Wednesday, April 11, 2007
I began reading Eight Men Out recalling the aphorism that a movie is never as good as the movie. I had seen the 1988 movie starring John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, David Strathairn, and many others, a long time ago and remember that it was one of my favorite movies growing up. 1988 was a terrific year for the game of baseball being in the eye of Hollywood, as Bull Durham came out in the summer and Eight Men Out followed in September. Bull Durham, a wry comedy about life in the minors that featured some of the best, wittiest bits of dialogue I’ve heard (e.g., “Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls - it's more democratic.”) was a very different movie compared to Eight Men Out, a serious movie that sought to get to the truth of the infamous 1919 “Black Sox” scandal. The movie captured the passion and feeling of the game in those early, pre-Ruthian days as the vaunted 1919 Chicago White Sox stumbled when eight players allegedly conspired to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, to the stunned amazement of fans across America. The resulting scandal nearly destroyed the fabric of the game and has been the specter haunting such incidents as Pete Rose’s betting on baseball in the late 1980’s. The trauma of the scandal led to earth-shaking changes in the game: the tooth-less old commission that oversaw the N.L. and A.L. was cast by the wayside in favor of a Commissioner who bent the will of the game to his own, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the formidable Federal Court Judge.
The book itself, written by Eliot Asinof, is a very readable account of the scandal, capturing the tenor of the game and the lives of the players. Charles Comiskey was a self-made man who paid his players pretty much nothing. Compared with their rivals in New York and Boston and Cleveland, the White Sox were a bargain-basement operation. Stars like Eddie Cicotte and Buck Weaver made less than subs on their rivals. The perennially cheap Comiskey, along with the gamblers, emerges as the villain for the scandal. His cheap, penny-pinching ways drove his players to look for ways to supplement their income. He was so cheap he was the only owner not to pick up his player's laundry bills. An a self-righteous man who thought of himself as honorable, Comiskey was consumed by his pursuit of success on the baseball diamond and vindicating his own sense of superiority. Comiskey, more than anyone else, is the reason why the scandal happened and emerges as a lamentable figure in the pages of Asinof’s book. If he hadn’t lorded over his players, holding them to absurdly low salaries, refusing to listen to their pleas for better pay and treatment, perhaps the scandal wouldn’t have occurred.
When it did, Comiskey’s long-running feud with American League President Ban Johnson and the weak power structure of baseball’s commission prevented Comiskey from taking any action, allowing the scandal to ride its course in the 1919 series. The truth, when it came out, was catastrophic for baseball. At the end of a passionate pennant race in 1920 that the White Sox nearly won came the news that the previous World Series had been fixed by the players. Asinof captures the stunned outrage that swept America and shook the game to its very foundations. A Chicago Grand Jury investigation turned up the scandal as the 1920 season came to a close and turned into a full-scale media sensation.
I found the picture that Asinof paints of the scandal to be a fuller picture than the 1988 movie presents, not surprisingly. How involved was Buck Weaver really? What about Joe Jackson? There was a lot of murky gray area that made reconstructing the story difficult. The movie is a little more clear-cut about who was involved, but the actual actions of the players is a little more difficult to comprehend. The testimony of the players before the Grand Jury in Chicago only filled in bits and pieces of the story, the machinations of the gamblers – Arnold Rothstein, Sport Sullivan, Abe Attell – is shrouded in mystery. The moment when Happy Felsch notes to a reporter that the joke was on the players because the gamblers had approached them about the fix, gotten rich off their work and were never held accountable rings true. While the players were the ones to fix the series it is hard not to feel some sympathy for them. The gamblers profited off their actions and the politicians and owners offered them as sacrificial lambs to a public that was desperate for blood. In the end, they were the only ones to be held accountable for their actions. The gamblers left them holding the bag, the owners and politicians moved on. The players suffered their ban from the game in silence.
It is hard not to be impressed with the work that Asinof devoted to reconstructing the scandal. His book captures the story and does what any good book does, put the reader in the story and makes them care about the heroes and how they turn out. You feel pity for the great Eddie Cicotte, the proud, flawed man who emerges as the hero of Eight Men Out. (Primarily Asinof focuses on Cicotte, Buck Weaver and Joe Jackson at the end of the book.) Worried that he couldn’t provide for his family, he made a decision that he hoped would secure his family’s future, but it ultimately destroyed his career as a ballplayer and left him a humiliated man. More than any other person, Cicotte jumps off the pages of Asinof’s book the hero of the story.
Enjoy, I highly recommend.
Labels: Book Review
It was certainly a complicated issue. The players did break the law when the fixed the Series, but they were essentially forced to due to the absurdly cheap behavior of Comiskey.
It is also interesting to see how much that scandal still weighs on baseball today; almost ninety years later. Pete Rose might be in the Hall of Fame right now if the Black Sox Scandal had never occured.
Do you think Shoeless Joe should be allowed in the Hall of Fame?
Ruth began his career in 1914 and had won three World Series by the time the Black Sox scandal took place.