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NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 12.2 (2004) 140-142
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Daniel A. Nathan. Saying It's So: A Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. 285 pp. Cloth, $39.95.
Nearly three years ago Amanda Smith, host of The Sports Factor on Radio National in Australia, asked me to appear on the program and talk a bit about the Black Sox Scandal. The occasion was a program dealing with a scandal involving the fixing of cricket matches. Daniel Nathan could have used this as one more example of the cultural power of the Big Fix of 1919.
Currently an American studies professor at Skidmore College, Nathan has produced a brilliant and provocative analysis of the power of the Black Sox Scandal in American culture. Nathan set out to examine "how that drama has been represented and remembered" in American life, and he has succeeded unequivocally.
The Black Sox Scandal has never been adequately understood or explained, and no one, including Eliot Asinof, can claim to have done so. We still do not know what exactly happened, but then, after reading Nathan's analysis, it probably doesn't matter. What matters is the way the Big Fix has been presented to the public. Nathan takes us through an odyssey of these representations spread across the American cultural landscape of the twentieth century.
He sets out to answer several questions:
What is it about this moment that elicits seemingly continuous retelling? Why do Americans continue to reproduce and consume narratives of the Big Fix? Moreover, what are the dominant reconstructions of the Black Sox scandal and the ideological implications of those versions of the past? What do the retellings suggest about the relationships between the different versions of a historical story? What do they tell us [End Page 140] about American collective memory? What do they say about the tension between narrative representation and social reality? And, even more broadly, what do they reveal about the relationships between the present and the past? (p.6)
All these questions are worth exploration, and Nathan handles them deftly. Culture consists of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and these stories pass on the "givens" of the culture to each generation. These in turn equip the members of the society with the conventional means by which they interpret reality. Nathan examines one such story. "Innocence lost" is a powerful and recurring theme in American culture, but as it is recurring one must assume a parallel theme of innocence regained. For me this is one of the underlying themes in Nathan's examination of the life of the Black Sox Scandal.
In looking at the first reaction to the scandal, Nathan focuses on the themes of cleanliness and contamination with Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and the press playing a significant part in interpreting the events. He points out the often overlooked fact that large segments of the public, including the jury at the trial, were not convinced by this narrative of sharp contrasts.
Nathan then turns to the landscape of "collective memory" and the important role played by Judge Landis in shaping and forming that memory. There is an interesting discussion of "collective memory" in this section of the book, along with a perceptive analysis of the moral framing of the events.
In treating Bernard Malamud'sThe Natural and Eliot Asinof's Eight Men Out, Nathan deals with both as history and focuses on their interpretations and framing of the scandal. Both opened a new line of discussion appropriate to the world of the late fifties, a decade marked by scandals of its own. Nathan raises a number of questions about the accuracy of Asinof's narrative and points out a number of contested facts that Asinof blithely ignores.
We are then treated to an analysis of the historical examinations of the 1960s and 1970s, when baseball history came of age among the academics. Considerable attention is paid to David Voigt and Harold Seymour as...