By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Eliot Asinof, 88, a one-time minor league baseball player who traded a first baseman's mitt and spikes for a pad and pen and who wrote the definitive book on the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal, died June 10 at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Hudson, N.Y., of complications of pneumonia. He had been a resident of Ancramdale, N.Y., since 1985.
Mr. Asinof, a versatile freelancer for more than half a century, wrote more than a dozen books. Although only three were about baseball, he was labeled a baseball writer because of "Eight Men Out" (1963), his account of the scheme concocted by gamblers and eight members of the Chicago White Sox to throw the 1919 World Series. A 1988 movie of the same name, directed by John Sayles, with a script by Sayles and Mr. Asinof, starred John Cusack, Charlie Sheen and Barbara Garrick.
"He would have liked to have received more recognition for his other works," said his son, Martin Asinof, who also said that "baseball was important to him."
Mr. Asinof's book grew out of an abortive screenplay for live television about the Black Sox scandal, commissioned by producer David Suskind in 1960. When then-Commissioner of Baseball Ford C. Frick got wind of the project, he persuaded the program's sponsor, the DuPont Company, to kill it, arguing that it would besmirch baseball's image.
"Suskind didn't want to pay Eliot for his time," his son recalled, "but he had a friend in publishing who asked him if he could turn the screenplay into a book." After three years of research, which involved traveling thousands of miles to interview members of the forever-tarnished team, he published what some reviewers have called one of the best baseball books ever written.
Eliot Tager Asinof was born in New York in the year of the Black Sox scandal. He was captain of his high school baseball team in Cedarhurst, Long Island, and his Swarthmore College team. After receiving an undergraduate degree in history, with honors, from Swarthmore in 1940, he signed a contract with the Philadelphia Phillies and played two seasons as a minor league first baseman before joining the Army at the start of World War II.
The Phillies invited him back when he got out of the Army in 1946, but he pulled a groin muscle during his first practice and decided that his diamond days were over. He tried to catch on with a newspaper but kept getting rejected because of his lack of experience. He took a job in advertising but hated it, so he began writing about what he knew -- baseball.
"Man on Spikes" (1955), his first book, tells the story of a journeyman ballplayer and his exploitation by baseball's all-powerful reserve clause. The novel was based on the experiences of a longtime friend.
He worked for a few years in Hollywood, where he crafted a script for "Man on Spikes" as well as scripts for "Maverick," "Wagon Train" and other TV westerns.
He ran into trouble while working on a Western movie. He wrote a scene that required John Wayne to punch a horse in the nose -- his son noted that Mr. Asinof had never been on a horse himself -- and the scene offended Warner Bros. head Jack Warner. "Duke would never hit a horse," Warner exploded. "You'll never work in this town again," the mogul told Mr. Asinof, who decamped to New York.
Mr. Asinof's other sports book included "Seven Days to Sunday" (1968), a behind-the-scenes account of a week with the New York Giants of the National Football League.
He also wrote "People vs. Blutcher: Black Men and White Law in Bedford-Stuyvesant" (1970) and "1919: America's Loss of Innocence" (1990), an exploration of a year that Mr. Asinof considered pivotal in U.S. history. He describes 1919 as "the year of the jellyfish, the rat, the mad dog -- a year of cowardice, of gross political opportunism, of furies unleashed. In 1919, America gave way to false values and impossible hopes."
A novel, "Final Judgment," to be published this year, is set on a college campus roiled by demonstrations aimed at keeping President Bush from delivering a commencement address. According to his son, he also recently completed a World War II memoir about his time in the Army on Adak Island in the Aleutians.
Mr. Asinof was married once, to actor Marlon Brando's eldest sister. According to Martin Asinof, the two met in 1949, when his father was dating the actress Rita Moreno. The couple went to dinner with Moreno's friend Brando, who was starring on Broadway in "A Streetcar Named Desire." The actor brought along his sister Jocelyn Brando, who was starring in "Mister Roberts."
"Apparently Marlon had the hots for Rita, and Dad had the hots for Jocelyn," Asinof recalled. "That's the family story, anyway."
The marriage ended in divorce in 1955.
Survivors include his son, of Tillamook, Ore.; and a sister.