Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: August 27, 2008
Eliot and Me
My tribute to Eliot Asinof appeared in NOTES #350, not too long ago, and I do not need to reprint it here. Indeed, there is much about Asinof and Eight Men Out in my book, so much that I can recommend Burying the Black Sox as a companion to 8MO, or a the Making Of. "Six Hours," my account of my 2003 visit with Asinof at his Ancramdale home (in #305), was surely the highlight of our relationship. But there was more, and here is the rest of the story.
Early in my research I was given several articles that had appeared in The Sporting News, February 8, 1961, in the wake of a CBS-TV episode of The Witness. In 1960, 41-year-old Eliot Asinof had been assigned to write a screenplay about the Black Sox scandal, but the topic was too hot for MLB, and they pressured the sponsors to kill the show. Asinof\'s several weeks of research surfaced, however, in The Witness, where Shoeless Joe Jackson took the stand and was peppered with questions. To make the thing seem authentic, an urchin appeared toward the end of the show, begging Joe to Say it ain\'t so. The program was awful, but I never blamed the fellow listed in the credits as "Writer" -- Asinof had done some of the research, but the episode that aired was nothing he ever claimed on his long resume
By November 2002, I had found Eight Men Out and its little companion, also by Asinof, Bleeding Between the Lines. And I had questions. I was getting into the habit of following up books by contacting the authors. Asinof was not an internet/e-mail guy, but a SABR member had his mailing address, so I dropped him a note. His reply came back within the week, handwritten on the same single sheet that I had sent. (His next reply came back the same way, but by the third exchange, I rated a fresh piece of paper, and that continued -- up until our very last exchange.)
At the top of his first note, he wrote, "Pardon my brevity. EMO is over 40 years old. There\'s no way I can give you the answers you deserve. Best wishes, E.A." He admitted that he did the research for Witness. Asked about Jackson requesting (or begging) to be benched, Asinof circled "to his manager before game one" and in the margin, jotted: "J.J.: \'I don\'t want to play.\'"
I asked him for the source of his account of that unusual request -- could he recall it? And did he ever wish that 8MO contained footnotes? "No! My sources were an amalgamation of hundreds of conversations, impossible to document." When we spoke in person, months later, I realized that footnotes was a sore point for Asinof -- he must have been asked about them, well, for over 40 years. He had no use for them, and emphasized that with an epithet -- or two.
About the "Harry\'s Diary" chapter in Veeck\'s The Hustler\'s Handbook, Asinof wrote, "Veeck told me how impressed he was that E.M.O. was so like The Diary (which he discovered when he took over the Sox." Later, in our meeting, Asinof said that he once had a typewritten version of "The Diary," but had lost it.
We next corresponded in January 2003. By then I was getting curious to dig into sources closer to the events of 1919, and if Asinof had interviewed Happy Felsch and others, his papers or tapes might have some nuggets. "I am keeping all my research material, at least what is left of it. The Hall has something related to Jackson, but nothing more. (I may have donated something to the U. of Chi but I forgot exactly what it was.)" I don\'t believe that I ever followed up with the U. of Chi, but Cooperstown did not seem to have whatever Asinof may have given them on Jackson.
In March 2003, I wrote to Asinof again, noting that my research was "nearly complete." Little did I know! I sent him a section (probably the one involving 8MO), noting that I had drawn not just on his two B-Sox books, but also on 1919 and his ESPN Classic internet article, and on a talk he had given in Cooperstown several years earlier, which I had attended. I asked again for his source about Jackson begging to be benched. This letter drew no reply.
Then we met. "Notes from a Road Trip" appeared in Notes #305, soon after our Labor Day weekend 2003 visit. After that meeting, I asked Eliot if he\'d be interested in reading my manuscript, and he agreed. I sent him one chapter at a time.
His response to Chapter One -- on the Milwaukee trial, Donald Gropman\'s book, my criticism of Jerome Holtzman -- was swift and positive. "Your first chapter is terrific. Don\'t worry about trashing Holtzman [Asinof and "Jerry" were friends, I knew] as long as you\'re true to your material. The 1924 trial seems to represent all the insidious complexities of the scandal."
On Abe Attell, whom Asinof had interviewed many times in his own research:
Abe Attell called [the Fix] \'cheaters cheating cheaters\' a moral wrap-up that keeps going round and round. Though he was an A-1 thief and liar, he told me after EMO was published that I had written a right book. He was proud of his role; Curiously, several years ago I considered writing a novel about the scandal using Abe as its central character because he best represented the kind of betrayals Americans seem to excel in.
Asinof then advised me not to "become tied up in" the role of Joe Jackson, "which the world finds so intriguing." (Asinof must have been questioned over the same 40 years about Jackson, even more than about his lack of footnotes.) He did not rate Gropman a historian, his Jackson biography was "amateurish." He added that the copy of Jackson\'s confession, his statement to the 1920 grand jury, that he had received from the Chicago Historical Society [now the Chi Hist Museum], "was DIFFERENT than Gropman\'s. (Did you know there was more than one?)" I did not know that, but he may be right -- there are a couple versions available on the internet, one that is typewritten, with penciled-in corrections and other marks.
"You do good, as Yogi Berra likes to say. Don\'t make the mistake of thinking you\'re on a par with Gropman or Holtzman. You\'re much sharper. Okay? Real nice to have met you." Needless to say, this letter was a boost -- I was still looking for a publisher.
If that first response raised my hopes that Asinof would be giving me detailed feedback on each chapter, they were soon brought down to earth. By the end of October, he had received all of the chapters, but had not responded to any after the first. So I dropped him a note.
He wrote back October 28. "I\'m long gone on the Black Sox. Too many years beating those details." He was concentrating on his latest book.
I must say, I enjoyed your visit though. Like recalling old memories of times gone by. I also enjoyed the first sections of your book, as I wrote. But what followed was too much for me to deal with. I read it, of course, but its detailed recounting of all that material, while necessary for your book, was more than I could get interested in.
Whatever, good luck with it. As for intros and blurbs [I had asked if he might like to contribute something], I have long since stopped doing that. Only publishers think they matter which is another illustration of how helpless they are.
He closed with a comment on the Rothstein biography which had just been released: "I read the relevant sections and found them ridiculous."
In December 2003, I tried to strike up our old conversation about his recollection of Jackson\'s request to be benched. I asked if perhaps he had seen The Sporting News 1961 material, and got it from there. Asinof\'s reply began with a criticism of TSN, "a mouthpiece of the club owners," that "never took the ballplayers side through all the years leading up to free agency." Remember, Asinof had been a pro ballplayer. He thought TV shows "such as WITNESS are, at best, 25% truth."
As for my source on Jackson\'s desire not to play in the first game, my best recall that I\'d read/heard it from a variety of newspaper clips and people. Felsch? Red Faber? ... You challenge my fading memory, pal. Good luck on your ms.
Our next contacts were a couple of phone conversations, in the spring of 2004. The SABR convention the coming summer would be in Cincinnati, and by now I wanted to "go public" with my research, and perhaps that would lead to a book contract. (It did.) I proposed to the convention planners that we pull together a panel on the 1919 World Series. The first person I would invite would be Eliot Asinof. He would be a guest, flown in and given a free stay. That is, if I could recruit him.
Eliot was wintering down south (Georgia?) when we first talked. He did not say yes or no, it was too soon to decide. He asked who else would be on the panel. I mentioned that Dan Nathan had agreed to participate, and Asinof asked if I could send him a copy of Dan\'s book, Saying It\'s So.
In the March 21 note I sent with the book, I wrote that "a panel on the 1919 World Series without Eliot Asinof would be a shame. (Like your absence on the Ken Burns thing.) I do not need to tell you how unique your contribution to our understanding of the events of 1919 are. ... But I won\'t twist your arm, it\'s your call."
It did not take long, after receiving Saying It\'s So, for Eliot Asinof to decide about the panel. One author out. While he had Saying, he showed it to John Sayles. By April 10 he had sent the book back. I wondered if it was the trip that was the problem -- he had not given a lot of reasons, and I did not press him for any. So I asked him if he would consider joining the panel on a conference call, for some Q & A, if that could be arranged. That idea never materialized.
The next month, May, we were exchanging letters again, this time about a manuscript of James T. Farrell -- one published later by Kent State U. Press as Dreaming Baseball. I knew Farrell had been Asinof\'s original guide on the B-Sox trail, and asked him about the manuscript. His reply to me was "for your eyes only" but I\'m not sure why; maybe he did not want to hurt the chances of Farrell\'s manuscript getting published.
I was a friend of Jim\'s when I began EMO, or before in fact, I went to see him because I heard he\'d written that novel. Indeed he had. He said it stunk, unpublishable, etc. In fact, he had begun to write a lot of bad stuff and he knew it. But he gave the ms to me, "Make of it what you can," he said. He had done no research, he was using only what he himself had confronted as a young Chicagoan. (see MY BASEBALL DIARY). Then he began to tell me what he DID know. Whom to talk to in Chi. And best of all, "Find out WHY they did it!"
Being sent on that mission to uncover motives must have been a vivid memory for Asinof to the end. Sometimes I wonder if it skewed his research, because he assumed "they did it" and was more interested in why, than in figuring out exactly who did what. But maybe that\'s just me -- I came at this thing from a different angle, and no doubt that skewed my research some.
I spoke with [Farrell] several times during the course of research cross checking from one name to another. Jim had a fine memory for names and facts. I even had the notes he gave me re various episodes I pursued. (God knows where THEY are) I read the novel, of course, and as he suggested, it was of no help to me. It wasn\'t informative, it was badly structured as a novel, it was as sad as he was in those last years of his life. You can find in wherever your access takes you, his review of EMO which was highly complimentary. (Years before, he also reviewed MAN ON SPIKES, again, complimentary.) I am happy to say that he liked me as much as I liked him.
In my reply, I thanked him for his note on Farrell, and asked him a few more questions, but he never answered them. My final question was this: "If you were asked to do a new edition of 8MO, what would you change or add?"
When Burying the Black Sox was at the printer, I wrote to Asinof one more time, promising him a copy. I knew that he was opposed to providing blurbs for the jacket (although he provided one the next year for Dreaming Baseball!), but I had to ask anyway. Could I cite something from our correspondence, something he had already written? Maybe just "Your first chapter is terrific" and a few other words? "A detailed recounting"?
His reply restated his opposition to all blurbs. "Sorry. Congratulations on your publication. Best wishes, Eliot."
Those were the last words between us. But I find myself talking more and more about Asinof, when I talk about the B-Sox and my ongoing research. He has become part of the narrative. I guess that I have too.
His was a pioneering role, suited for the rugged individualist that he was. He credited James Farrell with giving him that initial shove in the right direction, but after that, he moved ahead with his own swagger, his own language, his own style. If anyone objected, "[Expletive deleted] them!"
Eliot Asinof passed away June 10, shortly before I spoke in Indianapolis on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the film based on Asinof\'s 1963 book. Upon my return, I sent a sympathy card to his family. I am hopeful that his B-Sox research, with or without his taped interviews, will someday rest in a safe haven and be accessible for researchers. Eliot himself never bothered to revisit the material, it was confined to his attic. He had grown tired of looking back, the last four decades of his life, sifting for clues. He was more interested in his next book.