Little kids in movies grate me. Often their presence is nothing more than a cheap directorial tool, and in the case of Eight Men Out, the kids – who weren’t present in the book the movie is based on – are completely ubiquitous. Maybe director John Sayles was just trying to use them as a metaphor for the time baseball lost its childlike innocence, but if he was doing that then he’s an idiot. Even in his own movie, he shows the era of baseball ever having such a childlike innocence as a mere picket fence illusion, an idea that would have been propagated in 1950s America. Of course, the presence of the kids does mean that during the scene where Shoeless Joe Jackson walks out of the courthouse, we see that wide-eyed youth say in that stunned voice “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” (Which, by the way, never actually happened in real life.)
The kids in Eight Men Out bug me. Not only were they never in the book (I read most of the book some six years ago just before I moved to Chicago, but was not able to finish it) but they create a distraction in what is otherwise a very accurate retelling of the Black Sox scandal of 1919, and a very accurate silver screen rendition of the book. Eight Men Out is my favorite baseball movie, despite the obnoxious kids who don’t serve any particular purpose.
For those who don’t know anything about this incident, the story goes like this: In 1919 professional baseball was already 50 years old (Major League Baseball marks the beginning of the league at the 1869 formation of the Cincinnati Redlegs, who became the first professional baseball team ever), and the Chicago White Sox were fielding the very best team anyone had ever seen at that point. They were also being run by a penny pinching owner by the name of Charles Comiskey, who cut corners by underpaying his players, giving them less for a food allowance, and making them do their own laundry. If you ever get a look at any team photos of the Comiskey-run White Sox with their owner, the striking thing about nearly all of them is how angry the players look, in contrast to Comiskey’s unassuming coolness. Anyway, upon winning the Pennant in 1919 only to be presented with flat champagne which Comiskey claimed was their bonuses, eight players conspired with famed gambler Arnold Rothstein to throw the World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds. Many of the players involved were aging and worried about their financial futures and agreed to payoffs, trying to get one decent payday before hanging up their cleats.
The incident changed baseball and cast a dark cloud over the White Sox. Baseball clamped down on gambling, banning for life anyone involved in betting on their own team. All eight conspiring players were banned from the sport for good. The White Sox were a dominant team in the dead ball era, winning the Pennant three times – including the 1901 Pennant, before the World Series was created – and World Series titles in 1906 and 1917, but their next Pennant wouldn’t come along until 1959, and they would have to wait until 2005 for their next World Series title.
While there aren’t really any main characters in the movie, the moral center of the story is clearly Buck Weaver. When we are first introduced to the team’s conspirators, they are in the middle of a game, and Joe Burns is already plotting a fix, sitting in the stands, analyzing the will-they-or-won’t they odds of the team’s players. Burns isn’t sure about Weaver because Weaver hates to lose. Throughout the movie, it’s Weaver who goes through the motions, agreeing to throw the Series and then reneging because his sense and morals came into conflict with what the gamblers were asking him to do. (In real life, Weaver was one of the most highly regarded third basemen of his day, and Ty Cobb was afraid of hitting at him, so his participation made an impact.) When the scandal breaks, it’s Weaver who most vehemently denied his involvement in order to keep his good name cleared. Joe Jackson goes through similar motions to Weaver, but Jackson’s role is smaller and there is barely any mention of how he performed in the World Series. This is a refreshing change from the mythologized lore of Joe Jackson, which seeks to paint him in a light of naive innocence, and a change from typical White Sox lore which usually focuses most portrayals of the Black Sox scandal on him in some form or another. Jackson, in real life, has a lot of questions surrounding his role in the fix; he put on one of the most dominant performances in World Series history, but his numbers took considerable dips in games the Sox lost. Sayles is smart to relegate Jackson to the background to avoid taking a side with him, even though his portrayal by DB Sweeney is one of the best portrayals of Jackson and some of the best acting in the movie.
The plot of the Black Sox scandal is somewhat difficult to follow, because the real life plot actually involved two fixes. The better-known one was by Rothstein, the other was, I think, by Burns. This creates more complex plot in the movie, but Sayles really takes the effort to introduce you to every character and tell you who each one is, and give a bit of background. In some cases it’s blatantly obvious. But it also rounds out the characters who would otherwise come off as completely two-dimensional. In some cases, the characters end up looking bad anyway – Charlie Comiskey’s image takes a real battering, as he is first portrayed as as penny pincher who only cares about his image, then he is portrayed as the main conspirator in the following cover-up once the story breaks. Fred McMullen is barely in the movie, but we’re not given any information on him at all. Other players, though, are given their reasoning with just a couple of well-placed scenes or lines. When the scandal breaks, Happy Felsch is seen talking to reporters, asking them why he shouldn’t get fat too. Eddie Cicotte is seen asking Comiskey for the bonus he believes he deserves after winning 29 games and being benched via Comiskey’s order for the Series. (Comiskey had promised him a bonus if he won 30 games, and Cicotte won 29 and was benched for his last five starts.) Even Rothstein gets a fairly sympathetic portrayal, explaining his childhood as the fat kid who never got to play with the others, and who learned sports by watching and used what he knew to take advantage of athletes because the opportunity came along.
Like the book, the movie basically takes place in three sections: The fix setup, the World Series, and the trial. The first part deals with the fix, the elaboration which went into planning it, and getting the most important players on the team involved. It also shows the division of the team – which was famously divided between the poor country players and the educated players, and they completely hated each other – but not in as much detail as I would have liked, though it does crop up during World Series games when the catcher Ray Schalk argues with Eddie Cicotte. The second revolves mainly around the World Series as the scheme begins to take shape and problems begin to arise – problems like the gamblers not coming up with the money, and people wondering why the normally skilled and dominating White Sox appear to be making keystone cop-like mental errors in some games while performing so flawlessly in others. The third part deals with the aftermath and how the owners decided to deal with it. We bear witness to the creation of the commissioner’s post, and the appointment of Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
The first two parts are the most interesting, to see the players who were the angriest and what it took to talk them into throwing baseball’s yearly title series, the way the plans were laid out, the way they were supposed to go and the ways they went wrong. The third part oddly slows things down a little bit. After building a lot of steam, the idea of there being a trial just kinds of puts the brakes on everything. This is perhaps not entirely unexpected; Eight Men Out is actually a gangster movie at its heart, and so it feels weird because we’re so used to seeing the involved gangsters being brought to a more violently gangland comeuppance. In Eight Men Out, Rothstein and Comiskey both get off completely while Commissioner Landis bans these eight ballplayers for life, two of them under questionable circumstances. This isn’t to say the third act is bad, mind you; Sayles actually does a lot that condemns Comiskey, including showing his part in trying to cover up as much of the scandal as he can. The owners who appoint Landis did so in the hope that they could push him around, but of course the opposite happened. (Too bad Landis, for all his reputation, was as much a prick as any of them.)
Eight Men Out works not only because of the fascinating plot and characters, but Sayles’s direction is truly impeccable. This movie came out during the 80′s and stands as undeniable proof that excellent movies were made during that decade. (Actually, baseball movies hit a real bumper crop that decade, now that I think of it: The Natural, Eight Men Out, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and the watchable aspects of Major League, which had effort in making it even though it made my list of worst sports movies.) The cast is a who’s who of before-they-were-stars actors: John Cusack playing the anguished and confused Buck Weaver, Charlie Sheen as Happy Felsch, Christopher Lloyd as Burns, and DB Sweeney’s indispensible performance as Joe Jackson add to a well-rounded cast of lesser-known actors, none of whom steal the show from any others. The period portrayal is also a small but vital detail, including the excellent recreation of the uniforms and a man singing the national anthem through a megaphone.
Baseball is one of those symbols of American innocence, but we know the truth: Baseball, like America, was never particularly innocent. It takes movies like Eight Men Out to remind us of that. People say the sport’s innocence was lost because of the steroids scandal, but steroids might actually be one of the least damaging challenges faced by baseball. Eight Men Out is a stark portrayal of the sport in a genre and a sport which are both in love with their sanitized family images. (Major League Baseball so much so that it blatantly lies about its origins, STILL standing by the Doubleday myth which was thoroughly and conclusively debunked decades ago.) It is also a great portrayal of the sport’s best and most forgotten curse story, the Comiskey Curse – or the Black Sox Curse – which goes well with the better publicized Curse of the Bambino and Billy Goat Curse.