The Black Sox: Fact vs. Fiction

Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book Eight Men Out provided the source material for the eponymous 1988 movie written and directed by John Sayles, who also played sportswriter Ring Lardner.  Starring Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, Bill Irwin, Gordon Clapp, Clifton James, Christopher Lloyd, Kevin Tighe, David Strathairn, and John Mahoney, Eight Men Out revived the debate about the involvement of eight White Sox players in fixing the 1919 World Series as part of a conspiracy engineered by gangsters.  Scandalized, the players suffer eternal banishment from Major League Baseball, thanks to a 1920 ruling by the newly installed baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Jim Murray, sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, clarified the undercurrent of Eight Men Out.  “They say baseball pictures don’t make it at the box office,” wrote Murray.  “Well, this isn’t about baseball.  It’s about greed and ignorance and betrayal.  The Lou Gehrig story, it ain’t.  The actors are wearing baseball uniforms, but they could be wearing Roman togas.  Their story is universal, timeless.  It’s as old as Adam and Eve.  It’s an immorality play.  Man loses to temptation—again.”

Praising the aura in Eight Men OutChicago Tribune sportswriter Ed Sherman wrote, “With the exception of a few lapses into Hollywood sappiness, director/writer John Sayles does a nice job of sticking to the facts as recorded in Asinof’s book,”  He added, “Sayles captures the tension and ambivalence of the eight players as the conspiracy grew and was revealed.”

Sherman also commended ex-White Sox outfielder Ken Berry, the film’s technical adviser, for accuracy in the game scenes.  Citing Sayles’s need for “perfection,” Berry recalled a scene for Sherman involving Charlie Sheen, who played centerfielder Happy Felsch, one of the infamous eight players.  “We had a play where Charlie had to make a throw to the plate, and the runner was out, but the umpire called him safe,” Berry said.  “It was a bang-bang play.  We did 10 takes, and Charlie’s arm was about to fall off.  But on the 10th take, Charlie made the perfect throw.  That’s the way John wanted it.  He went out of his way to portray the game as it was.”

D.B. Sweeney strove for authenticity in his portrayal of Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, and, perhaps, the most vilified of the “Black Sox” of 1919.  Training with the Minnesota Twins’ farm team in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Sweeney greatly improved his baseball skills.  In a 1988 feature article about Sweeney in the New York Times, George Vecsey detailed the actor’s journey in playing Jackson.  Quoting Sweeney, Vecsey wrote, “The first week, I couldn’t do anything in the batting cage.  But I got a batting tee and set it up on the hotel, and after a week I started to make contact.  Don Leppert and Dwight Bernard were coaching there, and they helped me a lot.  Cal Ermer would come through and give me pointers.  By the time I left there, I had more power from the left side than the right.”

As with any movie concerning historical events, facts are sacrificed for artistic license, continuity, and time.  In the 1950 movie Jolson Sings Again, a sequel to 1949’s The Jolson Story, Larry Parks plays legendary performer Al Jolson.  Told about the interest in a movie about his life, Jolson dismisses the importance of factual accuracy in favor of his story’s emotional impact.

Eight Men Out replaces fact with fiction at several points in the story.

During a trial scene, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey testifies that he “informed [American League] Commissioner Ban Johnson” about the “possibility of a conspiracy.”  Comiskey explains that his suspicions occurred “shortly after the series began.”  However, he found “hearsay” after hiring private detectives.

Actually, the American League and the National League do not have commissioners; Ban Johnson was the American League’s president.  Further, James Crusinberry of the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Comiskey “was not on speaking terms” with Johnson, so he approached National League President John A. Heydler after the first game because he believed his players fixed the series.

On September 26, 1920, Comiskey testified to this action.  Heydler confirmed it upon arriving in Chicago to testify.  “Commy was all broken up and felt something was wrong with his team in that first game,” quoted Crusinberry of Heydler.  “To me such a thing as crookedness in that game didn’t seem possible.  I told Comiskey I thought the White Sox were rather taken by surprised, that perhaps they had underestimated the strength of the Cincinnati team.

“The matter was dropped for the time.  That day the Reds won again and we moved to Chicago for the third game.  Comiskey called me on the telephone early that morning, and with John Bruce, secretary of the national commission, I went to his office at the ball park.  Once more he stated he felt sure something was wrong.”

Crusinberry added, “Comiskey also called Heydler into conference after the second game, more thoroughly convinced that certain White Sox players were trying to throw the games to Cincinnati.”

However, accuracy abounds in the scene regarding Comiskey’s initial belief that rumors of a fix did not amount to fact.  On December 15, 1919, I.E. Sanborn of the Chicago Daily Tribune quoted Comiskey:  “I am now very happy to state that we have discovered nothing to indicate any member of my team double crossed me or the public last fall.  We have been investigating  all these rumors and I have ha men working sometimes twenty-four hours a day running down clews [sic] that promised to produce facts.  Nothing has come of them.”

Another example of fictionalization involves White Sox player Dickie Kerr telling manager Kid Gleason that he saw Gleason pitch a no-hitter against Cy Young—Gleason never pitched a no-hitter.

Of course, the apocryphal quote “Say it ain’t so, Joe” is, perhaps, the best example of fiction replacing fact.  Eight Men Out would not be complete without depicting a kid expressing disappointment in Shoeless Joe Jackson and the White Sox.  The authenticity of this iconic quote is dubious, at best, because of the lack of evidence.  Nonetheless, it is part of baseball lore.

As a companion to Asinof’s book and the movie, Bill Lamb’s book Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation analyzes the legal angles of the 1919 World Series fix.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 13, 2015.

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