By Eliot Asinof (orig. pub. 1955; reissue by Southern Illinois University Press, 1998)
The writer Eliot Asinof is best known for Eight Men Out, a history of the 1919 Black Sox baseball gambling scandal. Those who are unfamiliar with the book might recognize its title because of the popular 1988 John Sayles film, based on Asinof’s work. If Eight Men Out is Asinof’s most popular book, his mid-century baseball novel, Man on Spikes, might be his most intriguing. Columnist Jimmy Cannon even described it as the “truest novel I’ve ever read.” Since it’s virtually unknown, however, Man on Spikes might better be labeled the truest novel they’ve never read.
Loosely based on the real-life experiences of Mickey Rutner, the 1955 novel chronicles the travails of career minor leaguer Mike Kutner. A Kentucky native, Kutner is the son of a gruff, immigrant coal-mining father who doesn’t understand his son’s desire to play baseball. Discovered by a scout, Kutner signs a minor league contract with a $2,000 bonus — the money helps assuage his father’s initial objections. His team’s crochety manager refuses to play him because he doesn’t think he has the talent; in response, Kutner asks to be traded. The manager says he will, on the grounds that Kutner lets the team decrease his signing bonus to $250. With no other options, Kutner agrees.
This financial malfeasance is only the beginning of Kutner’s misfortune. A talented player who hits for average and runs and fields well, he enjoys success at the top minor league levels. But he runs into a string of bad luck, spending some of his prime playing years serving in World War II. Kutner also runs into a system that is stacked against him.
As it is in Eight Men Out and so many of his other works, Asinof’s major theme in Man on Spikes is capitalism and how it destroys the human spirit. The wealthy baseball owners, barons of the system, hold the players down. In Eight Men Out, Asinof reinterpreted the Black Sox scandal as a protest by the White Sox players against their tight-fisted owner, Charles Comiskey. In doing so, he revolutionized our understanding of the scandal, in which the favored White Sox threw the series to the Cincinnati Reds. Until Asinof and Sayles, people thought of the players as the scandal’s villains, rogues who willingly damaged the National Pastime for extra cash. Man on Spikes is far more prophetic that Eight Men Out. There are a few good men who back Kutner — the scout who originally signs him, a manager who sees his value. But more frequent are those who either run the system, i.e., team owners, or are pawns of it: Journalists, for example, are in the owners’ clutches. Even the Major League commissioner, although sympathetic to Kutner’s plight, is powerless. The thing is, it’s all true: Until the mid nineteen-seventies and the advent of free agency, baseball players were the property in perpetuity of the team that originally signed them. About fifteen years before free agency became the touchstone issue in sports labor relations, Asinof wrote it all down in Man on Spikes.
Asinof’s own experience with individual powerlessness was no fiction. During the McCarthy era, Asinof was blacklisted from Hollywood. In his angry Bleeding Between the Lines, which chronicles his struggles over the legal rights to Eight Men Out and is also a partial memoir, he writes that “the sole reference to my subversiveness was a petition I had signed in 1951, outside Yankee Stadium, urging the New York Yankees to hire a Negro ballplayer.” I attempted to ask Asinof about the blacklist and other issues during a phone interview earlier this year, but he cut the interview off after a few questions, saying he didn’t feel well.
In Bleeding, published in 1979, he also makes clear his anger toward the system. Just before discussing the career of Marlon Brando (Asinof was married for several years to Brando’s sister, Jocelyn), he launches into a rant against postwar, Watergate-era America: “We had become an affluence of leeches, wheeler-dealers, hustlers, brokers, manipulators — some legal, some not.”
Asinof’s rage against the machine pervades Man on Spikes. The book is a fast-paced novel. It’s chock-full of action and physical description, with Kutner as its quasi-tragic hero whose fruitless pursuit of his dream (it’s no stretch to see the story as symbolic of the destructiveness of the American dream) beats him down. Near the end of Kutner’s career, Asinof places these thoughts in the mind of Kutner’s wife, Laura, as she watches her husband play:
But now the chip on his shoulder was too plain to see. He moved like an animal stalking his prey, fast and hungry and relentless. The quiet confidence was still there but it had a sullen edge to it. He was tired.
Laura, too, is weary. Two-thirds of the way through Man on Spikes, she has become an aging, boozy beauty. In the book’s most moving scene, she gets drunk in a hotel bar with the son of a big-league owner, willing to sleep with him to advance his husband’s career. Only because he passes out in his hotel room do the two not have sex.
In his preface to the 1998 edition of Man on Spikes, Asinof acknowledges that he was inspired by his friend Mickey Rutner (they met as minor league teammates), who had a career trajectory similar to Kutner’s. Like the book’s hero, Rutner spent years toiling, and excelling, at the top minor league levels with little to show for his efforts. In Bleeding Between the Lines, Asinof approvingly quotes Rutner teaching him the following line: “Fuck ’em all, big and small.”
I met with Mickey Rutner early in 2005 for an oral history project on Jewish baseball players being conducted by a group called Jewish Major Leaguers. Then in his mid-eighties (he died in October 2007 at the age of 87), the Bronx-born Rutner seemed to have come to terms with his almost-but-not-quite baseball journey; he was proud of his lifetime batting average of .295 playing mainly in the highest levels of minor league ball. He told me: “I said, ‘Get those men on base and I’ll knock them home.’ I wasn’t a great fielder and I didn’t have a great arm but I was a good hitter.”
Rutner was also pleased with being Asinof’s model. He confirmed the general outline, and some of the specifics, of Man on Spikes. Like his fictional counterpart, Rutner was denied part of his original bonus, World War II harmed his career (although he was proud of having served in the U.S. Army in Sicily while under attack from Germany), and he was lied to by owners and managers who repeatedly promised him he would be called up to the Big Show. Despite the exorbitantly high salaries players earn today, there’s little doubt that the system is fairer than in the old days, when players were unable to sell their services to the highest bidder. As Rutner told me simply, “They owned you and they could do what they want with you.”
There’s one major biographical difference between Rutner and his fictional alter ego. In Man on Spikes, Mike Kutner’s not Jewish — his father is a German immigrant. In the preface to the second edition, published in 1998, Asinof addresses this issue: “Is there anti-Semitism present in baseball? Does a bear dump in the woods? [But t]o make my hero a Jew would distort the impact that all ballplayers were victimized.”
Asinof was unwilling to make his protagonist Jewish, but he was willing to play hardball with his politics: In Man on Spikes, the system is to blame. The system has even defeated the owner’s son, a Harvard grad who was drawn to Laura Kutner in the bar because he “wanted to cut the never-ending dullness that was his life.” Any union agitator would have been proud. There’s a reason why Marvin Miller, the man responsible for developing the baseball players’ union in the 1960s and ’70s, later called Asinof a “prophet — with honor.”
Rutner himself didn’t mind that his character wasn’t Jewish, although he identified as a Jew (his kids had celebrated becoming b’nai mitzvah, and he and his wife, Lee, belonged to a chavurah down in Texas, where they lived in retirement). He told me he felt welcomed by the Southern communities that he often played in, even more so by the Jewish community. He and Lee, explained that the Sokol Brothers, owners of an Alabama department store chain, had asked them to stay and live in Birmingham, where he played one year. Rutner turned down the offer because he wanted to play baseball. He also said he didn’t think anti-Semitism had kept him out of the major leagues, although he had encountered some problems:
There were always remarks. They always say, “The rich Jews up in those stands up in the park” and so forth. I’d say, “Those rich Jews up in those stands are paying your salary.” You know, you got to put them in their place. I got into a couple of fights. I remember in the clubhouse one time one of the guys was pitching and I musta made an error and he made some remark, so I went at ’em.
So why isn’t Man on Spikes more popular? In part, it may be because it’s sports fiction. With a few exceptions, like Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, sports novels aren’t considered high art. The fact that Man on Spikes, unlike The Natural or Eight Men Out, was never made into a movie, although it has been optioned a few times, doesn’t help.
In part, too, it’s Asinof’s own fault. He partially sacrifices his novel on the altar of his leftist politics, describing Kutner, at times, like a hero out of a Soviet socialist-realist novel. After he meets with the commissioner of baseball, the commissioner “watched the athlete now in that walk, in the spring of those powerful legs.” The paragraph ends: “The last thing he saw was the neck bronzed by the hot Southern sun as the ballplayer disappeared in the lobby.”
In Man on Spikes, Kutner eventually makes it to the major leagues as a late-season call-up, but he strikes out in a key game and then quits. Only after he makes that decision to leave the sport do Kutner and Laura experience a sense of liberation and relief. That’s not exactly how it happened in real life. Rutner made it to the big leagues for a few games, in September of 1948. During his twelve games in the Major Leagues, he had a game-winning hit at Yankee Stadium, not far from where he grew up. As he put it, “That was the biggest thrill of my life.” Sometimes, it seems, life is at least a little happier than art.
I never got a chance to find out if Eliot Asinof’s life, too, was happier than his art. He died at the age of 88 on June 10, 2008, less than a year after his good friend Mickey Rutner.
Peter Ephross’s articles and reviews have appeared in the Village Voice, The Forward and Publishers Weekly, among other publications.