Eight Men Out, by Eliot Asinof

I finished reading Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out this past week, the latest book assignment in my baseball literature class.  It proved itself an eye-opening book.  While I possessed a working familiarity with the Black Sox scandal of 1919, Eight Men Out goes into great detail regarding the various individuals involved in the scandal and how the whole thing might have gone down.

Amazon

Amazon

Charles Comiskey’s Chicago White Sox were already a divided team going into the 1919 season.  Half the team was uneducated, from relatively poor backgrounds, while the other half came from more affluent families, with the ability to afford the luxury of an education.  Thus the division in the team formed.

As a whole, the White Sox players did not get paid as they felt they should have been paid, as Comiskey was a notorious tightwad.  Granted, all baseball owners during this time did not give ballplayers their due, thanks to the reserve clause.  But considering that he owned what was arguably the best team in baseball, Comiskey was the worst offender of all.  He even went so far as to refuse to pay for the laundering of team uniforms.

According to Asinof, it was Chick Gandil, the White Sox first baseman, who first approached his gambling friend Sport Sullivan with the idea for the fix.  Thus the labyrinth of mistrust, ill intentions, and back-stabbing began, and it continued to grow as more players and more gamblers became involved in this get-rich-quick scheme that involved the manipulation of the American pastime’s championship series.  Asinof chronicles the games of the Series, describing sketchy plays and performances.  He also details what I can only presume are his perceptions on the thoughts of the players and gamblers involved, including the growing uneasiness of Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver, as well as the concerns of Eddie Cicotte and Chick Gandil that they would be double-crossed by the gamblers.  The White Sox lost the World Series five games to three to the Cincinnati Reds, and the players involved in the fix never received the full amount of money they had been promised.

In spite of the large number of people involved in the fix, and even in spite of an awareness by Kid Gleason (the White Sox manager) and Charles Comiskey himself that something was not quite right about the Series, nothing happened for almost a year.  Finally, however, in the wake of a fix between the Cubs and the Phillies, the 1919 World Series came into the national spotlight.

Signed confessions were given by Lefty Williams, Joe Jackson, and Eddie Cicotte.  The eight players involved in the fix — Williams, Jackson, Cicotte, Gandil, Swede Risberg, Happy Felsch, Fred McMullin, and Buck Weaver — were put on trial before a Grand Jury.  Interestingly, however, none of the gamblers were tried.  The players were found not guilty of conspiring to defraud the public.  In spite of this, the new Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banished all eight men from baseball for life.

umkc.edu

umkc.edu

I thoroughly enjoyed Asinof’s account of the Black Sox scandal.  It is rich with detail and eloquently written, making it highly readable by the layman.  It reads more like a narrative than a history text — and really, I hesitate to use the word “history” with regards to this particular book.

One thing I learned in our discussions about the book is that not all the details included are necessarily accurate.  For example, Asinof describes a threat that was laid on pitcher Lefty Williams and his family if he did not carry out his part in the fix.  However, Asinof later admitted that he invented this particular anecdote as a way of being able to tell if anyone was using his material.  More importantly, Asinof does not cite his sources in the book.  There are no footnotes, no bibliography.  As I previously mentioned, his accounts of the thought processes of the players and gamblers appear to be largely speculation, as we cannot determine his sources for these descriptions.

In class, the professor challenged us to think about who is to blame for the 1919 World Series fix.  Charles Comiskey?  The players?  The gamblers?  The media?  But really, there is no hard and fast answer to this question.  While it does seem that Comiskey deserves the largest part of the burden, Asinof’s book clearly shows that there is nothing clear about this scandal.  Charles Comiskey was not the only team owner who underpaid his players, the gamblers and the players all knew the immorality of their conspiracy to throw the Series, and the media hesitated to break the story even when they suspected something was going on.  At the end of the day, the Black Sox scandal shows us that no one is immune to the temptations that easy money presents.  It is a tragedy, no doubt — a devastating blow to the game of baseball and to the American public.

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11 Comments on “Eight Men Out, by Eliot Asinof”

  1. wkkortas says:

    I think one thing that is very important to remember about the Black Sox scandal is that it was the logical outcome of the game winking at gambling for any number of decades. Comiskey was a penurious son of a bitch who had no reason to be so, but if it wasn’t with the Sox, it was still going to happen. I also think the book is very instructive in its demonstration of how close the scandal came to ending baseball as we knew it, and it should be required reading for the gaggle of Pete Rose apologists.

    • So true. There was a lot of build-up to the scandal, which is why, while I do think Comiskey was guilty as sin, I don’t think the blame is 100% on his shoulders. A lot of managers did the kinds of things he did — he just happened to be the one in the spotlight.

  2. “8 Men Out” is one of my favorite baseball histories … and yes, it’s true that Asinov was worried that someone would steal his book to make a movie and so he put the juicy scene with the death threat to Lefty Williams in. And, of course, John Sayles used that scene in his movie … with Asinov’s blessing.

    It was such a different time. I often wonder if, with TV cameras, the internet, and so much media following every move in a game, a team could swing a fix like that today. Or, maybe they have and we just haven’t found out yet … 🙂

    • I think it would be considerably more difficult today. It’s far too easy to leave a trail, what with emails and texting and people listening in on phone calls. It makes it much easier to slip, and much easier for someone to get their hands on the damning evidence.

  3. Vickie says:

    I have always felt so badly for Joe Jackson and was bitterly disappointed when the new Commissioner of baseball did not reconsider his case. He is however thinking about Pete Rose.
    Joe’s lack of education, background of poverty and the fact that he was easily led were all contributors to what happened, but the bottom line he played wonderfully during that season, so obviously he had a change of heart.
    Buck Weaver is another one I feel for.

    • I think it’s debatable whether Jackson actually did or did not actively play to throw games (Asinof points out that some players made an art form out of short-legging plays or otherwise not putting forth their best effort), but he admitted himself that he took money. He knew full well that the fix was on, but did not have the moral backbone to turn down the payment or to say something to someone. Buck Weaver at least didn’t accept money. He still should have said something, absolutely, but the fact that he clearly didn’t buy into the fix makes his case slightly (very slightly) more forgivable. I do think that the players should not have been the only ones punished, as there were so many other characters involved in the plot.

      The fact that Pete Rose openly admits to betting on baseball, and yet his case is under consideration, is completely reprehensible to me.

      • Vickie says:

        I do not believe it was a case of ‘moral backbone ‘, being a person myself who has made so many mistakes and bad choices, I could not name them all, but just someone was not the sharpest tool in the shed, illiterate and poor. Landis sickens me, he was judge, jury and executor and they were all sentenced for life.

        Every one of us has f****d up one time or another and most of us are grateful for a second chance.

        • If your friends rob a bank and you knew it was going to happen — more than that, you received some of the keep from it — you’re still guilty in the eyes of the law, even if you didn’t hold the gun or step foot inside. Yeah, it’s a mistake, and yeah, we all make them. But we all pay for our mistakes, too, and a monumental mistake like this one is going to have monumental consequences. My biggest issue with the case is that Comiskey and the gamblers got off so easy.

  4. Steve Myers says:

    I guess the scandal made Shoeless Joe and Field of Dreams happen, maybe the Natural too? Corruption and sin is strange with all the flowers growing from burial mounds

    • So it is. Somehow it wins points in the eyes of society. Admittedly, it does make a good story.

      • Vickie says:

        As a contrarian Aquarian who often has to stand alone in her opinions and feelings, I am used to standing to one side, but I still maintain and won’t change my mind that poor old Joe was more sinned against than sinner. I hope his soul is resting in peace knowing at least one empathetic gal is on his side all the way.


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