I ain’t afraid to tell the world that it don’t take school stuff to help a fella play ball.
I finished reading Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out this past week, the latest book assignment in my baseball literature class. It proved itself an eye-opening book. While I possessed a working familiarity with the Black Sox scandal of 1919, Eight Men Out goes into great detail regarding the various individuals involved in the scandal and how the whole thing might have gone down.
Charles Comiskey’s Chicago White Sox were already a divided team going into the 1919 season. Half the team was uneducated, from relatively poor backgrounds, while the other half came from more affluent families, with the ability to afford the luxury of an education. Thus the division in the team formed.
As a whole, the White Sox players did not get paid as they felt they should have been paid, as Comiskey was a notorious tightwad. Granted, all baseball owners during this time did not give ballplayers their due, thanks to the reserve clause. But considering that he owned what was arguably the best team in baseball, Comiskey was the worst offender of all. He even went so far as to refuse to pay for the laundering of team uniforms.
According to Asinof, it was Chick Gandil, the White Sox first baseman, who first approached his gambling friend Sport Sullivan with the idea for the fix. Thus the labyrinth of mistrust, ill intentions, and back-stabbing began, and it continued to grow as more players and more gamblers became involved in this get-rich-quick scheme that involved the manipulation of the American pastime’s championship series. Asinof chronicles the games of the Series, describing sketchy plays and performances. He also details what I can only presume are his perceptions on the thoughts of the players and gamblers involved, including the growing uneasiness of Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver, as well as the concerns of Eddie Cicotte and Chick Gandil that they would be double-crossed by the gamblers. The White Sox lost the World Series five games to three to the Cincinnati Reds, and the players involved in the fix never received the full amount of money they had been promised.
In spite of the large number of people involved in the fix, and even in spite of an awareness by Kid Gleason (the White Sox manager) and Charles Comiskey himself that something was not quite right about the Series, nothing happened for almost a year. Finally, however, in the wake of a fix between the Cubs and the Phillies, the 1919 World Series came into the national spotlight.
Signed confessions were given by Lefty Williams, Joe Jackson, and Eddie Cicotte. The eight players involved in the fix — Williams, Jackson, Cicotte, Gandil, Swede Risberg, Happy Felsch, Fred McMullin, and Buck Weaver — were put on trial before a Grand Jury. Interestingly, however, none of the gamblers were tried. The players were found not guilty of conspiring to defraud the public. In spite of this, the new Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banished all eight men from baseball for life.
I thoroughly enjoyed Asinof’s account of the Black Sox scandal. It is rich with detail and eloquently written, making it highly readable by the layman. It reads more like a narrative than a history text — and really, I hesitate to use the word “history” with regards to this particular book.
One thing I learned in our discussions about the book is that not all the details included are necessarily accurate. For example, Asinof describes a threat that was laid on pitcher Lefty Williams and his family if he did not carry out his part in the fix. However, Asinof later admitted that he invented this particular anecdote as a way of being able to tell if anyone was using his material. More importantly, Asinof does not cite his sources in the book. There are no footnotes, no bibliography. As I previously mentioned, his accounts of the thought processes of the players and gamblers appear to be largely speculation, as we cannot determine his sources for these descriptions.
In class, the professor challenged us to think about who is to blame for the 1919 World Series fix. Charles Comiskey? The players? The gamblers? The media? But really, there is no hard and fast answer to this question. While it does seem that Comiskey deserves the largest part of the burden, Asinof’s book clearly shows that there is nothing clear about this scandal. Charles Comiskey was not the only team owner who underpaid his players, the gamblers and the players all knew the immorality of their conspiracy to throw the Series, and the media hesitated to break the story even when they suspected something was going on. At the end of the day, the Black Sox scandal shows us that no one is immune to the temptations that easy money presents. It is a tragedy, no doubt — a devastating blow to the game of baseball and to the American public.
We have been discussing the book Eight Men Out in class (summary/review to come soon!), so this piece seemed appropriate this morning. Published in Spitball Magazine, this poem does seem to capture the spirit of Jackson’s view on the 1919 fix.
I had a uniform that was dirty but a conscience that was clean.
I never laid eyes on a one of them but knew them all by name.
I never spoke to them directly but heard what they were asking.
I told them to go to hell, but they said I was already there.
I asked to sit this one out but was told I would never stand.
I never asked for nothing, but they gave it to me anyways.
I tried to tell them what was going down, but they knew what was up.
I always played to win but somehow managed to lose.
I never learned to read or write, but my signed confession still damns me.
I was owed a living wage, but he’s paying me beyond the grave.
History has called me out, but His is the only call that matters.
‘God what an outfield,’ he says. ‘What a left field.’ He looks up at me, and I look down at him. ‘This must be heaven,’ he says.
‘No. It’s Iowa,’ I reply automatically. But then I feel the night rubbing softly against my face like cherry blossoms; look at the sleeping girl-child in my arms, her small hand curled around one of my fingers; think of the fierce warmth of the woman waiting for me in the house; inhale the fresh-cut grass small that seems locked in the air like permanent incense; and listen to the drone of the crowd, as below me Shoelss Joe Jackson tenses, watching the angle of the distant bat for a clue as to where the ball will be hit.
‘I think you’re right, Joe,’ I say, but softly enough not to disturb his concentration.
~W.P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe
The first thing I noticed as we pulled up the drive was the vast array of vehicles already lining the parking lot. After six tedious hours of driving, we finally arrived at our destination: the Field of Dreams movie site, located just northeast of Dyersville, Iowa. We made our hotel reservation back in mid-May, and I had been waiting with enthusiastic, even if restrained, anticipation ever since to make the journey. In spite of the downpour of rain and storms that we encountered driving through Missouri, Iowa embraced us with mostly clear skies and warm, 80-degree sunshine.
I deliberately scheduled the visit for a Sunday, in order for us to take advantage of the Ghost Sunday event. I did not entirely know what to expect, though in my mind I had visions of players emerging from the cornfield and hitting the diamond for some old-fashioned baseball: old school wool uniforms, old-style equipment, some fun and camaraderie, in direct emulation of the movie. I did not expect a full-blown competitive baseball contest, but I did envision pitching, batting, base-stealing, and perhaps even a nineteen-year-old kid in a New York Giants uniform winking at the pitcher as he takes his stance in the batter’s box.
We arrived with about forty-five minutes to spare before the exhibition was scheduled to begin, so we decided to meander around for a bit. The grass proved every bit as green as I pictured it. A lot more people had also shown up than I expected. The wooden bleachers filled up rapidly with spectators, as did the benches intended to designate each team’s “dugout.” Lawn chairs lined up along each baseline, and crowds of people milled around the concession and souvenir stands. The field itself was crowded with people playing mock ballgames, shagging flies, and playing catch. We headed out to the corn, where even more people took pictures and feigned disappearing into and reappearing out from between the tall, almost-harvest-ready stalks. I doubt that any other cornfield in the world receives as much attention from the general public as the one at the Field of Dreams.
With one o’ clock fast approaching, we eventually made our way to the emptier set of bleachers and settled down for the show. As I hoped, we witnessed the ghost players materializing from the cornfield, eager for the opportunity to return to playing a game they so loved in their living years. They made their way to the diamond and were introduced to the crowd, and many of them, we learned, had played a role in the movie. They wore the old-style Chicago White Sox uniforms, bearing the design from the years of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and made of wool.
The rest of the spectacle, however, did not proceed quite as I anticipated. Rather than playing a game amongst themselves, the ghost players recruited a group of youngsters from the crowd, giving each kid the opportunity to bat and run the bases against them. It had more of a circus-type vibe than I had envisaged, being much more family- and kid-oriented. Nevertheless, the humor and the interactions proved highly entertaining, and I was not disappointed, in spite of having my expectations thwarted.
At the show’s conclusion, we still had nearly an hour to kill before we could check into the hotel, so we wandered around the grounds some more. The lines at the souvenir stand doubled in length as people sought to purchase merchandise for the ghost players to autograph. We dove in and out of the corn a few more times, checked out the house, and I contemplated the feel of the grass and the infield dirt beneath my shoes. Finally, we headed to the hotel to check in and rest for a couple hours.
We later headed into town in search of dinner. Dyersville, population 4,000, reminded me of every other small, American town I have ever frequented. The downtown area featured a street of locally owned shops lined up next to one another, most of which had already closed by the time we arrived that evening. In our quest for food, we managed to stumble across the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, a Catholic parish featuring Gothic architecture. Before continuing on to filling our bellies, we decided to explore.
It was the kind of church that, if it were close enough to where I live, I would show up for mass every single Sunday, without fail. As impressive as it looked on the outside, the inside of the Basilica was absolutely breathtaking. Over the years, I have struggled with the idea of God and religion, but I found myself wondering whether taking pictures inside such a magnificent parish could be considered a sin. A couple times, I found that I had to stop walking around and simply sit down and let myself get lost in the aura of this sanctuary.
Our return home the next day proved predominantly uneventful, even if we did get rained on again. We stopped in Ames, Iowa for lunch at the Olde Main Brewing Co. The beer tasted delicious, even if the food did not quite live up to the same standard. I cannot say whether the trip as a whole had any profound impact on me, and I won’t pretend to have had any life-changing epiphanies, but I am certainly glad to have had the experience. It was a trip that included a visit to two beautiful cathedrals, one for baseball and one for Catholicism, and I would contend that my life is that much more fulfilled because of it.
God knows I gave my best in baseball at all times and no man on earth can truthfully judge me otherwise.
“Is this Heaven?”
“No. It’s Iowa.”
Last night, I re-watched one of the best baseball movies of all time: Field of Dreams. Released in 1989, Field of Dreams tells the story of a baseball fanatic-turned-farmer who plows under his own corn field at the bidding of a mysterious, whispering voice. In spite of the insistence of fellow townsfolk that his actions are nothing short of lunacy, Ray Kinsella believes that the voice is real, and that his actions will ultimately produce results that will more than make up for the financial strain his family faces as a result of plowing under his own crops. And it is this belief in the impossible that not only forms the crux of the story, but draws the attention and inspires awe in those who watch it.
In addition to enjoying the movie itself, last night I took the time to watch the special features included on the two-DVD set. The actors of the movie (Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, etc.) and the director (Phil Alden Robinson) discuss their experiences with the filming of the movie. The way they all describe it, even the making of the movie was magical, and it wasn’t just because it features a superstar cast. The scenes within the movie–the story, the environment in which the movie was filmed–it all coalesced into one magical work of art.
And we get to experience the results of that experience, that hard work and that magic, through this film. For some, Field of Dreams brings back childhood memories of playing catch in the backyard with one’s father. For others, it is a testament to the magic and influence of the game of baseball. And even for those who have little or no interest in the game itself, this movie resonates as an ode to that spirit within all of us that yearns to break away from the norm in pursuit of something bigger than ourselves.
Field of Dreams consists of many moments that give me the chills, even after a hundred viewings of the movie. That first whisper of, “If you build it, he will come.” The initial arrival of Shoeless Joe Jackson on the newly built baseball field. The inexplicable appearance of Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham on the dark, damp streets of Boston. Watching Ray Kinsella have a catch with his father, thus washing away years of resentment and pain. Terence Mann’s “people will come” speech towards the end, arguably one of James Earl Jones’s most memorable performances.
More than anything, Field of Dreams is a movie about redemption and fulfillment. Redemption for the likes of Ray Kinsella, who is able to start over with his father, and for Shoeless Joe Jackson, who finally can play baseball without the Black Sox scandal hanging over him. Meanwhile, author Terence Mann comes out of reclusion and finds a reason to write again, and Moonlight Graham fulfills a lifelong dream of facing a big league pitcher. It’s a movie that reminds us that we can all find redemption, for ourselves and for others, if only we are willing to take the steps, however crazy or impossible they might seem.