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"Eight Men Out" by Eliot Asinof

The Baseball Book That Changed My Life
By Jacob Pomrenke , October 13, 2015
Source: OpenLibrary.org

Any avid reader will tell you one of their favorite feelings is to get so engrossed in a good book that all sense of time is lost. You forget where you are and what you are doing. Your mind gets transported to another world.

I found myself transported to the South Side of Chicago, circa 1919, for the first time when I was about 16 years old. In some ways, I’ve never left. I’ve spent more than half my life reading and writing about the Black Sox Scandal—and it all started in the back of my family’s minivan on the way to Florida.

Eight Men Out, written by Eliot Asinof, has been called the definitive history about the fixing of the 1919 World Series. It’s not—and Asinof never intended it to be. In the half-century since the book was first published in 1963, we’ve learned a lot of new information about the scandal and everyone involved.

But the reason Eight Men Out remains near the top of so many “best baseball books” lists, including mine, is because it’s such a delicious entrée into baseball’s seedy underworld at the most critical point in the game’s history. While our understanding of the scandal has evolved in many ways from the story Asinof told, nothing can ever be written in the future about the Black Sox Scandal that has not been influenced by Eight Men Out. It is the anchor point from which our exploration will always begin.

The beginning of my story with Eight Men Out is a vivid memory. Like many teenagers stuck in the backseat on a long drive in the late 1990s, I settled in for an eight-hour road trip to my grandparents’ house by putting on my headphones and picking up a book, effectively cutting myself off from the world. The soundtrack I chose that day was Fleetwood Mac’s iconic album Rumours, which was back in the news because of the band’s popular reunion tour. My reading material was an old paperback copy of Eight Men Out with the words “Now a Major Motion Picture” splashed across the cover. I put the music on “repeat” and opened the book.

“Honest” Dickey Kerr of the 1919 Chicago White Sox.

Over the span of that road trip, I entered a different world and lost all track of time as I gobbled up Asinof’s dramatic and compelling narrative about the fixing of the 1919 World Series. I didn’t put the book down once. And because I was so engrossed in the story, I never once thought to change the music, either. I must have listened to Rumours, straight through, about nine or 10 times on that long drive down Interstate 75.

But there is one moment during the ride down to Florida that sticks out to me, where everything just happened to sync up, song to story, in that same eerie way that Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz synchronize so well when you watch them together (hey, I said I was 16!).

There is a passage in Eight Men Out from the beginning of Chapter 5, in a section titled “The Trial,” that reads:

They [the ballplayers] had sat through five weeks in almost complete silence, unable to expose the real fabric of their lives as Comiskey’s ballplayers. For that was the deal. Nobody was to testify. Not a word was to be spoken against the great American pastime. The name of Charles A. Comiskey was to be kept holy. The ballplayers would keep silent in exchange for protection. They would sit out the trial and Baseball would do what it could to shield them from the bite of the law.

And so it had gone. Nobody had spoken. Not even [Kid] Gleason, not even [Ray] Schalk.

As I read that passage, I realized the implications of what Asinof had written, and how complicated the entire Black Sox Scandal had been, and still is. I acquired the urge to continue Asinof’s research, to continue seeking out the truth, in the quest to break the chain of silence and learn more about what had really happened with these players and with this team.

The Bethlehem Globe, July 28, 1921
Source: rarenewspapers.com

And the sound that came through my headphones was that intoxicating bass line from Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” with these lyrics in my ears:

And I can still hear you saying
You will never break the chain, never break the chain . . .

That book and that song, in that moment, connected me to the story in a profound way. And that road trip totally changed the direction of my life, too. Before then, I had never written anything other than school papers, certainly nothing for publication. I had never been interested in serious research. I had always been interested in baseball, and baseball history, but I never thought it was something I might consider making a career. Thus began my obsession with the 1919 World Series—and I have Eliot Asinof (and Fleetwood Mac) to thank for it.

Later that fall, I found an outlet for my newfound writing interest, along with an encouraging English teacher who helped steer me toward my hometown newspaper. It was my first opportunity to see my byline in print—which is still a thrill to this day. In the summer of 2015, I found my name on the front cover of a book for the first time—it was about the Black Sox Scandal, naturally.

In my life, I’ve read millions of words, and written thousands more, but very few have captivated my imagination quite like the ones found in my stained, dog-eared, well-loved paperback copy of Asinof’s Eight Men Out that I first read on a family road trip down to Florida.

Pitchers Lefty Williams and Eddie Cicotte pose together before the start of the 1919 World Series. The pair are credited with all five of the White Sox losses in the Series.
 

 

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