Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: July 3, 2008
Spotlight on Eliot Asinof, Eight Men Out and the Joe Jackson Museum
EIGHT MEN OUT REMEMBERED
Eliot Asinof died on Tuesday, June 10, three days before I flew to Indianapolis for the 20th Anniversary of the film Eight Men Out, the John Sayles movie based on Asinof's 1963 book. For a moment, I felt like attending the services, if there were any in upstate NY -- he lived south of Albany, the address was Ancramdale, which is much easier to locate than his home. I sent a card, and I think participating in the Indy festivities was probably a much more fitting way to honor his memory. My day with Eliot Asinof was described in NOTES #305, and if I forget to tack it on here, you can look it up in the Archives.
This was my first time to Indianapolis, and it came courtesy of the Indiana Medical History Museum. The IMHM is one of the sites where 8MO was filmed, and credit Norma Erickson for taking the lead and organizing the "Extra Innings!" festival. (To be accurate, 8MO shared the spotlight with Take Me Out to the Ballgame -- see last issue of NOTES -- the song that turns 100 this year, and whose familiar melody originated in the mind of Albert Von Tilzer -- of Indianapolis.)
I think the tour we took could be packaged as a tourist draw. Starting at the IMHM, our bus stopped at the Meredith Nicholson Home (the Bards Room in the film), the US Court House (where the B-Sox trial and a few other scenes were shot), and Bush Stadium (which doubled in the film as Old Comiskey Park as well as Redland Field). We also drove by some locations that might be familiar to 8MO movie buffs.
There were several "extras" along on the tour, to add some color commentary to our guides' stories. It must have been a fun movie to make, for all involved, judging from the 20-year-old memories that were on display. I had warmed up for the day by watching the 20th-Anniversary DVD, which includes a scene-by-scene commentary by Sayles. (More on that in a future issue.) The effect of that and the tour was to deepen my appreciation for the care Sayles and his crew took, to get things looking right, taking us back to 1919.
The festivities also included a full day of Vintage baseball on the IMHM grounds, six teams of young(er) men playing with old uniforms, equipment and rules. Over the years, I've concluded that Vintage ball is most fun when you are playing, and it often can be played by almost everyone -- including older folks, women and children! It's not my cup of tea as a spectator sport, tho, and maybe that's why baseball evolved and spread in popularity as a sport to be played first, and watched second. Somehow, I think it would have done just fine without those crowds and cheering Katie Caseys, without peanuts and Cracker Jack.
My talk on the B-Sox was not the only presentation, Geri Strecker gave a nice session on Oscar Charlton and Black Baseball in Indianapolis. It could have fit nicely into a SABR convention or a Negro Leagues workshop.
Our setting was the room in the IMHM that had been used for autopsies -- a classroom with steep rising rows of chairs and balconies above, all focused on the center space. "A perfect spot to dissect the 1919 Series." I observed that while it sometimes goes rough on de-mythologizers, that has not been my experience when I try to separate the fact from the fiction in 8MO. Most folks realize that movies often enhance or distort or embellish on history. 8MO is no exception, and while it is a terrific filming of Asinof's book, the book itself is problematic in many ways. A good example is in NOTES #413, where I sorted out the chronology of the film 8MO, between the end of the 1919 Series and the 1921 trial. Lately I'm thinking this is perhaps the most serious flaw: the film covers up the cover-up! Many fans, familiar with the film, are stunned to learn that another whole season went by before the Fix became public knowledge.
It was a long, full, fun day, and I can't wait till the 25th Anniversary comes along. By then, we ought to know a lot more!
GREENVILLE GOES SHOELESS
A week later, June 21, Greenville cut the ribbon to the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and Library. Joe's former home -- the one where he spent his final years -- now sits across the street from the ballpark in a scenic part of town, not far from where Joe's statue stands. This event was a long time coming, and give credit for this to Arlene Marcley, the assistant to Greenville's mayor and curator of the SJJM.
Fittingly, the ceremony was short and simple. Bobby Richardson was one of several former ML players to attend, and he spoke for everyone, I think, when he shared his opinion that Jackson deserves better recognition by MLB, deserves to be honored not just in his old hometown, but in Cooperstown.
The house is small, but loaded with history. The displays are not distractions -- it would be easy to cover every wall with some poster or artifact. No, Jackson's story is told respectfully, his glowing statistics not emphasized any more than the vintage refrigerator and teapot. Visitors to the Hall of Fame can get lost in a maze of exhibits and spend full days wandering around; but at Joe's house, they will be out in plenty of time to catch batting practice. With a lot to talk about.
I gave a lunchtime talk to the local SABR Chapter, and focused on Jackson. I had hoped to have more from the Chicago History Museum's "new" collection of documents -- sharing only what I've seen so far seemed almost unfair, because it leaves us dangling -- what else did Jackson say about that meeting with Austrian before he went to the grand jury room? Oh well.
The media seemed to take this event as the launching of some new campaign to clear Jackson and nudge him toward Cooperstown honors. But I don't think that is what the SJJM is all about. It is precisely to honor Jackson despite MLB's official stance. Jackson's lifetime .356 BA (his house has the number 356) is what keeps him in the spotlight. What the Museum may do, however, is become a magnet -- drawing donations not just of money, or artifacts related to Joe's life and times -- but also new information, perhaps letters or diaries, from relatives and friends in Greenville and beyond. Info that will help us all better understand his role in the events of 1919-21 -- and that of MLB. Time will tell.