The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Baseball / How the Movie Eight Men Out Created a False Narrative about Shoeless Joe Jackson

How the Movie Eight Men Out Created a False Narrative about Shoeless Joe Jackson

Eight Men Out, was it accurate?

Eight Men Out has always been one of my favorite books and movies, so today, I thought we would look at the book’s historical accuracy and movie.

Eight Men Out: The screenplay

The screenplay sticks very closely to the book though obviously could not go into anywhere near the same amount of detail, especially in tracking the actions of the gamblers involved in throwing the 1919 World Series. The ballpark scenes were well staged and cleverly chronicled the sportswriters’ suspicions overplays that looked to be less than all-out efforts. Except that it was not Hugh Fullerton and the legendary Ring Lardner who noticed the White Sox players’ purposely sloppy play: It was a guest writer and baseball legend Christy Mathewson who first realized something was up and that the games did not seem on the up-and-up.

In the movie, a more obvious discrepancy is that D.B. Sweeney, playing Joe Jackson, bats right and throws left, while Jackson batted left and threw righty.

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Eight Men Out: The Book

As for the book, Eliot Asinof wrote it (in 1963) like a historical novel instead of a simple history of the scandal. He used the omniscient point of view to place the reader inside every hotel room, dressing room and pool hall. What is more troubling to me is that he read the minds of critical characters whom he had never talked to. An example of a passage in the book in which Asinof reads Charles Comiskey’s mind with no concrete proof that the Chicago White Sox owner ever thought this at all follows.

“Comiskey at the moment was less grieved than angry. He seemed torn apart by his confusion 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 Charles Comiskey, Fullerton, Jackson, Eddie Cicotte or anyone else alive in 1919. His notes in the Chicago History Museum contain no record of any conversations with Comiskey, Cicotte or Jackson. Asinof claimed to have spoken with many people when researching the book. 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. So to me, the book is what happened in the scandal from the viewpoint of a man that has no clue what happened during this period.

As well written as the book is, the reader needs to remind himself that he is not reading a history book because there is no evidence to back any of it up: You won’t find any footnotes in Asinof’s Eight Men. Out – not one!. Even as I write this, I am tempted to say that certain scenes, such as one in which catcher Ray Schalk and manager Kid Gleason become outraged at Cicotte, really happened; I have to remind myself I only “know” that from reading Eight Men Out. It is that convincing. The book becomes less compelling when you realize that this all came from the writer’s mind, though. 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 fictional.

Asinof admitted to using newspaper accounts of the 1920 grand jury proceedings instead of the court stenographer transcripts – even though he was told where he could get them. Asinof chooses to use newspaper accounts, even though newspaper reporters were not allowed into court proceedings, so these accounts were second- or thirdhand. So Asinof was more into making up a story for his readers than writing a fact-based understanding of what happened.

Asinof provides details of a meeting where Chick Gandil claims 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. “(Emphasis mine.) 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 Cicotte. Still, despite the author’s promise to portray the pitcher and loser of two ’19 World Series games positively, Cicotte declined. And Asinof still followed the narrative that Jackson was partially in on the fix.

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 had not been present and that the fixers used the giant star’s name to bargain for more money; Asinof ignored this because it makes the story better if Jackson is somehow in on the fix. In his two days of testimony, Jackson 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.

Ruining Shoeless Joe’s Reputation

Most of Asinof’s claims of what Jackson did were made up in his mind. If you compare Jackson to the players that cheated, you will see what I mean.
Tell me after reading these stats if you think Joe Jackson threw the 1919 World Series.

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 the Sox three hits
Game Six: 2 hits, one run, 1 RBI
Game Seven: 2 hits, 2 RBI
Game Eight: 2 hits, two runs, 3 RBI

White Sox Averages

Team .224
Eddie Collins (clean) .226
Shano Collins (clean) .250
Ray Schalk (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 hits for Chicago.

Jackson’s numbers don’t fall in line with the other fixers.

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 denied that any such conversation ever took place. It never happened, and yet Asinof put it in the film!

Joe told the interviewer that during the SeriSerieshad 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 SeriSeriesd by Jackson’s play, it’s hard to imagine that Jackson ever had any intention of throwing the World Series.

The unfortunate part to all of this is that Joe Jackson is remembered as a man who violated baseball’s most prominent lawyers, and he is not in the Hall of Fame because of this. Maybe if Asinof had done some actual research and told the true story, public opinion could have been changed. Instead, he just reinforced the lie that Shoeless Joe was in on the fix.

It’s also a shame that Pete Rose is brought up soon after whenever Jackson is brought up. Jackson was a far better player than Rose, with a better bat proven by a career batting average over 40 points higher than Rose’s. Jackson had a far superior arm and glove. More importantly, Jackson was not the kind of man Rose is, but rather a good man who never harmed anybody; comparison to Rose is just a sad state of affairs.

Made-up characters

Here is something to consider: During an interview, Asinof 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 scenes or scenes were added if he invented a second fictional character?

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Conclusion

Asinof wrote an entertaining, made up a book about the Black Sox scandal, and yes, the book is good. My problem is when you do a historical book, and people think it is genuine, anybody like Jackson can get hurt by making the story even more entertaining. A storyline of Jackson trying to tell Comiskey about the fixing and Comiskey refusing to even talk to him about it makes the book and movie even better.

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