Great Men Out

Lost, perhaps, in the sad news last week of the death of Buffalo’s own Tim Russert was the death of another journalist — Eliot Asinof’s passing at 88 a week ago can hardly be called sudden in the way Russert’s was, especially because Big Tim was 30 years his junior.

Eight Men Out coverStill, let’s not forget Asinof. His 1963 book Eight Men Out, filled with research, interviews and (according to the Times) some fiction was a groundbreaking work, and one of the many influences of The Young Icepick in his quest to become a Writer — I read it at age 15 when an edition was released to coincide with John Sayles’ excellent 1988 movie.

Asinof’s conceit, hammered home in Sayles’ film, is the eight Black Sox of 1919 were victims of a miserly owner and a unionless system that chewed them up with no chance for the freedom that today’s free agents enjoy, even though at least five of the eight were in fact guilty of throwing games to the gamblers.

The scandal ruined the lives of many yet, in an ironic way, saved the sport from shadiness by paving the way for Babe Ruth and the needed strong, centralized leadership of baseball’s Office of the Commissioner; strong and heavy-handed, and perhaps too heavy-handed at times — Ford Frick helped kill an early Asinof screenplay attempt at the Black Sox story — though Bud Selig has acted like he’s been apologetically making up for prior commissioners.

There was much heartbreak on individual lives in the pages of Eight Men Out, from the young boy’s plea of “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” to the sad decline of the talented but naive Buck Weaver, still looking for another chance to play practically until the day he collapsed and died on a street on Chicago’s Southside at age 66.

The story gets a lot of justified mileage as a tale of the Loss of American Innocence, coming on the heels of the horrors of World War I and the moralizing by the Baby Booomer-like righteous leaders of Strauss & Howe’s Missionary Generation that instituted Prohibition.

Asinof, Bruce Weber’s Times obit states, was blacklisted in the 1950s, with Asinof claiming, “after he got hold of his F.B.I. file, the blacklisting came about because ‘I had at one time signed a petition outside of Yankee Stadium to encourage the New York Yankees to hire black ballplayers.’”

The passing of Asinof, who lived in upstate Ancramdale since 1985, near where I cut some teeth covering semi-semi-semi-pro ball in cow country, was sadly missed by my sometimes favorite sports blogs, which shows there is some (some) use for newspapers still. (Though how weak is it that in Chicago, muse of Nelson Algren, home of the Black Sox story itself, the Tribune ran the obit written and distributed by the New York Times, and not by one of its own writers, perhaps highlighting the downward turn of the Sam Zell’s Tribune and the local press in general. But again, I digress.)

Happily, I discover via The Google this blog post at Bronx Banter at Baseball Toaster by writer Alex Belth, who quotes Roger Kahn as saying Asinof had “an enduring anger at what he perceived to be injustice” — my kind of hard-working writer.

Belth later quotes Glenn Stout as saying Asinof was one of the first writers (including Al Stump of Cobb fame, another Icepick favorite) to legitimize baseball history as a serious subject.

Meanwhile, the past few days marked another mourning — the end of the annual exhibition Hall of Fame game in Cooperstown. I feel nothing but sadness about this and have nothing but good feelings for Cooperstown and the Hall, but I am currently reading George Vecsey‘s Baseball (yes, it was a Father’s Day gift) and perhaps I am the naive one, but the amount of racism sewn into the fabric of the game’s history never fails to amaze me.

The Hall and the Abner Doubleday myth were largely (if not wholly) created by the racist Albert Goodwill Spalding (yes, of the Spalding sporting goods fame) who, according to Vecsey’s book, organized an international barnstorming tour in 1888 without any black players, yet took along a black man as a “mascot” who was vulgarly (I had to read this twice to believe it) “paraded around in front of Asians, Australians, Africans, and Europeans with a leash around his neck, a wonderful advertisement for the American character, indeed,” Vescey writes.

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