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SportsCenter Flashback looks back at the Black Sox ban.
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Thursday, July 26
Updated: July 30, 6:21 PM ET
The Black Sox scandal is forever
By Eliot Asinof
Special to

To understand the Black Sox Scandal, the magic word is cover-up. And so it was from the day the 1919 World Series fix began. When the cat came out of the bag a year later, there were headlines in every major newspaper in the country. The national pastime had been corrupted! In a scandal of such magnitude, one waited for investigations, Pulitzer Prize-winning exposes, confessional as-told-to books, research projects uncovering its causes. Incredibly, there were none. The cat was quickly returned to the bag and remained there for over 40 years.

Black Sox ban
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  • Baseball's gambling scandals
  • Chat wrap: D.B. Sweeney, who portrayed Shoeless Joe in "Eight Men Out"
  • Ironically, in 1959, it was Ford Frick, commissioner of baseball, stopping production of the first film docudrama on the scandal which inspired the writing of "Eight Men Out."

    What, I wondered, was so threatening to baseball that kept the story buried for all those years?

    I spent almost two years crisscrossing the country, digging into archives, searching for stolen documents and trial records, reading into endless newspaper accounts, and above all, chasing down old ballplayers of whom even the honest ones were reluctant to talk. Old gamblers, on the other hand, freely spit up their guts. The story that emerged reeked with sinister complication, one deception bringing on another, lies feeding on other lies, a jigsaw puzzle of a monster's face with too many pieces missing. The 1919 World Series itself was a farce. The eight bitter, badly-paid ballplayers were promised $80,000 by gamblers, then betrayed. Throughout, they had no real plan; no one knew what was supposed to happen. They won games they were supposed to lose, lost games they intended to win, a sordid story of cheaters cheating cheaters and sleazy gamblers prepared to do whatever was necessary to secure their bets.

    When the Series was over, however, the real story began.

    Kenesaw Mountain Landis
    Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's first commissioner, banned eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox from baseball on Aug. 3, 1921.
    The baseball establishment, a hodgepodge of greedy, self-serving club owners and league presidents; a baseball press, by tradition, almost exclusively in the pockets of the club owners; a linkage to the powerful underworld of gamblers and crooks, all of whom had brought the great national pastime to its knees. Desperate to purge its blackened reputation, the newly-appointed commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banned the eight ballplayers for life, totally ignoring the arrogance and preposterous penuriousness of the White Sox club owner, Charles Comiskey, that had caused the fix. Nor did anyone so much as mention the contractual enslavement of all ballplayers that lay behind it. Indeed, Comiskey was later voted into the Hall of Fame while his most celebrated victim, Shoeless Joe Jackson, would die protesting his innocence.

    Meanwhile, the making of the movie "Eight Men Out" was a long-running saga that began the first week after publication. A lucrative offer by Twentieth Century Fox was about to be signed when a radio report revealed that Walter "Dutch" Reuther, star pitcher for the 1919 Cincinnati Reds (one of the heroes of the book) was suing me for $2,000,000 for defamation of character. (On page 47, there was a quote from Ring Lardner, newspaper writer, revealing that he had seen Reuther having a few drinks on the night before the opening game -- which Reuther had won!)

    Needless to add, there was no movie deal, for lawsuits terrify movie studios. A cloud was now over the property, hovering heavily until 1972 when another cover-up at Watergate brought another docudrama into action, this time by NBC, to be produced by Talent Associates, sponsored by IBM. In a farce as inane as the 1919 fix itself, the producer lied to IBM that they had bought the rights to "Eight Men Out." On discovery, indignant at this deception, IBM cancelled its sponsorship. Again, no movie. The same week, a process-server slapped a $1,750,000 lawsuit on me for causing the destruction of Talent Associates' equity in the project. In yet another grotesque irony, no one needed to buy the rights in the first place for "Eight Men Out," as all written history, is in the public domain.

    Though the cloud over "Eight Men Out" was now black and ugly, it did not deter one young independent filmmaker, John Sayles, from taking it on. Years later, he convinced Orion Pictures in Hollywood to buy the rights to the book for six figures (not to me, for I had long since sold the movie rights for $25,000 to pay off legal debts).

    Whereas, baseball movies are mostly about comedic crazies, or comeback yarns of handicapped players, or mythmakers, or tear-jerkers about dying athletes, Sayles stayed with the tough, complexity of my book. When an executive at Orion questioned his multiple characterizations and suggested concentration on one or two stars, Sayles insisted on the integrity of the book and the true meaning of its title.

    He even hired me to play a cameo one-line role.

    "So, you're supposed to be a troublemaker," he said to me when we met on the set.

    "So why do you want me here?" I asked.

    "You wrote the book," he replied, meaning that writers of controversial material are likely to be controversial.

    So it was that the first serious unsentimental movie about baseball was honestly made. Meticulously, in fact. John Cusack, playing third baseman Buck Weaver, learned to use a small pocketless glove, vintage 1919. D.B. Sweeney, as Shoeless Joe Jackson, learned to hit left-handed. Charlie Sheen, as center fielder Happy Felsch, had to drop a fly ball without looking like a fool. Where most movie adaptations are corny, sometimes insulting versions of a book, this movie gave "Eight Men Out" a special dignity.

    I have even been advised that a copy of the book rests openly on the book shelves of the commissioner's office.

    Eliot Asinof is the author of "Eight Men Out."