Eliot Asinof: A Baseball Life

This article was written by Tim Wiles

This article was published in The National Pastime (Volume 27, 2007)

Every summer thousands of baseball fans flock to Cooperstown to see the annual induction ceremony of new Hall of Famers. In June another draw is the annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and Amer­ican Culture, where baseball scholars present papers on all aspects of the game and hear a keynote speaker. Those speakers have included a pretty powerful lineup of baseball thinkers and writers, including Marvin Miller, Jules Tygiel, W. P. Kinsella, Leonard Koppett, Andrew Zimbalist, Jonathan Eig, and my favorite, Eliot Asinof.

Best known in baseball circles for writing Eight Men Out, the classic nonfiction account of the 1919 World Series and its “Black Sox scandal,” Asinof also has a fascinating life story of his own, parts of which he related in his lecture. This columnist sat in the audience thinking that there are no stories better than our true-life stories, at least if we have lived lives as full as Asinof’s.

Our speaker began by quoting the oft-cited dictum of Jacques Barzun: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” Asinof noted that he once asked Barzun to explain his famous remark, and that Barzun admitted that he didn’t know exactly what he had meant. Some of the best writing on cultural matters is impressionistically drawn, as was Barzun’s essay. The rest of Asinof’s speech wove threads of auto­ biography with trenchant commentary on the heart and mind of America.

In 1939, he was a self-described “hot shot college ballplayer,” who was recruited to play on Doubleday Field for a U.S. amateur team vs. a group of local all-stars during the summer of ’39. Asinof recalled the portable lighting system that had been installed for the night game, and the fact that the local pitcher hit the all-stars’ first batter in the mouth, delaying the game while all of his teeth were collected. Asinof batted second, swung at the first two pitches, and made for the dugout. Then the ump called him back for his final cut, which presumably was strike three.

While Asinof’s speech was impossibly rich with stories which I would like to relate, I will focus on the following three, which illustrate, to Asinof, how baseball either doesn’t reflect the heart and mind of America, or reflects it all too well.

In 1940, Asinof embarked upon a career as a profes­sional ballplayer, signed by the Phillies, who sent him to a low-level farm club at Moultrie, Georgia. After a long trip from New York, he moved in Moultrie at about five in the afternoon, the streets busy with people walking home from work. Making his way to the ballpark for his first game as a Moultrie Packer, Asinof saw a black woman approaching him with a baby in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other, and instinctively stepped aside to let her pass. A moment later, the long arm of the South landed on his shoulder from behind, and Asinof was arrested for being courteous to a black woman. A month or so later, Asinof, a good hitter by all the evidence I’ve seen, hit a triple during a home game. It just happens that the “Colored” seating section was behind third base, and stories of Asinof’s chivalry had circulated among the fans in that section. They gave him an ovation for his hit, and be responded by tipping his cap. He was fired the next day.

The next season saw him sent to Wausau, Wisconsin, presum­ably a place where the young ballplayer would not rouse the rabble with his dangerous racial attitudes. Asinof played well for the Lumberjacks, but the outcome was the same; he was fired. This time his offense was that he was Jewish. In the Midwest in the 1940s, that’s one strike against you, but the situation became untenable when the team owner’s teenage daughter developed a crush on a Jewish ballplayer. Even if her attention was unrequited, as was the case, there were some things America just couldn’t tolerate back then.

World War II interrupted the ballplayer’s career, and Private Asinof, who became Lieutenant Asinof with the help of an old buddy named Hank Greenberg, was posted to Adak Island, far out in the Aleutian chain, to defend our interests in the north Pacific. Lieutenant Asinof had plenty of time to write, and a fine critic and mentor in one of his superior officers, Dashiel Hammett. Asinof would write for the base newspaper, raking the muck of Adak, and Hammett would advise him: “You’ve brought me the what, Eliot, now go back and bring me the why.” It would be fine advice for a writer who would later produce not just Eight Men Out but also one of the finest baseball novels ever written, Man on Spikes. This once­ forgotten 1955 classic was reissued in 1998 by Southern Illinois University Press, which also published Asinof’s baseball novel Off-Season in 2000.

After the war, Asinof spent a couple of seasons as a clothing salesman in New York, working on his writing and founding a high-level semi-pro baseball league. When the league folded, mostly due to the advent of television, which was a better entertainment option than sitting outside watching semi-pro ball, Asinof went into writing full-time. Sardonically, Asinof parodied Barzun in his speech, saying, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better watch television.”

It was television, and movies, in fact where Asinof had much of his early success as a writer. After a while, that too would come to an end, as he found himself black­ listed by the House un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joe McCarthy. In the end, it didn’t matter much to Asinof, who found a way to write on, this time in books. Many years later, after the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, Asinof approached the FBI to find out why he had been blacklisted. The thin file on this threat to America contained only one item, though that one piece of evidence was enough to end his career. In the late 1940s or early 1950s, Asinof had signed a pe­tition outside Yankee Stadium urging the Yankees to sign their first black ballplayer.

Did our old friend Jacques Barzun hit the nail on the head when he said, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game …?” You decide.

TIM WILES has been director of research at the Baseball Hall of Fame since 1995. He is the co-editor of “Line Drives: 100 Contemporary Baseball Poems” (Southern Illinois Uni­versity Press, 2002) and co-author of the forthcoming “Baseball’s Greatest Hit: 100 Years of Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”