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‘Say It Ain’t So, Joe’ in a Black-and-Blue Age

Times Arts Editor

Edith Wharton titled one of her novels, set in the 1870s, “The Age of Innocence.” But I think she was being slightly ironic, since the innocence she was writing about had to be guarded by ironclad conventions and a considerable amount of hypocrisy.

As a country we are, I have to believe, sadder but wiser than we have ever been, and we carry as a side effect an equally sad cynicism. It’s the cynicism that does as much as anything to explain the decline in voting turnouts. What does it matter; one lot is as bad as the other.

Yet I doubt there has ever been a time when the scoundrels, the flimflammers and betrayers weren’t out in force. In Wharton’s innocent age, the land barons and the traction magnates and the city bosses were already flexing their muscles and raising hob with the commonweal.

An age of innocence probably never existed in a pure condition here or anywhere else, but it may well be that innocence has never quite disappeared either. Idealism and optimism are components of innocence, and I expect it is optimism that has taken the hardest beating of all.

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The real age of innocence was when you could believe that--despoilers notwithstanding--the good guys would win, things would get better, the cavalry (as an all-purpose symbol of delivery from evil) would ride to the rescue. Hollywood used to do a lot to assure us that the good would prevail. Casey probably wouldn’t strike out, despite the poem, and he certainly wouldn’t sell out.

The Black Sox scandal is said to have ended that particular age of innocence--the incorruptibility of sports. Nothing before it and actually nothing since the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series has had anything like the same impact.

It was before my time and yet it ran like a lingering black cloud through the sports writing I read as a kid. “Say it ain’t so, Joe” wasn’t a joke, it was a post-Shakespeare tragedy, a five-word epitaph for a fallen ideal, Shoeless Joe Jackson being the prime image of the whole mess.

The one disappointment I felt about John Sayles’ marvelous film about the scandal, “Eight Men Out,” was that he played the moment like a scene from a comic operetta and audiences laugh when the kid accosts Joe outside the courthouse.

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The movie as a whole is played larger than life--a national myth handled as myth. Charlie Comiskey is an overstuffed caricature of the greedy and cynical owner, the ball-playing moppets in their floppy cloth caps are straight out of Horatio Alger and one of them will grow up to be mayor, or an alderman at least. The ballplayers, most of them, are decent guys with maybe more skills than smarts.

But Sayles, who in his recent film “Matewan” has shown that he has an active and angry social conscience and understands both idealism and betrayal, is not simply amused by the Black Sox scandal. If much of it is played as farce, it was because the events themselves were also a farce of bumbling incompetence, though they can also be seen as a tragedy. Or as a miscarriage of justice in which the real, originating miscreants never suffered.

In the end Sayles underlines the poignancy, the private tragedy of the eight men barred from baseball for life--the eight men out. After the jokey trial and their acquittal on conspiracy charges, the players paid the ultimate penalty of banishment. Shoeless Joe, playing semipro ball under an alias just to be playing the game, is a morality lesson with spikes.

The last scenes are very melancholy and affecting, especially if you love the game and believe most owners are hard-eyed unsentimental realists but also believe there are still some ballplayers who play for the love of the sport, the thrill of winning and the pride of being the best.

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The last surviving player in the 1919 Series, Ed Roush of the winning Cincinnati club, was driven out to the park in Indianapolis where “Eight Men Out” was filming. He was ailing badly, couldn’t leave the car and died soon after. But he had his own view of the past, the film’s producers, Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury, told me not long ago. The White Sox threw the first couple of games, Roush agreed, but thereafter the Reds won it fair and square.

“You’ll get it all wrong,” Roush said, driving away.

But I don’t think Sayles did. It may even be that “Say it ain’t so, Joe” has gone so deep into legend that there’s no way to play it straight. I only know it isn’t a laugh line; it’s one of the saddest in American life, because it does convey the grievous injury done to a particular kind of American innocence.


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