By Marty Appel
One of the amazing things about the wonderful book “Eight Men Out” is that it was the first book written about the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, and it took 44 years to get the story told.
It was probably the subject most apt to lend itself to a book in all of baseball history, but despite all the interest that never seemed to go away, it wasn’t until 1963 that author Eliot Asinof was finally able to see it published.
And it remains today, 40 years later, the only book about the scandal ever written, and the book upon which the 1988 movie of the same name was made. Again, it took 25 years to make it to the screen, and it was the most natural baseball story to ever present itself to Hollywood.
Eliot Asinof, born, ironically, in 1919, had written one previous book, and it was a baseball book called “Man on Spikes”, (originally, “The Rookie”), a 1955 novel about a player who labored for 16 years in the minors to reach the big leagues. This was something he could write from experience, for he too had been a minor league ballplayer, putting in three seasons in the Philadelphia Phillies system before World War II sought him out. He served in the Air Force, mostly in the Aleutian Islands, but when he returned, he was no longer a player, but rather, a writer of short stories, magazine articles and scripts for radio and television. For a time in his life, he was even a brother-in-law to Marlon Brando.
He was a 1940 graduate of Swarthmore (PA.) College, where he was a classmate of future Hall of Famer Lee MacPhail.
Like most baseball fans, he was always intrigued by the Black Sox Scandal, in which gamblers got to eight players on the heavily favored Chicago White Sox and offered them money to throw the Series to Cincinnati. Whether or not they really rolled over is open to debate, quite lively debate in fact, but the fact remains that the Reds scored an upset victory, and after the 1920 season, the eight players were hauled into court on charges of throwing the games. When their alleged confessions mysteriously disappeared, the case was dismissed. However, the newly instated Commissioner of Baseball, hired to clean up the game, did so by banning the eight players for life. Best known among them was Shoeless Joe Jackson, a lifetime .356 hitter) whose name continues to surface with Pete Rose’s when the word reinstatement is uttered.
Over the years, many articles were written about the scandal. The players were forever sought for interviews, but perhaps in fear of mob repercussions, never revealed what actually took place. Given that many of them lived hard lives after baseball, even the temptation to tell all for cash was overcome.
Asinof did interview many of the players from that 1919 team, including “clean” ones, and found the silence still in place. But new evidence would periodically surface – a court document here, attorney notes there, even the files of Arnold Rothstein, the reputed chief gambler, who was murdered in 1928.
Asinof also had access to the great Chicago storyteller James T. Farrell, who had a wealth of memories about the times. Why Farrell didn’t himself do the definitive book, rather than just including the story in his “My Baseball Diary” (1957), surprised many. Frankly, there weren’t that many interesting White Sox stories to tell apart from the 1919 scandal, and the team of course, has been to only one World Series since, 1959.
But the door was open for Asinof, who first sought to write a teleplay about it, with Farrell turning over a lot of his notes to him. He began the process of traveling around the country to talk to the players. “I found them willing, even eager, to recount the pleasures and frustrations of their baseball careers,” he wrote. “But they immediately turned away at the first suggestions of talk about the 1919 world series.
Thus, it hardly mattered whether they were dead or alive when Asinof did his research. The players themselves just weren’t helpful.
For the record, the players (and the year of their death) were Jackson (1951), Fred McMullen (1952), Buck Weaver (1956), Lefty Williams (1959), Happy Felsch (1964), Ed Cicotte (1969), Chick Gandil (1970) and Swede Risberg (1975).
Asinof continued to be haunted by the project, long after the teleplay at last morphed into a book. The quarter century until it was finally made into a movie were wracked by so many upheavals with the project in Hollywood, that he finally wrote a book about that, called “Bleeding Between the Lines.” (1979).
It wasn’t his only post-Eight Men Out book. He did a book in 1990 called “1919: America’s Loss of Innocence,” and he was, of course, an authority on it. He did a book on the 1967 New York Football Giants called “Seven Days to Sunday,” published in ’68, and he even collaborated with Jim Bouton on a mystery called “Strike Zone” published in 1994.
The movie, selected by movie-buff Yogi Berra as his all-time favorite baseball film (“We always heard about the 1919 Black Sox, this told you what it was really all about!”), was a success. Eight Men Out was never a best seller, but it was surely one of the most important baseball books published during a time when there were no important baseball books to speak of. It remains in print (Henry Holt), and copies of the first edition, published by Holt, Rinehart Winston, can be found reasonably priced from used book dealers.
Asinof, 84, lives in Ancramdale, New York, near the point where New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut meet. His contribution to baseball is assured.