Black Sox: 'It ain't so, kid, it just ain't so'

September 2009
Print friendly page

By Daniel J. Voelker and Paul A. Duffy

Eliot Asinof's book, "Eight Men Out" ("8MO"), released in 1963, was considered a ground-breaking piece of work, once and for all painting a definitive picture of the scandal that rocked professional baseball and abruptly ended the careers of the players who were involved.

"8MO"'s release - and its widespread acceptance as the previously untold, true story of the Black Sox scandal of 1919 - were likely the last nails in the coffin of "Shoeless" Joe Jackson's prospects of obtaining reinstatement in the league and, more importantly, posthumous admission into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Asinof's files containing research and interviews that played an integral part in his creation of "8MO" have only now come to light, and they suggest that Asinof inaccurately accused "Shoeless" Joe and others of being involved in, or having caused, the World Series fix.

This article examines the research and interviews that played an integral part in Asinof's creation of "8MO," as well as factual information to make a case for "Shoeless" Joe's rightful place in American history. The history books have, for years, erroneously reported the story that "Shoeless" Joe was among eight players who actually threw the 1919 World Series and forever condemned the team to be known as the "Black Sox." Two Chicago-based attorneys want to correct this dark mark on Chicago's sports history.

They discuss various accounts of the scandal that rocked the Windy City, and provide a strong argument for "Shoeless" Joe's recognition as a baseball legend, as well as the belief that his innocence puts him in the running for a seat in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Newly available material - Asinof's notes of his writing of "8MO" and materials that have come to light following his death in 2008 - along with skepticism of his thesis, suggest that his portrayal of events in "8MO" may not be accurate and, indeed, was more than slightly fictional.

"8MO" details how, in one fell swoop, one of the finest baseball teams of all time, the 1919 Chicago White Sox - three lesser-known, but clearly innocent, members of the team, catcher Ray Schalk, second baseman Eddie Collins, and pitcher Urban "Red" Faber, were inducted into the Hall of Fame - became known as the Black Sox!

At the time, the three questions on everyone's mind were: 1) Who was involved? 2)Why would they do it? and 3) Would professional baseball survive?

Asinof's "8MO" portrays eight White Sox players, who history now records as having thrown the 1919 World Series, as sympathetic characters who were driven to cheat by the greed of Charles Comiskey, the wealthy White Sox owner and supposed skinflint.

Notwithstanding the lack of a single footnote, Asinof alluded that only through painstaking research was he able to delve "into the scandal's causes and morality," and "explode its myths and distortions" to arrive at the "real truth."

Asinof provided a partial memoir of the making of "8MO" in his 1979 publication of "Bleeding Between The Lines" ("BBL"), an account of his tribulations in defending a series of lawsuits concerning "8MO" and his rights to the book.

Buried within its pages, however, Asinof admits to giving fictional names to at least two characters. According to Asinof, on the advice of counsel, and apparently seeing a movie deal in the future, "[t]wo fictitious characters were inserted [into "8MO"] that existed nowhere but from my typewriter, designed to prevent screenwriters from stealing the story and claiming their material was from the public domain."

The fiction did not end with Asinof 's resort to fictional characters, as at least one dramatic event in "8MO" was also fabricated.

In a private conversation on Aug. 31, 2003, with baseball historian Dr. David J. Fletcher of the Chicago Baseball Museum, Asinof clarified that "Harry F.," the thug featured in "8MO," was a fictional character, not merely a pseudonym, and that a crucial incident involving him never occurred.

In "8MO," "Harry F." was hired by the East Coast gambler-fixers to threaten White Sox star pitcher, Claude "Lefty" Williams, before the eighth game of the Series. As depicted in the book, "Harry F." threatens Williams, who was supposedly getting cold feet about throwing the Series to the Cincinnati Reds, with the death of his beloved wife.

Over the years, other authors and film-makers, telling their own versions of the 1919 scandal, have unwittingly incorporated "Harry F." into their plots.

Asinof refused to disclose the name of the second fictional character in "8MO," and although his identity remains a mystery, there is little doubt that he too has been incorporated into other retellings of the Black Sox scandal.

Baseball historians have begun to question the accuracy of "8MO"'s explanation of the reason the players would be so willing to throw the World Series.

A recent study by baseball historian Bob Hoie suggests that the 1919 Chicago White Sox were one of the highest-paid teams in the league. Similarly, the story that Comiskey advertently negated a promise to pay Eddie Cicotte (his other star pitcher) a $10,000 bonus if he won 30 games during the 1917 season, by benching him after his 27th win, has also been shown by historians to be likely false.

The same fate must come to the claims that to save a few "bits" for laundering costs, Comiskey made his ballplayers play in dirty uniforms, and that their $3 per diem for meals (a steak cost 50 cents in 1919) was tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment.

It is important to note that club owners expected 1919 to be a difficult year (much like 1917 and 1918 had been) due to the end of World War I. Without a modern-day economic stimulus package to fall back on, the owners agreed to pinch pennies.

Asinof's portrayal of Comiskey as a skinflint - at least in comparison to other professional club owners at that time - may not have been accurate and does not provide a realistic motive for the "fix."

In "8MO," Asinof admits that he relied on newspaper accounts of the 1920 grand jury proceedings in Chicago, rather than the actual transcripts.

Although he characterizes the coverage of the proceedings as "adequate," the proceedings were closed to the press and the public. Therefore, anything reported by the press about those proceedings would have been second- or third-hand and not reliable.

In "8MO," Asinof explains that he never read, or had access to, the transcripts of the grand jury proceedings that led to the indictments against the "Chicago Eight." Asinof says that "[n]o one with whom I came in contact had ever seen the transcripts nor had they any idea where they might be found."

In "BBL," however, Asinof admits that, while researching "8MO," Judge Hugo Friend, who presided over the 1921 criminal trial against the ballplayers, gave Asinof "the name of a clerk [in Milwaukee] who might help me find the records [of the 1920 grand jury proceedings]."

But in a 1924 lawsuit in Milwaukee (brought by Jackson against Comiskey to recover two years of back-pay for the 1920 and 1921 seasons), the attorneys for Comiskey (employed by a law firm still in existence) had possession of the missing transcripts from the 1920 grand jury proceedings, from which they had quoted at length.

The 1924 trial, unlike the grand jury proceedings, was open to the press as well as the public.

Asinof thus had ample access to accurate information on both the 1924 trial and the 1920 grand jury proceedings, yet he failed to incorporate these facts into his story.

A superb storyteller and author of several novels, Asinof died June 10, 2008, at the age of 88.

His estate recently sold his notes and research of his writing of "8MO" to the Chicago History Museum for an undisclosed amount. These materials only add to the questions about the historical accuracy of "8MO."

The lack of supporting information in Asinof 's meticulously indexed notes suggests that the book may not be much more than fiction, or, at the very most, a summary of inflated press accounts.

In fact, the bulk of Asinof's notes appear to be handwritten transcriptions of old newspaper accounts and conversations with retired and current sportswriters.

Arnold "Chick" Gandil and Cicotte were the two White Sox players who were the most clearly implicated in the "fix."

Asinof claimed that Gandil had been a "source" for "8MO."

In the book, he writes that in a private meeting between Gandil and Jackson, "the big Southerner [Jackson] insisted on getting $20,000 for his participation."

In "BBL," however, Asinof admits that "when it came to talking about the 1919 World Series, Gandil had nothing to contribute." Consistent with this revelation, no notes of conversations between Asinof and Gandil are found in the museum's collection.

But in his notes, Asinof identifies "Harry F.," who was almost certainly a fictional character, as a "source" for "8MO."

On the other hand, in Asinof's files there is a note from an interview with the Sox pitcher, Faber, that the Sox shortstop, Charles "Swede" Risberg, "threatened to kill anyone who talked and he was the type that might!"

Asinof also claimed that he talked to Risberg, but there are no notes to prove it. He also claimed to have spoken with Dickie Kerr, one of the Sox players who was not involved in the "fix," but no notes of any conversation between Asinof and Kerr are to be found.

Moreover, while Asinof identified two members of the 1919 team as his sources for "8MO" (banned player Oscar "Happy" Felsch and Faber, who was never implicated in the "fix"), his file only contains a few pages of notes of conversations with these men, and none suggests first-hand knowledge of the "fix."

Indeed, the only reference to the scandal in the notes of the Felsch interview is that he viewed himself as a "victim." Faber's secondhand account (he was ill with the Spanish Flu during the 1919 World Series and had no prior knowledge of the "fix") contradicts Asinof's account in "8MO."

The notes from Asinof's interview reflect Faber's belief that "[w]hat seems likely is that the players agreed to lose, then did as well as they could ." to avoid defeat. Faber's comments are in stark contrast to Asinof 's account that the players took money and then deliberately lost.

Other than Gandil, Cicotte would have no doubt been the most important person for Asinof to interview when researching "8MO." A Sept. 15, 1961, letter from Asinof to Cicotte, which is also part of the museum's collection, shows that Cicotte gave no information to Asinof.

He was the team's star pitcher, yet he lost two of the games in the Series and is commonly portrayed as one of the Black Sox players at the heart of the "fix." Asinof tried to enlist Cicotte's cooperation by offering to tell a sympathetic story, presumably to portray the purportedly greedy Comiskey as the one who precipitated the betrayal.

In a penciled autograph (of no small value) written on Asinof's typed letter to him, Cicotte declined, stating, "I am not interested, thanks for remembering me."

In "8MO" Asinof reports that ". Joe Jackson had been a disappointment to himself, playing ball with only part of himself working. He tried to hit, he didn't try to hit."

It is revealing, however, that Asinof 's notes do not contain any previously unknown material regarding "Shoeless" Joe. Asinof never spoke to Jackson.

The baseball legend died of heart failure in 1951 - long before Asinof began researching and writing "8MO."

The book's portrayal of "Shoeless" Joe as having helped to throw the Series ignores the very real possibility that he may have been guilty only of taking $5,000 from a teammate after the Series (as he testified in the 1924 civil trial), and not of deliberately botching a single play, much less a game or the entire Series.

Asinof also apparently did not believe "Lefty" Williams, who stated publicly that "Shoeless" Joe never attended any meetings with the gambler-fixers and that the ballplayers used his name only to gain credibility and bargain for more money.

In the 1921 criminal trial against him, "Shoeless" Joe, who had testified to the grand jury that he had not made any intentional errors during the "whole Series," had "batted to win," "run the bases to win," "fielded the balls in the outfield to win," and "tried to win all the time," was found not guilty by a unanimous 12-member jury.

"Shoeless" Joe was again vindicated when, in 1924, after being examined on the witness stand for the better part of two days, he won a jury verdict of $16,711.04 in his suit against Comiskey.

Although the 1924 verdict was later thrown out by the Milwaukee judge, Jackson, who could barely write his name, let alone read, convinced 23 people in two separate trials of his innocence. More importantly, he never confessed to throwing the Series, as Asinof claimed in both "8MO" and "BBL."

Asinof no doubt rode the coattails of the media's dramatic portrayal of the proceedings in 1920 to give "8MO" more appeal to the public and to increase the chances of his book being made into a movie.

Beginning in 1963, he worked diligently to see "8MO" made into a movie. Released in 1988, the film, also titled "Eight Men Out," was described by USA Today as "The Best Baseball Movie Ever."

Even today, almost a century later, there is no scene more often associated with the dark side of professional sports than that of a young boy pulling on the trousers of "Shoeless" Joe as he left the grand jury proceedings in Chicago. Captured in a headline by the Chicago Daily News on Sept. 29, 1920, a young, nameless lad is reported as saying, "Say it ain't so, Joe, say it ain't so."

What is now verifiably true is that if historians, including Asinof, had shown more fairness to "Shoeless" Joe, his answer to the child would have been more accurately reported as, "It ain't so, kid, it just ain't so."

Indeed, in a published interview in the October 1949 issue of Sport Magazine (given to columnist Furman Bisher), Jackson denied that the brief conversation between him and the kid ever occurred.

In this interview, "Shoeless" Joe claimed that he tried to report his suspicions of a "fix" to Comiskey, that he never met any of the gambler-fixers, that he never agreed to throw the Series, and that his performance in the Series supports his innocence.

Asinof vaguely alludes to this interview in "8MO" when he claims, erroneously, that Jackson's "denials took on an increased fervor - and, perhaps, exaggeration - as the years went by." Asinof, in fact, possessed the full article in which Jackson denied making the statement, but he failed to include this information in "8MO."

The public's broad-based acceptance of Asinof's retelling of the 1919 scandal is reflected by the fact that few people are aware that "Shoeless" Joe's performance during the 1919 World Series was superb, with a .375 batting average (better than his lifetime average of .356 over 13 seasons), six runs batted in, the only home run in the Series, five runs scored, 12 hits, and not a single error.

"Shoeless" Joe, who still holds the third-highest lifetime batting average, had a batting average in the 1919 World Series greater than his batting average during each of the regular seasons between 1914 and 1919. If he really did try to lose games, he failed miserably, as he led both the White Sox and the Reds regulars in batting during the 1919 Series.

There is nothing new in Asinof's notes and research of the writing of "8MO" that can directly implicate Jackson or any other player in contributing to the White Sox loss of the 1919 World Series.

The primary support for Asinof's claim that they deliberately threw games is in contemporaneous press accounts of the grand jury proceedings, which were based on second- or third-hand, and, in some cases, clearly false information.

Asinof, who writes in great detail about the gambler-fixers, may have, himself, been playing the ultimate bluff. He did not release his research during his lifetime and also suggested in "8MO" that his story was based upon exclusive, never-before-seen evidence.

In reality, the lack of any solid, direct evidence in his notes, as well as the lack of a single footnote in "8MO," strongly suggests that his story was largely fiction.

Direct evidence, such as "Shoeless" Joe's performance during the 1919 Series and his repeated denials of wrongdoing, suggest nothing more than Joe's bad judgment in taking money from his teammate and roommate, Williams, and not being more aggressive and timely in reporting his suspicion of the "fix" to Comiskey, White Sox Secretary (General Manager) Harry Grabiner, or William "Kid" Gleason, the White Sox manager in 1919.

The prominence of "Shoeless" Joe in American culture - such as his depiction in "Field of Dreams" as a symbol of "a part of our past [that] reminds of all that once was good, and it could be again" - suggests that the public intuitively questions whether history was fair to the "big Southerner."

The same can be said for the other Black Sox players. While Asinof paints all eight with the same brush of guilt, his notes are woefully lacking evidence that they actually did wrong.

History is a collection of commonly accepted facts written by the winners, and experience teaches that once accepted, a certain perception of history is difficult, if not impossible, to correct.

"Shoeless" Joe, a baseball great, is consistently snubbed for admittance into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a result of these long-standing misconceptions.

History must be corrected to reflect that Joseph Jefferson Jackson consistently expressed his innocence, and that there is no basis to blame the scandal on Comiskey as a consequence of his miserliness.

"Shoeless" Joe deserves recognition for his contribution to the sport, and vindication of his name.

And Comiskey deserves recognition for his accomplishments as an owner, manager, and player during the formative years of baseball, rather than as the cause of the 1919 scandal. At the very least, baseball historians and fans owe "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, Charles Comiskey, and Chicago's Black Sox an apology.