Tuesday, January 15, 2013

How True Was Eight Men Out?

Last week I promised to write about the veracity of Eight Men Out, an excellent book about the 1919 World Series. Let me begin by saying that I found the movie based on it to be one of the best ever made about baseball.

First because it was about actual ballplayers (obviously several baseball movies are about players who never existed, such as Ray Hobbs in The Natural or Crash Davis in Bull Durham. 8MO captured the time period extremely well and to me the casting was excellent - even though the actors bore little resemblance to the ball players they portrayed, with the exception of Michael Rooker (right) as Chick Gandil (left).

Charlie Sheen didn't look like Happy Felsch.                      


David Straithairn didn't look like Ed Cicotte. 


James Read is a lot better looking than Lefty Williams was. 

And John Cusack didn't look much like Buck Weaver. 

At least D. B. Sweeney bore a closer resemblance to Shoeless Joe Jackson than Ray Liotta did in A Field of Dreams. In fairness, there aren't many actors as homely as Jackson was.

Note that the producers of Moneyball did not go out of their way to ensure that Brad Pitt resembled Billy Beane. Nor does Phillip Seymour Hoffman resemble the very fit Art Howe. (But then Gary Cooper, who played Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees, was no where near as muscular as the Iron Horse.)

It didn't matter too much whether the actors looked like the gamblers they portrayed. Apart from "Sleepy" Burns and Billy Maharg who testified at the trial the public never saw Arnold Rothstein and Abe Attell, the big money men behind the fix. Unlike the players, who received only a fraction of what Rothstein and Attell won on the Series, the gamblers got immunity from prosecution and never had to appear in a court. 

The screenplay sticks very closely to the book though it could not go into anywhere near the same amount of detail, especially in the tracking of the machinations of the gamblers. The ballpark scenes were well staged and cleverly chronicled the sportswriters' suspicions over plays that looked to be less than all out efforts. Except that it was not really Hugh Fullerton and the legendary Ring Lardner who noticed purposely sloppy play - it was guest writer Christy Mathewson, the legendary and just retired Giant hurler.

A more obvious discrepancy in the movie 8MO is that D.B. Sweeney bats right and throws left while Joe Jackson batted left and threw with his right arm. There is a scene in which a young fan at the courthouse asks for Jackson's autograph. Why would anyone want an autograph from a man who could not write? Well Jackson didn't always sign with a X. One of Joe's team mates remembers once drinking four beers in a tavern while Jackson tried his best outside to sign his name for a fan. 

As for the book, Eliot Asinof wrote it (in 1963) like an historical novel as opposed to a simple history of the scandal. He used the omniscient point of view so he could place us inside every hotel room, dressing room, and pool hall. He was also able to read the characters' minds, as in the following passage. 

"Comiskey, [the White Sox owner] at the moment was less grieved than angry. He seemed torn apart by his confusions over the reasons for what had happened. Though he could not begin to explain it at all, to Fullerton it seemed he had a desperate need to try." 

There is certainly no way that Asinof could have known the thoughts of Comiskey, Fullerton, Cicotte, Jackson, or anyone else alive in 1919. His notes, which are in the Chicago History Museum, contain no record of any conversations with Comiskey, Cicotte, or Jackson. Asinof claimed to have talked to a great many people when researching 8MO. He wrote the thoughts of White Sox Secretary Harry Grabiner as though he had just finished speaking with him. Asinof began his research in 1960. Grabiner died in 1948.

But it certainly lends an intriguing air of insight and inside knowledge of the actions and motives of all those involved, even if - unfortunately - it's mostly made up. As well written as the book is, the reader needs to remind himself that he is not reading a history book - you won't find any footnotes in Eight Men Out. Even as I write this I am tempted to say that certain scenes - such as catcher Ray Shalk and manager Kid Gleason being outraged at Ed Cicotte - really happened, I have to remind myself I only 'know' that from reading Eight Men Out. It is that convincing.

Asinof admitted to using newspaper accounts of the 1920 Grand Jury proceedings instead of the transcripts - even though he was told where he could get them. The press wasn't allowed into the proceedings so anything they wrote would have been second or third hand. And relying too heavily on the yellow and exaggerated journalism of that era might not have been wise if one were trying to be accurate rather than sensational and entertaining.

Asinof provides details of a meeting in which Gandil claimed that Jackson told him he wanted $20,000 for his participation in the fix. But Asinof admitted "when it came to talking about the 1919 World Series, Gandil had nothing to contribute." No notes of conversations between Gandil and Asinof (who died in 2008) have been found. The next most important person Asinof could have spoken with is Ed Cicotte, but in spite of the author's promise to portray the pitcher and loser of two games in the Series in a positive manner, Cicotte declined. 

Shoeless Joe, whom Asinof claimed threw the Series, died nine years before Asinof began his research. He states that Jackson was at meetings of the Sox who were throwing the Series. But Lefty Williams said Jackson was not and that the fixers simply used the big star's name to bargain for more money. In his two days of testimony Jackson (who wasn't clever enough to lie like the gamblers, team officials, and lawyers did) said he "had not made any intentional errors and had batted, fielded the balls, and run the bases to win". Significantly, Jackson did not receive any money until after the Series was over. 

Here are the Series numbers for Joe Jackson. 
Game One: scored the Sox only run
Game Two: 3 hits
Game Three: 2 hits
Game Four: had one of the Sox three hits
Game Five: had none of theSox three hits
Game Six: 2 hits, 1 run, 1 RBI
Game Seven: 2 hits, 2 RBI
Game Eight: 2 hits, 2 runs, 3 RBI

Top Cincinnati Red:  Greasy Neale .357

Sox Averages
The team  .224
Eddie Collins (clean)     .226
Shano Collins (clean)    .250
Ray Shalk (clean)         .304
Nemo Leibold (clean)    .056
Buck Weaver (clean though banned for listening)  .324
Gandil (chief fixer)        .233
Felsch (a fixer)             .192
Risberg (a fixer)            .086  plus 4 errors
Jackson (a fixer ???)     .375, committed no errors, had the most runs and the most hits for Chicago

Probably the most memorable scene in the film is the one in which a young boy outside the courtroom says to Jackson, "Say it ain't so Joe, say it ain't so!" In a 1948 interview Jackson absolutely denied that any such conversation ever took place.

Joe told the interviewer that during the Series he had tried to report his suspicions to Comiskey (who refused to see his star player), that he had never met any of the gamblers (even Asinof doesn't suggest that he did), and that he never agreed to throw the Series. Asinof alluded to the interview in 8MO but he chose not to quote Jackson.

How much can we believe of what Asinof wrote? Here is something to consider. During an interview he admitted to making up at least one, and perhaps two characters. In a crucial scene in the movie an underworld figure from the East called Harry F. threatens Lefty Williams and his wife. Williams understandably throws the next game even though only Cicotte had been paid what he was promised. Asinof made Harry F. up. There was no Harry F. So, no such scene ever took place. What other scene or scenes were added if he invented a second fictional character?

Since I am a writer of history, not historical fiction, I shall tell you that much of the above information about Asinof's notes and writing come from an article by Daniel J. Voelker and Paul A. Duffy, two Chicago lawyers and researchers.

I hope you've enjoyed these two articles on Jackson and the 1919 World Series and I encourage you to read the book and to watch the movie if you haven't. They're really entertaining, you can't believe everything in them but they're a heck of a lot closer to the truth than most Hollywood movies. In the meantime, like I said, let's get Shoeless Joe into the Hall of Fame already.

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

Fantastic series, Will! Thanks.