Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Buck Stopped

After a 20th Anniversary edition of John Sayles' Eight Men Out came out recently, I decided to read Eliot Asinof's original book again. It's still a very good read, though his decision to tell it like a novel makes it hard to tell exactly what's true and what's just speculation. (Some things are known to have happened; some things he's guessing happened based on the evidence, but they're all thrown together in this book.)

I hadn't thought about the scandal in a while. But since both Asinof and Sayles in their different ways portray Buck Weaver as the most sympathetic figure in the story, I have to say: it seems pretty clear to me that banning Weaver from baseball was the right decision.

Let's take as a given the assumption from Eight Men Out, that Weaver took no money, never intended to go along with the fix, and never played less than his best. (There are several problems with that assumption, like, how do we know he never expected to get any money even if he never got any? and how can someone play his best with the knowledge that his team is going to lose the game?) The purpose of kicking the Black Sox out of baseball was to reassure fans, who were only just now realizing how incredibly crooked baseball had become in the past few years, that the game wasn't going to be crooked any more. Weaver was known to be part of the group that was signed up to fix the World Series; fans knew that he knew about the fix in advance and through the whole Series. He wasn't such a well-known and beloved player that the fans would automatically believe the best of him. So unless he could have proven definitively that he didn't do anything at all to throw the Series, letting him play major league baseball would have looked to most fans like, well, a sign that crooked players weren't actually being thrown out of baseball. Which would have killed the effort to tell the fans, no, we're serious this time about cleaning up the game, really. (Yes, it is annoying that the team owners pretended to have a high-and-mighty attitude to a problem that they'd deliberately ignored for years.)

And the problem is that Weaver couldn't possibly prove that he didn't do anything to throw the Series. (I'm talking about the court of public opinion, not the criminal court, where there wasn't enough to convict any of the eight players and nobody even knew exactly what crime they were supposed to have committed.) The problem with being in on a plan to fix a game is that anything you do, any mistake you make, can be interpreted in one of two ways: as a legitimate mistake or a deliberate mistake. Weaver made mistakes during the Series. He ignored a signal, which caused some teammates to suspect that he did it on purpose; but then again maybe he didn't. He failed to drive in any runs, which led people to suspect that he wasn't trying, but maybe he was just unlucky. I don't know and I doubt even Weaver knew for sure; there's such a fine line between making a mistake accidentally, making it on purpose, and making it because you're really flustered and nervous (which guilty knowledge will do). When a player takes a bribe, or even agrees to take a bribe, that doesn't mean every mistake he makes is automatically a result of the bribe, but that's the point: there's no way of knowing, and if the fans are wondering whether Player X dropped that ball accidentally or on purpose, the game is ruined.

Also, I think people focus too much on questions of whether Weaver or Joe Jackson really helped throw the games through poor series play, which leads to the talking point that Jackson is exonerated by his high series batting average. It's pretty clear that most of the heavy work in throwing the games was done by the pitchers, Cicotte and Williams. (That's why Cicotte, the starter of the first game, was the first to get paid.) Jackson, in his Grand Jury testimony where he insisted he hadn't missed any plays on purpose (he said differently at other times) could think of only one play he'd seen in the whole series that looked suspicious. It's very hard for an individual hitter or fielder to throw a game except in unusual situations, like coming up in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and the team one run behind. When it came to the hitters/fielders, the point was to sign up enough important position players so that the fixers could depend on them to throw the game if that was the only way to ensure defeat. Maybe they couldn't have been depended on; the point, however, is that the gangsters assumed they could depend on these guys to throw the game if needed, and the fix probably couldn't have happened without that assumption. If Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver had said no, then most of the best position players would have been actively working against the fix, and that might have derailed the whole thing. The way most of the games played out, Jackson and Weaver weren't required to strike out or miss plays on purpose (though maybe they did, but then again maybe they didn't); all that was really required to make the fix work was their consent.

This doesn't have much to do with Sayles' movie, by the way. That's a movie, not intended to be a factual record of what happened and why; Sayles is making a movie about how workers are scapegoated while the powerful people get off scot-free, and in that context, the portrayal of Buck Weaver makes sense. I just get the feeling that people tend to conflate the Buck Weaver from the movie (and the book, to some extent) with what actually happened, and forgetting that there are perfectly good reasons why athletes who are offered bribes and don't report them can get disqualified. (From Weaver's point of view, of course, he might have had good reasons to be afraid of reporting it even if he'd wanted to. But that makes Weaver sympathetic; it doesn't mean he shouldn't have been disqualified.) Sort of like you'll hear people conflating the innocent baseball-loving Joe Jackson from Shoeless Joe/Field of Dreams with the real Joe Jackson, an illiterate but intelligent person who knew he had done "An awful thing."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You may wish to read Bill Veeck's "The Hustler's Handbook" which contains some new information on the Black Sox scandal based on papers he found while he owned the White Sox.