The book: “The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball”
The author: Charles Fountain
The vital statistics: Oxford University Press, 290 pages, $27.95, Released October, 2015
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com and at the publisher’s website. (The publisher, by the way, is the same that makes the Oxford Dictionary).
The pitch: We admire Charles Fountain’s gumption for trying to fix something about the most well-known fix in baseball history.
For all we know, or think we know, about this incident creeping up on its 100th anniversary, this journalism professor from Northeastern University and former sportswriter who has already churned out a 1993 bio about Grantland Rice and the rites of spring training (which we reviewed as the first book of the 2009 season) finds a need to revisit something with a fresh set of cynicism.
This came out during last year’s World Series, so it missed the 2015 review list, but we’re not going to let it slip by that easy.
Much like what Glenn Stout did with the 1919 sale of Babe Ruth, Fountain is all about setting the record straight.
In a very subtle way, for example, he refers to Eliot Asinof’s “Eight Men Out” as “the best known if also the least-reliable book on the subject” just a few sentences into his book. So there goes any reference point you might have had in the literary world.
He acknowledges that the 1963 classic is “the single most influential telling of the Black Sox story, for it has shaped every telling that has followed. It has also made subsequent retelling of the Black Sox story difficult, for while ‘Eight Men Out’ is confidently presented and highly readable, it is also questionably sourced, and as much a work of imagination as history … (and) Asinof made no apologies for seeing and telling the story in dramatic terms and had originally conceived the project as a screenplay.”
Fountain is hardly spouting off. And we’re drinking it all in.
Explaining there’s as much myth and unknown to how this all began, Fountain takes on the challenge of trying to do a better job of assembling the puzzle pieces, starting with the idea that “we don’t even know if the Series was fixed … it’s baseball’s eternal mystery.”
Yet, what is known is sometimes “ignored and underappreciated” as a story of “organizational dysfunction and incorporated hypocrisy.”
So now we’re hooked again, whether or not Charlie Sheen gets acting credit.
Fountain frames this as a time when there was really a loss of innocence, since gambling accusations had been around for years before but never really proven. Like trying to write about the American Revolution, there’s no real “tidy beginning” here, he points out.
We do enjoy the review again of Joe Jackson’s life and times – a reminder that another bio is about to come out in June called “Fall From Grace: The Truth and Tragedy of Shoeless Joe Jackson” by Tim Hornbaker.
Fountain re-examines how the media – particularly with the movies “The Natural,” “Eight Men Out” and “Field of Dreams” — takes up Jackson’s life story as an American folk hero.
But Fountain also follows up with how all eight blackballed White Sox players ended their lives.
There’s Fred McMullin’s attempt to play in semi-pro games in Los Angeles during the ‘20s and ‘30s, finally ending up as a L.A. County Marshall when he died at age 61 in 1952. And Chick Gandil, the so-called “mastermind” of the plot, once working as a plumber in L.A. and doing a not-really tell-all piece with Mel Durslag for Sports Illustrated in September, 1956.
We also appreciate Fountain making note of how famed author Ring Lardner confronted the White Sox’s Eddie Cicotte at one point in the Series and asked him what was wrong, saying that “I was betting on you today.”
“Cicotte denied anything was awry,” writes Fountain, “but something about his denial convinced Lardner his old friend was crooked.”
How so? Lardner composed new lyrics to the song “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” that went:
“I’m forever blowing ball games
Pretty all games in the air.
I come from Chi,
I hardly try
Just go to bat
And fade and die.
Fortune’s coming my way.
That’s why I don’t care.
I’m forever blowing ball games,
And the gamblers treat us fair.”
= Released last summer: “Scandal on the South Side: The 1919 Chicago White Sox” by the SABR Digital Library and Jacob Pomrenke
= Also coming out in May: “Happy Felsch: Banished Black Sox Center Fielder,” by Thomas Rathkamp