Eliot Asinof fought in World War II, was blacklisted for the most petty and vile of reasons (more later on this), wrote over a dozen books as well as many screenplays for TV, dated Rita Moreno, ended up marrying the sister of Marlon Brando, and otherwise lived the kind of full life reflective of his times, born just after World War I and died now a few months from the end of this current presidency.
He also, quite simply, wrote one of the best American books of the 20th century.
Eight Men Out I had heard about long before I read it, and that was due to another striking work — John Sayles‘s movie of the same name, released in 1988. While I did not see it upon initial release, as time passed and Sayles’s considerable reputation grew further I had a chance to tape it off cable sometime in the mid to late nineties during a nighttime broadcast. (Pre-TiVo days, gotta love ‘em.) Somewhere around this time, I believe, I acquired a paperback reprint of the book issued to tie in with the film’s original release, which I still have to this day — I’m looking at my copy as I type — and which has a then-new introduction by Stephen Jay Gould, the kind of delightful detail that makes me smile. Why shouldn’t it be Stephen Jay Gould? Why should George Will have all the fun? (I somehow think Will wouldn’t have had an introduction to a book like this citing, among others, Jacques Barzun.)
Just flipping through the book now makes me smile — not in a mocking way against the story, but simply to see the work of an excellent writer at the top of his game. Asinof’s own introduction to the original story — which, as the obituary linked above indicates, grew out of a planned documentary for TV in the early sixties that was squashed by pressure from the sport’s then commissioner Ford Frick — deftly spells out the many factors that made researching and reporting on the 1919 Black Sox scandal so hard to do, even four decades and more on from its occurence, giving a reader a sense of the pressures of the researcher, the troubles of the interviewer, the concerns of the writer, all of which Asinof was. Wisely, there’s only a slight romanticization of the sport itself which appears, at the very end of the introduction, which sums up baseball’s particular position in the American consciousness without overdoing it, as Asinof notes the help of a writer to focus the story on the core eight men charged:
Why did they do it? What were the pressures of the baseball world, of America in 1919 itself, that would turn decent, normal, talented men to engage in such a betrayal?
Let me stop here briefly to say something personal — I am not a baseball fanatic by any stretch of the imagination. But its place in my upbringing was that of many kids, I think, who knew it and inculcated it as ‘the’ sport, or one of the core ones — football easily being the other — that was seen as a normal baseline of activity. Of *course* there’s baseball! It’s out there and people play it. I’ve only attended two major league games in my life, and both were appropriately when I was young and carefree and etc. etc. The second was in Candlestick Park when I lived in the Bay Area at the end of the seventies and in the early eighties — I forget who the Giants were playing, but I had a good time and my dad did too. The first is more memorable — the Padres, the team who I still have an affection for above all else (if I have a baseball hero, easy — Tony Gwynn, and the fact that he didn’t get the World Series victory he deserved in 1984 is why I was quite happy to see the Detroit Tigers NOT win the Series the other year, thanks). This would have been around 1978 or so at Jack Murphy Stadium — Qualcomm, bah, useless name — and their opponents were the Reds, which meant that, yes, I got to see Pete Rose play. Had a couple of hits and maybe even a home run but the Pads won the day and I was a happy camper.
But arguably the fact that I saw Rose at my first game meant that I got a small, very small taste of the whole mixture of professional sport as it functions right then and there — I wasn’t aware of all of it, who would have been in my position, but everything from gambling to celebrity to the ideal of sport and more, all right there on the field, itself a wonderfully alien thing (a lush green lawn in a semi-desert coastal location near Mexico!) that symbolized something greater than itself. That romanticization of baseball that I mentioned is potent and is used and abused and always has been, it seems. That Eight Men Out was made into a film during a decade when The Natural was filmed and given a happy ending, and perhaps more appropriately when W. P. Kinsella wrote Shoeless Joe — the novel that later was turned into Field of Dreams, and which Gould mentions briefly along with a reference to the Black Sox in The Godfather, Part II in his introduction — that Asinof’s book was made into a movie in this decade and context seems only right, a fusion of the light and the dark that aims to portray the dark in clear, pitiless light. If that decade’s Bull Durham aimed to leaven the mythology with attractively scruffy comedy, the laughter in Eight Men Out is of the bitterest kind.
Asinof himself ties into a larger literary tradition of America seen with this ambivalent eye with his choice of epigraph at the start of the book — a selection from The Great Gatsby that similarly references the Black Sox scandal, Gatsby pointing out the man who ‘fixed’ it — and in creating his story that notes a baseline as it does — the ‘decent’ men involved, the very fact that baseball held and still holds this particular place — proceeded not to undermine it, but to force its contradictions to the fore. Asinof doesn’t use the Black Sox scandal to condemn the sport; rather he uses it to study the people and the time, and to show, above all else, that it wasn’t a perfect world and never was. A cliched thing to say, maybe, but the importance lies here:
There’s a reason why John Sayles found the book of interest and filmed it — and there’s also a reason why Studs Terkel took a part in it as a newspaperman, acting opposite Sayles himself in a sharp performance as Ring Lardner, whose son would find himself blacklisted much like Asinof was. Such people look or looked at America through eyes that were open to wider realities more than myths, and found those realities of equal importance to document as the myths, if not more so. In Sayles’s case this has mostly been within the realm of fiction-on-film, but his choice of Asinof’s book is almost parallel to, say, Mike Leigh‘s lovely take on the story of Gilbert and Sullivan, Topsy-Turvy — both are films from directors most commonly associated with stories of ‘real’ or marginalized figures, in a broad sense, and who in taking on nonfiction stories seek to apply this ‘realness’ to something that in fact actually happened, and to do so in order to evoke a time but in a far more inclusive, aware way than a simple pasteboard drama would do.
Thus, to turn back again to Asinof’s book, the way that he follows up a brief opening chapter capturing the drama and interest of the World Series in 1919 as it began with these lines is crucial:
Exactly three weeks before the World Series was to begin, a tall, beefy, red-faced man in a white suit and bright bow tie stepped out of a taxi and walked into Boston’s Hotel Buckminster. His name was Joseph “Sport” Sullivan. His occupation: bookmaker and gambler.
It’s a bald opening on the face of it, but that’s the appeal — it almost reads like fiction in a stylistically straightforward way, dramatic, and self-consciously aimed that way too. It attracts the reader — what will Sullivan be doing next? What does he gamble on, if the nickname doesn’t give it away? Why Boston? — and puts the gambling front and center after that brief bit of seemingly carefree excitement and romance.
To speak more of this book in some respects is to cheat you of a good experience — take it as read that I recommend it unhesitatingly, and that what comes at the end of it isn’t a sense that the eight men in question were demons through and through, but sinned against and sinning. The figure of Charles Comiskey in particular is seen raked over the coals — a grasping skinflint who treated his players basely and crudely, setting the stage for the betrayal, and whose paying for their attorneys in the court case was essentially too little, too late — and Kenesaw Mountain Landis‘s appointment as commissioner, followed by his banning of the players from the professional game despite a jury’s exoneration, becomes not a cleaning of the house but a cruel trick by established forces. That the players did something inexcusable Asinof never contests, but he renders their decisions explicable and understandable — and that is what above all else must have upset Frick when he halted the original documentary, that Asinof made sure they were not simply stock figures for an establishment to tut-tut at.
Asinof, as he does throughout, sums it up with calm, understated passion:
So, in the end, organized baseball won its battle. They had rescued the ballplayers form the clutches of the law, only to make victims of them on their own terms. Baseball, the club owners could boast, had cleaned its own house. “Regardless of the verdict of juries…,” Judge Landis repeated for America to take note. It was a pronouncement that sent the status of the Commissioner of Baseball skyrocketing. Landis was hailed as a hero, a savior, a mighty power for the forces of honesty and clean sport. To Comiskey and the other owners, his effectiveness was not to be denied. If the public would respect the integrity of Kenesaw Mountain Landis and the dignity of his Commission, he was worth every penny of the $42,500 they were paying him.
So desperate had been their fears, it was even worth the risk of having created a potential threat to their own domination!
Asinof’s critique — of hierarchy, of money and power, of the use and abuse of the law, of the acceptance of double standards depending on what side of the financial scale one is on, of much more besides — is throughout. Sometimes implied, sometimes forceful — a battle always fought, with few victories (the pages just before the end describing Shoeless Joe Jackson’s attempts, with an excellent lawyer in his corner, to get back pay out of Comiskey, succeeding with a jury and then immediately being foiled by a judge professing moral outrage, are a mini-masterpiece of bitter farce) — it’s no wonder that an observing eye and mind like Sayles’s would want to make a film out of it, that a similar eye and mind like Terkel’s would agree to be part of it.
The film is exquisite, a period piece — again, like Leigh and Topsy-Turvy — that evokes nostalgic sweetness and harsh realities. It summarizes and telescopes by necessity, it plays up parts and sequences to dramatic effect — Comiskey’s ‘bonus’ for the team’s 1917 pennant victory being only a case of champagne, Lardner’s drunken singing of “I’m forever blowing ballgames…” to a crowded train car that the White Sox are riding on — but even so it does the job very well. The late summer sunset glow on the playing field, the touches like the Irish tenor singing the national anthem, all these romantic moments are present, underscoring the bitter choices made by people under pressures too great to bear, and combined with a fine script, Sayles’s directorial eye and a great ensemble cast — it’s easily one of John Cusack’s best performances, and is definitely Charlie Sheen’s — the result is and remains golden.
Perhaps my favorite moment in the film is David Strathairn as Eddie Cicotte, giving his softly crushed admission — taken from the book, though I think set at a slightly different point in the movie timeline though not much differently — sitting in a chair, his choices and complicity and hopes all bound up and about to be fully forced into the open, and saying, simply but with the resigned anguish of someone for whom there is no way out: “Yeah…we were crooked…we were crooked.” Strathairn’s careful pauses, whether his choice or Sayles’s, are spot-on perfect, and say it all.
Asinof had a brief cameo in the film, which must have tickled him a bit, another example of having a bit of the last laugh — his documentary was long dead, but the movie would immortalize the story all the more clearly. But perhaps the greatest sense of a last laugh, of seeing things through to a better time, can be seen in the reason for his blacklisting, noted at the start. To quote the obituary:
During the McCarthy era, Asinof was blacklisted and had to resort to writing under the names of other writers, his son said. Years later, after he obtained his FBI file, he told his son that he had been targeted because he once signed a petition outside Yankee Stadium saying that black ballplayer Jackie Robinson should be allowed to play in the major leagues.
Perhaps it was only to be expected that somebody who clearly saw certain hypocrisies at work would be trapped by another. He doubtless looked at the current ones in the sport with a sense of history repeating, in different guises, and tied them in again to larger observations of the society as it functioned. But he saw some things get better, at least. And some progress is better than none at all.
Rest in peace, and thank you.