Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Recently MLB Network has been showing a series of baseball-themed films. Last Monday night the movie EIGHT MEN OUT was screened. EIGHT MEN OUT, based on Eliot Asinof's same-named book, relates the story of the 1919 World Series "fix", in which certain members of the Chicago White Sox were paid by gamblers to "throw"--that is, to try to lose--the Series to the opposing Cincinnati Reds.

If you've been reading any of my earlier posts, you know by now that I am a lifelong White Sox fan. (You DO know what the title of this blog refers to, don't you?) Being a White Sox fan means you carry a lot of baggage--some of it self-inflicted, I'll admit. The Black Sox Scandal makes up a huge amount of that baggage. Even the White Sox's victory in the 2005 World Series didn't sweep the memory of the Black Sox away.

When I was a kid, and I first started getting into baseball history, the eight players who were suspended for life for participating in the Black Sox Scandal were looked upon as basically crooks. As time passed that attitude started to change. Now, the Black Sox are looked at in some quarters as almost heroes. Movies like EIGHT MEN OUT and FIELD OF DREAMS played a major role in making that happen.

EIGHT MEN OUT was released in 1988 and was written & directed by acclaimed independent filmmaker John Sayles. Sayles sticks fairly close to Asinof's book. I have owned a copy of the book for years and I've always thought that a lot of it reads like a novel. (The book doesn't have any footnotes--and some have claimed Asinof may have invented some of his "facts".)
EIGHT MEN OUT tells a very complex tale, and Sayles has a lot of ground to cover. The problem anyone has with telling the full story of the Black Sox Scandal is that there are so many people involved, and so many plots and sub-plots to deal with, it's almost impossible to clearly cover everything in a two-hour time period. (The best way to do it would be through a multi-part documentary.) Sayles does his best to put in all the major highlights, but if you are a viewer who doesn't know much about the scandal or the characters involved you will probably feel somewhat confused. Where Sayles really hits the mark is creating a sense of what it was like in 1919 and how people interacted with one another at the time. Most historical films get the clothes and the props right, but the performers still act and talk the way they would in their own contemporary lives. EIGHT MEN OUT is one of the few period films that does not have this problem.

EIGHT MEN OUT has a huge and varied cast. The actors that come off best are the ones in the non-baseball player roles. John Anderson plays the first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and he looks like a still photo of the Judge that has come to life. Michael Lerner plays Arnold Rothstein, the gangster who orchestrated the "fix". Legendary Chicago social commentator Studs Terkel is sportswriter Hugh Fullerton, who suspected something was going on even as the Series was being played, and John Sayles himself went in front of the camera to play fabled writer Ring Lardner (Sayles bears a striking resemblance to Lardner).

John Mahoney is perfect as White Sox manager Kid Gleason. The owner and founder of the White Sox, Charles Comiskey, is portrayed by Clifton James. James played a number of blustery buffoons in his career, and he plays Comiskey as....a kind of blustery buffoon.

It's no surprise that Comiskey comes out this way. John Sayles is a bit left-of-center, and it's obvious that he felt sympathy for the Black Sox. The movie (and Asinof's book) lay out the case that Comiskey was a heartless skinflint, and the Black Sox were "driven" to throw the Series because of him. The casting of the ballplayers is another example of Sayles trying to influence the audience. With the exception of Michael Rooker (who plays the "fix" ringleader, Chick Gandil) and David Strathairn (who plays the slightly older than his teammates Eddie Cicotte) Sayles cast a bunch of young, fresh-faced actors (John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, D. B. Sweeney, etc.) to play the Black Sox--a sort of mini-brat pack. Anyone who has seen photos of the real Black Sox know that those guys didn't look like Hollywood heartthrobs. One wonders how sympathetic the audience would have been if the Black Sox had been played by actors who more physically resembled them. (By the way, a young Harry Dean Stanton would have been perfect as Shoeless Joe Jackson.)

John Cusack plays Buck Weaver, who apparently knew about the fix, didn't want to be in on it, and was stuck trying to play his best and still not "rat" out his fellow ballplayers. D. B. Sweeney plays the White Sox's best hitter, Shoeless Joe Jackson. Shoeless Joe has now taken on almost mythic proportions--partly because of films like this and FIELD OF DREAMS. Sweeney's Joe comes off as somewhat of a baseball Rain Man--he sometimes acts like he isn't aware of what's going on around him. This plays up to one of the many legends surrounding Shoeless Joe--the legend being that because Joe was a Southerner who didn't know how to read and write, he couldn't have been involved in something as complicated as throwing a World Series. I've read multiple biographies of Jackson, and while it's true he was functionally illiterate, he certainly wasn't a naive country bumpkin.

EIGHT MEN OUT is certainly not a "feel good" movie. At the end all eight Black Sox are banned from baseball forever (just as in real life). The movie is one to be admired rather than loved. There are a ton of various characters, but none of them seem to grab the audience's attention completely. And for a film based on such a controversial subject, there just doesn't seem to be a lot of passion or emotion.

As stated before, EIGHT MEN OUT (and FIELD OF DREAMS, which came out soon after) helped turn the Black Sox from being perceived as fiends into being looked upon as working-class victims. Whenever I have a discussion about the Black Sox Scandal with anyone (more like an argument), the other person's entire information on the subject comes from the movies. If it was simplistic to portray the Black Sox as villains, it's just as simplistic to make Charles Comiskey out to be an evil rich guy and the players noble men who had no other choice but to do what they did. Real life, and real events, are a lot more complicated...but in the sound bite society we live in, high concept reigns supreme. There are no good guys or bad guys when it comes to the Black Sox Scandal. Everybody lost--Comiskey, the players, the fans, and most of all the game of baseball itself. One of the most famous lines in movie history comes from John Ford's THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. The line is: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That certainly describes how the Black Sox Scandal is looked at today. The legend of the simple Southern ballplayer with the cool nickname emerging from the cornfield is far more powerful than any actual fact.

John Sayles' EIGHT MEN OUT is a very earnest attempt to recreate a very complex historical incident. But it should be remembered as a dramatization of said event--and NOT as the definitive interpretation of it.

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