New Episode of ESPN’s ‘Backstory’ Explores ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, and Gambling in Baseball

So many of us hold a special fascination with gambling, including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Don Van Natta, Jr. It’s this fascination that led Van Natta to tackle the stories of ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson and Pete Rose for the ESPN docu-series Backstory.

In the episode titled “Banned for Life,” premiere Sunday, January 19, at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN, Van Natta takes the audience on a traveler’s journey through the two stories. Van Natta dives deeper with his present-day reporting that includes interviews with Fay Vincent, the former MLB commissioner that led the 1989 investigation into Pete Rose, former MLB special counsel John Dowd, and Rose himself.

Van Natta also takes viewers along with him on a journey across America as he explores the two stories, with stops at the ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson museum in South Carolina, in San Diego for the Society of American Baseball Research convention, in Las Vegas where he interviews Pete Rose, at the Chicago History Museum, and at the famous Field of Dreams site in Iowa.

“We make it feel very modern and fresh even though we’re telling a 100-year-old story and a 30-year-old story that some viewers already know a lot about,” Van Natta said.

Van Natta told SharpSide that he’s always been in love with the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. He followed it closely in his youth and said that one of his favorite movies is Eight Men Out. John Sayles, director and writer of Eight Men Out, is also interviewed in “Banned for Life.” The Pete Rose scandal came a bit later, when Van Natta was in his 20s, but it’s also one that he became very passionate about following. The chance to take these two stories and further explore them in an age when legalized sports betting is encountering rapid growth is an opportunity he didn’t want to pass up and one

“The mortal sin of baseball is gambling,” Van Natt said. “The chance to put these two stories together at a time when Major League Baseball is now embracing gambling, since legalized sports betting had the flood gates opened by the Supreme Court in May 2018, is another element to the show which we felt would make it relevant.”

Throughout the journey of furthering these stories, Van Natta had some challenges, as can be expected. For one, having to revisit a story from 1919 wasn’t an easy task. Being now 100 years removed from the Black Sox Scandal, as you can imagine, things weren’t covered back then the same as they are now with the internet, social media, and everything else that’s available. Secondly, Van Natta and the team then had to combine that century-old story that has a lack of available information with the Rose story that has a large amount of available information, and do so in a manner that the two stories work with one another. The third element was tying in MLB’s current landscape with the rise of legalized sports betting all around us today. Oh, and get this done within an hour-long episode.

As many Van Natta put it, “The degree of difficulty on this one was very, very high.”

Getting to interview Pete Rose took some time. At first, Rose had declined, but a little in-person persuasion got Rose over the hump and Van Natta was able to sit down with him at Mandalay Bay in Vegas.

As you can see in the teaser clip, Rose was a bit combative with the interview. In fact, he looks as though he is about to storm out of the interview. Van Natta said Rose became uneasy with the pressing questions about his actions in 1989 and the investigation into Rose’s betting on baseball, but ultimately the interview continued for what was a very riveting nine minutes.

“It’s a very compelling interview,” Van Natta said. “It’s almost Pete Rose unplugged.”

Van Natta was approached about the Backstory series by John Dahl, Vice President and Executive Producer, ESPN Films and Original Content. Dahl is also a co-founder to ESPN’s acclaimed 30 For 30 series and an individual Van Natta calls “instrumental in long-form documentary storytelling.” Dahl’s idea was to build a documentary series around a journalist who delves deeper into past sports stories, looking to enhance the story with new insight and information that could further its development.

The ability to reinvent and invigorate himself with an exciting new project was something Van Natta jumped at. Not only did it give him the chance to host a TV documentary series that focused on stories he was tremendously interested in, but it gave Van Natta the opportunity to work with Dahl and also Wright Thompson, who is a co-executive producer for Backstory.

“The whole team was too good to pas up,” Van Natta said.

They got to work on Backstory in the fall of 2018, with the first episode airing in August 2019.

Backstory’s debut episode was “Serena vs. The Umpire,” and it took a look at the confrontational situation that occurred between Serena Williams and tennis umpire Carlos Ramos at the 2018 US Open. “Banned for Life” is the second episode of the first season, with several more episodes already planned, including one that looks at the catfishing of football player Manti Te’o.

ESPN has several airings scheduled for “Banned for Life,” including a prime-time re-air on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET.

“Banned for Life” TV Schedule

Sunday, January 193 p.m. ETESPN
9 p.m. ETESPN
Monday, January 201 a.m. ETESPNEWS
Tuesday, January 2111 p.m. ETESPNEWS
Thursday, January 238 p.m. ETESPNEWS
Sunday, January 267 a.m. ETESPN2

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