Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Book Review: Eight Men Out:The Black Sox And The 1919 World Series

Owl Books
March 2000
336 pages

“If a man can sin with impunity, he will continue to sin—especially if he gets paid for it.”

Originally published in 1963, Eliot Asinof's Eight Men Out is the definitive chronicle of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, and their throwing of the World Series. Most people are familiar with the story now, thanks to movie adaptations of both this book and Field of Dreams (I can't recommend enough John Sayles’ adaptation of Eight Men Out. To me, it is the great baseball movie, surpassing even Field of Dreams and Bull Durham). If you aren't, and want an extensive summary, I would recommend this site, which provides an excellent summation, as well as other valuable information such as a chronology of events, a diagram of the fix, and a sketch of the eight banished men.

Here's the rub: eight White Sox players, tired of being grossly underpaid and appreciated by owner Charles Comiskey, agreed to throw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. I won't say conspire, since that is much too strong of a word. And in reality, I should only say seven players, as it became quickly evident that 3rd baseman Buck Weaver wanted no part of the fix. The idea to throw the Series came not from outside sources, but from 1st baseman Chick Gandil, who approached a gambling colleague named Sport Sullivan with the idea. The fix quickly grew to include other gamblers and miscreants, including one Arnold "Big Bankroll" Rothstein. A long, convoluted series of events followed, with the Sox eventually losing to the Reds five games to three in a best-of-nine series. Despite the fact that many people knew the fix occurred, including Comiskey, nothing happened for nearly a year. It was only when reports of another fix came to light—this time in a game between the Cubs and the Phillies—that the White Sox scandal garnered national attention.

Following a Grand Jury indictment, the eight players—but none of the gamblers—were put on trial. In a fine example of how messed up and corrupt the situation had become, the players' lawyers were supplied and paid for by Comiskey, the man they supposedly ruined through their activities. Despite being found not guilty on charges of conspiring to defraud the public, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis—the newly appointed Commissioner of Baseball—banished all eight men from baseball for life.

Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.

Despite repeated calls for the eight players' re-instatement, none of them ever played in the bigs again. The team was branded "The Black Sox," and Chicago's south-side ball club wouldn't win a World Series until 2005. That's 86 years of futility, interrupted by a single World Series appearance in 1959.

Asinof's book is a tremendous read. Not a traditional non-fiction title, the story flows like a fictional re-telling of some mythological time and place. The narrative is so strange and compelling, the footnotes and endnotes so absent, at times you are left wondering how much of what Asinof is saying is truth, and how much of what he is saying is pure speculation. In actuality, I can not help but feel that this book would be a wonderful companion piece to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The period is obviously the same, and Gatsby's associate Meyer Wolfsheim is literally based upon Arnold Rothstein. But it is the themes that so closely resonate: the corruptive power of wealth and class; the struggle to elevate oneself, only to have the dream dashed; an America failing to live up its idyllic conception. Gatsby himself is cut from the same mold as any and all of the Black Sox: a man of lowly stature, born with nothing other than the simple belief that a man who works hard should reap the just rewards of his labours. A man who holds to his nation’s credo—that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—and is consequently destroyed by the reality that in America there are rules for the rich, and then there are rules for everybody else. I stand firm in my conviction that the ending of the great American novel would not be out of place at the end of Eight Men Out.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

It becomes clear when reading Eight Men Out that for all of their failings—and there were many—it was the players who were the true victims of the Black Sox scandal. It was that way from the very beginning. It is worth noting that most of the men who got in on the deal were not the worst or even the average players on their team. Eddie Cicotte, Happy Felsch, Lefty Williams, Buck Weaver and Shoeless Joe Jackson were the best. In the case of Jackson, we may be talking about the greatest hitter in the history of the game. Ty Cobb certainly felt that way. Ted Williams did too. I guess that is why their fall is so tragic. These were men who really had something to lose.

Yet it shouldn’t have been that way. Comiskey was the man to blame. He, as well as his fellow owners. Comiskey paid his star players a substantially lower salary than what they would have received on other teams. He gave them $3 dollars a day for allowance; the going rate was $4. He refused to clean their uniforms regularly, in order to save money. And he even benched Eddie Cicotte in 1917, rather than see him reach the 30-win plateau and win a $10,000 bonus. All this, despite the fact that attendance numbers were continuing to climb, and Comiskey was the sole benefactor.

Players had no other choice than to stay with their teams, thanks to the reserve clause in every major league contract. The clause prevented players from playing for any other team in professional baseball. A player felt like he was getting a raw deal, maybe thought about holding out or signing somewhere else? Too bad. Play for the team that owned you—like chattel—or don’t play at all.

How could anyone be surprised that grown men, proud of themselves and the way they played, would chafe at such an uneven playing field? Especially at a time when fixing games was such a prominent part of the baseball culture? There were early connections between gambling and baseball, so much so that runs were originally called “aces” and at-bats were called “hands.” In 1877, four players from the Louisville Grays were banned for life for throwing the National League pennant race. Hal Chase, a perennial game-fixer if there ever was one, was charged by Christy Mathewson—his own manager—of throwing games. The matter was taken to the President of the National League. Chase was acquitted of all charges, and John McGraw of the Giants picked him up almost immediately.

Rather than clean the gambling mess up, or treat their players with the respect they deserved, the owners sat on their hands (as well as their piles of money).

But mostly, the cloak of secrecy was maintained by the power of the owners themselves. They knew, as all baseball men came to know. They knew, but pretended they didn’t. Terrified of exposing dishonest practices in major-league ball games, their solution was no solution at all. It was simply an evasion…Their greatest fear was that the American fan might suspect there was something crooked about the National Pastime. Who, then, would pay good money to see a game? The official, if unspoken, policy was to let the rottenness grow rather than risk the dangers involved in exposure and cleanup.

Even after the 1919 Series was over, Comiskey’s behaviour was incredulous. He knew that at least seven of the men had cheated (Weaver’s play certainly did not indicate involvement), but refused to do anything about it. He was angry at the betrayal, but not enough to risk his own business in the process. Shoeless Joe Jackson tried to meet with Comiskey on two different occasions, to confess his sin and return his share of the winnings (a paltry $5000). Comiskey refused to meet with him, and one of his minions told Jackson to keep the cash (his minion also got Jackson, an illiterate man, to sign his own contract for 1920. Jackson said he wouldn’t sign if the reverse clause was in it. The minion lied and told him it wasn’t there). It wasn’t until a year after the fix, when Cicotte broke down and testified in front of the Grand Jury, that Comiskey was finally forced to publicly admit that there was indeed foul play involved in the Series. The players never received legal counsel during the Grand Jury hearings, and all waived their right to immunity without really knowing what it meant. Jackson was half-drunk when he appeared before the Grand Jury. Lefty Williams actually asked Alfred Austrian, Comiskey’s lawyer, if he should get legal counsel. Austrian told him it wasn’t necessary. The only individual who had counsel with him at the Grand Jury hearings was Arnold Rothstein—Rothstein actually retained Austrian as his legal counsel in Chicago. And finally, when the case eventually went to trial, Comiskey and Rothstein conspired to hide the player’s Grand Jury testimony. Comiskey’s punishment for all of these actions? Nothing.

… the players were victims. The owners poured out a stream of pious, pompous verbiage about how pure they were. The gamblers said nothing, kept themselves hidden, protected themselves—and when they said anything, it was strictly for cash, with immunity, no less. But the ballplayers didn’t even know enough to call a lawyer. They only knew how to play baseball.

Needless to say, I loved this book. I felt it was much more objective in its treatment of the players than the movie was. Despite the poor treatment they received at the hands of Comiskey, the social context wherein the fixing of baseball games was almost expected, and the fact that these were just simple boys who wanted to play baseball and earn their proper share of the keep, they did cheat. Defendants of the men, especially those who defend Shoeless Joe, argue that the statistics from the Series indicate their unwillingness to follow through on their promise to throw the series. But as the book so wonderfully illustrates, the players performed as best as they could without actually winning the games. They didn’t want to look bad, or for the fix to look obvious. But in baseball, as with any other sport, to intentionally botch a play while still looking like you are putting in your full effort is a relatively simple matter to accomplish. A trip here. A pause there. A bad bunt. Chasing a curve ball. All easy enough to pull off, especially when you are talking about a sport where safely hitting the ball only 30% of the time means you are an elite player. The only player exempted from this was Buck Weaver, who never received a single dollar from the fix, and who never once let his play down. Even his fellow players knew that Weaver wouldn’t roll over; his love of baseball and his competitive streak were too strong. History likes to paint Jackson as the most tragic figure of the Black Sox scandal, but my money—if you’ll excuse the pun—is on Weaver. He never recovered from being banned, and died a broken man.

The social ramifications of the scandal were tremendous. It followed upon the heels of the Great War, and reminded Americans once again that no place—not even the green pasture of the diamond—was exempt from the corruption of man. As Asinof states, “if baseball was corrupt, then anything might be—and probably was.” Ring Lardner, perhaps the greatest writer in the history of baseball, was so disgusted he eventually stopped covering and attending games. In fact, he never wrote a single word about the scandal, refusing to give it any coverage. It is hard to put a true value on it, obviously, but the fact that we are still facing the consequences of the scandal today lends credence to its import. Out of Pandora’s Box was born the Commissioner’s office, which still rules over baseball. Pete Rose was banned for life for betting on baseball (by Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, father of actor Paul Giamatti), and will likely never make it into the Baseball Hall of Fame, despite clearly having the numbers. Shoeless Joe Jackson also remains outside of the hallowed Hall, despite a .356 career batting average, a petition from Ted Williams and Bob Feller on his behalf, and resolutions in the U.S. Senate calling for his admittance. In Greenville, South Carolina—Jackson’s home town—the Class A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox were even prevented by Major League Baseball (read Commissioner’s office) from changing their name to the Greenville Joes.

There is no way to gauge the extent of the damage on the American psyche. It is impossible to add up the bitterness like a batting average. How great was the layer of cynicism that settled over the nation? How many kids developed a tolerance for a lie, for a betrayal, for corruption itself?

One of the best recommendations one can make about Eight Men Out is that it still holds up, even today. In fact, its relevance to baseball couldn’t be more important than right here, right now. Baseball is once again enveloped in scandal; this time, over players' use of performance enhancing drugs. Recent revelations concerning evidence that batter Barry Bonds was using steroids from 1998-2003 have rocked the baseball world. Like in 1919, many feel that the players who cheated should be severely punished, while others argue that it was such a pervasive element in the game—to the point of being practically permitted—that no one should face any repercussions. Again, the role of the owners in the scandal has come into question. What did they know? How much did they know? Why did they let it happen? Were they turning a blind eye out of fear, or out of a desire to maximize their profits? And what about the Commissioner of Baseball?

When the position of Commissioner was created in response to the Black Sox scandal—with the antitrust decision looming over the horizon—the belief was that baseball finally needed a real, independent, governing body to prevent future incidents like this from occurring. In essence, the belief was that an independent body was needed to save the owners from themselves. For several reasons, this hasn’t borne out over the years. The current Commissioner—Bud Selig—is in fact also the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, which calls into question not only his ability to govern his own team without facing a conflict of interest, but also his ability to govern the game independently from himself and his fellow owners.

To put it mildly, Selig’s term in office has been abysmal. There was the player’s strike in 1994 that ended the season, cancelled the World Series, and forever damaged attendance in cities like Montreal. There was the planned contraction of both the Minnesota Twins and the Montreal Expos, the three team switch between Jeffrey Loria (Expos to Marlins), John Henry (Marlins to Red Sox) and MLB (Expos), the screw-job of 2003, wherein MLB and Selig (as owners of the team) would not allow the potentially playoff bound Expos to call up minor-league players to help out down the stretch, the prolonged movement of the Expos to practically every city in America and Puerto Rico, and their eventual movement to Washington. There was the All-Star game of 2002, where Selig called the game a tie in extra innings, and fans went insane. Then there is the issue of steroids, which has hung like an albatross around the neck of baseball for almost ten years.

Selig’s office was specifically created to deal with issues such as this, to independently govern baseball, to guarantee the public trust, and to protect the owners from themselves. Steroids are now specifically verboten in baseball, but it does appear that the mandate came down too little, too late. Were Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire on steroids during the home-run race of 1998? Did the Commissioner and the owners ignore rumours or evidence to support that position, in order to enhance fans' attention to the game? What will happen to both Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro, two players now known to have taken performance enhancing-drugs (although Bonds has not been caught by Major League Baseball)? Will both be banished for life? Will they be allowed to enter the Hall of Fame? Will there be a body that can make such determinations without bias or prejudice? Will the owners and players work to clean up their game, or will they continue to allow it to dissipate into the All-Drug Olympics?

"The good ship baseball lists to port,
Its ancient hull is leaking;
It trembles when the wild winds snort,
Its mast and spars are creaking.
The owners gather weak and wan
And gaze upon the weather;
They’ll slap a coat of whitewash on
And hope it holds together."

-George Phair
Chicago Herald and Examiner
October 19, 1920

Eight Men Out is a fantastic baseball read if for no other reason than it supports the dictum that Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It also happens to be an amazing story about power, about greed, about sacrifice, and about loss. It is a tragic tale of eight fallen men who loved the game of baseball, and could never play it again. It is an American tragedy. It is the American tragedy.

"It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——"
-F. Scott Fitzgerald


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