Tuesday, April 2, 2013

April 2, 2013: Baseball in America: The Black Sox

[In honor of this week’s Opening Day, a series on some of the many AmericanStudies connections to the national pastime. Add your responses and thoughts for a weekend post that’s sure to touch ‘em all!]
On three different ways to interpret what remains one of sport’s most stunning scandals.
When a group of players on the White Sox conspired with gamblers to “fix” (or rather, from the players’ perspective, throw) the 1919 World Series, a story that unfolded over the following two years and culminated in the 1921 “Black Sox trial,” the scandal seemed to exemplify ideas of lost innocence and purity (which were already in the air in that post-World War I, “lost generation” moment). Nothing summed up those ideas better than the mythic but enduring image of a young boy confronting “Shoeless” Joe Jackson outside the courthouse with the words, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” And in Eight Men Out (1963), his seminal book on the scandal, Eliot Asinof helped reiterate and enshrine those images of the scandal’s corrupting effects and meanings on America’s national pastime and perspective.
There was another side to Asinof’s portrayal of the scandal, however—one that didn’t necessarily take hold of the popular consciousness in his era, but on which John Sayles’ 1988 film adaptation of the book focuses at length. This interpretation focuses less on the effects of the scandal and more on one of its key causes: the striking yet representative greed and selfishness of Charles Comiskey, the White Sox owner, in an era when professional athletes had (compared to their employers, at least) no power or say in their careers and fates. Sayles, for whom labor history is one of the defining American issues and stories, pulls no punches in his portrayal of Comiskey specifically and the era’s labor dynamics more broadly—he likes to say that he tries to push beyond black and white in his films and engage with the grey areas in between, and I believe he has done so to great success on many occasions, but to my mind his Eight Men Out is at its heart a clear and ringing indictment not of corrupt baseball players, but of a corrupt capitalist system that uses and then scapegoats them.
There’s another way to characterize that system, though: to focus on how much, to quote Denzel Washington’s character in Glory, “We all covered up in it, too. Ain’t nobody clean.” To see, that is, the Black Sox as emblematic of unifying American goals and desires, however much we might like to locate them outside of us instead. It’s to that end, I would argue, that F. Scott Fitzgerald makes Jay Gatsby’s closest New York associate the mysterious Meyer Wolfshiem, a fictional version of Arnold Rothstein, “the man who fixed the World’s Series” (as Gatsby puts it). One could of course argue that Gatsby’s association with Wolfshiem reveals his shadier and more shameful side, the kinds of gangster connections that Tom Buchanan scornfully critiques. But to my mind, Gatsby ultimately embodies nothing less than the American Dream—there’s a reason Fitzgerald nearly changed his title to Under the Red, White, and Blue—and so too, in its own dark and twisted way, does making a fortune by fixing the nation’s most significant sporting event and spectacle.
Next diamond connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on the Black Sox? Other baseball connections you’d highlight?


  1. As entertaining as they are, Asinof's and Sayles's Eight Men Out are flawed and fictionalized accounts of the Black Sox scandal. The baseball researcher Gene Carney worked extensively to unearth the facts behind the scandal, and he published his preliminary findings in Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball's Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded. Unfortunately, Mr Carney passed away in 2009, but the work he began continues through SABR (see Also of interest (particularly for American Studies scholars) is Saying It's So: A Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal by Daniel A. Nathan, which examines the manifold ways the scandal has been represented (and twisted) in American popular culture.

  2. Thanks for the comment and info, T.S.! Will add to the weekend post as well.