he was a good-looking, all-American-type who would fit in anywhere, at least on first glance, so he was an insider, at least superficially. So that was an interesting dynamic that I saw play out over and over again throughout his life. . . .

I’m actually working on another piece (a longer article) about how Bouton was an “outsider-within” and how that actually helped him see things that other players couldn’t. He had one foot firmly within the inner circle but another foot outside of it and could see things from both perspectives. This is how, I think, he was able to identify the absurdities within the game that those who were fully invested in it (think Pete Rose) just could never hope to see. . . .

Interesting.

20 Comments

  1. sandykoufax says:

    well, guess I’m a total outsider on this, the post comes across as loose narrative with no substantive point.

  2. What’s the term for the opposite: rather than “people who have the knowledge of insiders but the freedom of outsiders,” people who have the knowledge of outsiders but the power (or constraints) of insiders? I have no idea who Jim Bouton is, but the paragraph makes it sound more like the latter.

    • Bouton wrote Ball Four, a “tell-all” book about baseball. He was a major league baseball pitcher and “ball four” is a situation in baseball you don’t want to see as a pitcher. So Bouton was an insider in the sense of being a former baseball player. I’m not sure in what sense he was an outsider—is it just that he was no longer a baseball player when he wrote it?

      • Z says:

        He didn’t fit into baseball’s culture at the time so wasn’t fully accepted by his teammates. He was more open-minded and intellectual than most other players

      • Phil says:

        Many of his teammates thought he was a jerk. In the book — which I think many people would like even if they have no interest in baseball — all the stories make it seem like Bouton is great and his teammates are wrong to judge him as a jerk, but he does let you know that they thought he was a jerk, so it’s sort of an interesting thing to interpret. My feeling on reading the book was that probably I would have found him irritating too, why would I be any different? But I wasn’t sure…until I dated someone who went to school with one of Bouton’s kids, and she said he used to show up at school events sometimes and act like a jerk.

        As for insider-outsider, I think it’s a stretch to call him an outsider. He was a star pitcher in the early sixties, but blew out his arm and tried to survive in the majors as a knuckleball pitcher, since that’s a pitch that works best at low speed. Ball Four is about that year. By that point he was a marginal player, bouncing between the major leagues and the minors and from team to team. But for the previous seven years or whatever it was, he was pretty much an insider. He was much more politically liberal than his peers but not so much as to make him an outsider back when he was winning twenty or so regular-season games plus some World Series games with the Yankees.

        • Andrew says:

          Phil:

          As I wrote last time this came up in the comments, your Bouton story is the reverse of the von Neumann paradox: When I read about Neumann, he comes off as a obnoxious, self-satisfied jerk. He just seems like the kind of guy I wouldn’t like in real life. But everyone seemed to find him charming and lovable. So he must have been nicer than he sounds from the stories.

    • jim says:

      Bouton was a pitcher who came up with the Yankees in the early sixties and was a phenom for a couple of years until an arm injury seemed to end his career. He resurrected his career by learning to throw the knuckleball. By definition, anyone who throws knuckleballs in baseball is a weirdo. You’re not supposed to do it, but on the off chance you’re successful, as a few are, then teams are happy to overlook your freakish tendencies and sign you up.

      Bouton’s “Ball Four” fame is as much due to his good fortune in being signed by the Seattle Pilots expansion team in 1969 as it is to any personal weirdness or “outsider” status. The team was famously bad and poorly managed, and moved to Milwaukee after only a year in Seattle. I don’t know if you had to have much special insight to mock the goings-on in the Seattle clubhouse that year. You can imagine that, like in any profession, the worst organizations collect people who have all the external trappings and none of the actual skills necessary for success. The more people like that you put in one place, the funnier it will be.

      • jim says:

        Oh: “Ball Four” is a book Bouton wrote about his “comeback” year with the Seattle Pilots. He wrote it as a diary through the season so it’s pretty sound in terms of the daily goings-on in the clubhouse.

      • dhogaza says:

        And eventually he ended up with the best run organization in baseball, the Portland Mavericks!

        Now that was fun, especially on Dimers Night (dime beers, purchase limit six at a time) …

  3. Dale Lehman says:

    As a lifelong Yankees fan, I know who Jim Bouton is. Now I am wondering if Andre Agassi is another insider-outsider? He may or may not be a good example, but I do wonder if the n=2 is a worthwhile sample to generalize from. Surely there are more insider-outsiders out there (or in there).

  4. I can relate to this idea. There’s a question of what gives someone with insider knowledge the freedom to not conform. One thing that I think helps, at least as applied to an intellectual/research context, is having spent significant time in some other discipline other than what you currently do. If you “start over” in a new field after getting tired of what you were doing, you can gain a certain freedom of thought perhaps because you’re able to imagine doing it again.

  5. Jonathan (another one) says:

    See also: Dirk Hayhurst, The Bullpen Gospels

  6. Anonymous says:

    Seems like an “insider-outsider” is just an insider that’s willing to be critical.

    Most “Insiders” don’t want to criticize for selfish reasons: they have beneficial relationships to protect. That’s why as Jessica pointed out it’s easier for academics to be critical starting in a new field after having been successful in a previous field: their beneficial ties are outside so they don’t need “local” support.

    There’s also a direct danger in straying form the herd: if you’re wrong, you’re all alone. It’s much safer to stay in the herd, because: a) even if the wolfpack finds the herd, the chance that any particular individual will get eaten is small; and b) everyone in the herd can say everyone else in the herd thought this was the best place, so no one has to take responsibility for the screw up.

  7. This insider/outsider question is similar to research on core-periphery tensions in knowledge production. In a large scale analysis of StackExchange contributions, we [I’m the second author on this paper] found that individuals who were socially embedded (similar to the “insider” idea) and epistemically marginal (similar to the freedom of outsiders idea) are more likely to provide contributions valued by the community.

    Hani Safadi, Steven L. Johnson, Samer Faraj, “Who Contributes Knowledge? Core-Periphery Tension in Online Innovation Communities.” Organization Science

    The paper is open access and available here: https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/orsc.2020.1364

    Abstract
    Where do valuable contributions originate from in online innovation communities? Prior research provides conflicting answers. One view, consistent with a community of practice perspective, is that valued knowledge contributions are primarily provided by central participants at the core of a community. In contrast, other research—including work adopting an open innovation perspective—predicts that valuable ideas primarily emerge from peripheral participants, those at the margins of a field of knowledge who provide novel ideas and viewpoints. We integrate these contrasting perspectives by considering two distinct forms of position: social embeddedness (a core social position within the social network of participants interacting within a community) and epistemic marginality (a peripheral epistemic position based on the network of topics discussed by a community). Analyzing contributions by 697,412 participants of 52 Stack Exchange online innovation communities, we find that both participants who are socially embedded and participants who are epistemically marginal provide knowledge contributions that are highly valued by fellow community participants. Importantly, among epistemically marginal participants, those with high social embeddedness are more likely to provide contributions valued by the community; by virtue of their epistemic marginality, these participants may offer novel ideas while by virtue of their social embeddedness they may be able to more effectively communicate their ideas to the community. Thus, the production of knowledge in an online innovation community involves a complex interaction between the novelty emanating from the epistemic periphery and the social embeddedness required to make ideas congruent with existing social and epistemic norms.

    • jim says:

      This sounds reasonable except the explanation for why social embeddedness matters. Rather than indicating some ability to better communicate, social embeddedness is a necessity because it imparts social acceptance. IOW, the same idea explained the exact same way by a non-embedded person would have a much lower chance of acceptance simply because the community doesn’t like that person or a group they are perceived to represent.

      This is why it’s necessary to have competing groups. It seems likely that academics and science have been successful for exactly this reason: they have often had competing ideological camps within disciplines that force the groups to revise their ideas to stay relevant.

  8. People that look to disrupt industries typically need an insider/outsider mentality. They need to be enough of an insider to understand the details, the drivers, and the problems. But not enough to be excessively influenced by ‘how things are done here.’

    Jack Bogle who founded Vanguard came from funds management pedigree, but his belief systems tended to make him an outsider.

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