Fans of baseball understand the importance of its history. The statistics, records, winners and losers, and players of eras long gone are a paramount stone in the foundation of the game.
In today’s world of Twitter updates, Internet sites, and 24-hour sports television networks, everyone knows everything about every player’s on-and-off-the-field-lives. This imposition of technology has eliminated the mystery of the legends of yesteryear – those players and moments we know as being, but that no one has ever seen. Gehrig, Cobb, Dimaggio – their lore is a permanent part of our culture though few, if any of us alive today, ever saw them play.
Baseball has been marred by scandals as recently as the steroid issue which culminated in the late 1990s, including superstar names of today like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. The 1988 movie “Eight Men Out” tells the story of one of baseballs earliest, and most notorious scandals – the Chicago Black Sox – in which eight prominent players on the Chicago White Sox were suspended from baseball for life after they conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series.
The movie, written and directed by Schenectady native John Sayles (and based on the Eliot Asinof novel, “8 Men Out”) features an absolute horde of talented actors, many famous for smaller roles; you may not recall names, but will no doubt recognize their countless appearances in other medium.
It’s September 1919, and the south side of Chicago is buzzing as the White Sox are about to clinch the American League pennant. Children run about in excitement as the team compiled of their heroes is in the midst of the clinching game. Several key players are introduced, including star pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Straithairn), infielder Buck Weaver (John Cusack), and legendary outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (DB Sweeney).
Watching in the stands and taking notes on the Sox are gambling conduits: former player Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd) and boxer Abe Attell (Michael Mantell). With the White Sox heavily favored to win the upcoming World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, they deduce that a fix would net an immense profit for anyone who bet against them. Team manager Kid Gleason (“Frasier’s” John Mahoney) calls his White Sox the best team he has ever seen, and Chicago is all but certain of a championship.
Owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James) is identified as an abundantly frugal man who refuses to pay his players fare wages, even withholding a bonus from Cicotte after he wins an unheard of 29 games during the season (the bonus would only go into effect if he had won 30 and Comiskey ordered him to miss his final two starts intentionally to avoid paying him). Other players have issues with Comiskey and his skinflint nature. During a celebratory party after the game, dubious first baseman Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker) orchestrates the fix with several other players and Boston underworld figure Sport Sullivan (Kevin Tighe).
“Eight Men Out” does a brilliant job of bringing 1919 to the present day. The acting is superb, with personal favorites David Straithairn and Michael Rooker stealing the show, portraying players everyone has heard of but no one has ever seen. A young John Cusack delivers in a way far more genuine than his present day roles as the lifelong ballplayer Buck Weaver who loves the game of baseball more than anything else, and battles with himself at the thought that his own teammates may be intentionally losing the most important games of their careers.
In one scene, Weaver is walking home in the neighborhood where he lives and encounters two young fans. After they tell him they were at the game earlier that day, Weaver tosses them some coins as a refund and apologizes for his poor play that day (imagine any of the narcissistic millionaire athletes of today offering such graces). Cusack plays the role in a way that a small-time player- known only to ardent students of the game (and made famous only by his role in the scandal) is brought to life as an everyman just doing what he loves – playing baseball.
And though he’s a deplorable, loathsome and vile human being, Charlie Sheen shows he’s a decent actor as the hot-headed center fielder Happy Felsch. Both Cusack and Sheen were chosen because of their excellent real life baseball abilities. Sheen would go on to star in 1989’s baseball comedy “Major League.”
The era of 1919 Chicago is shown brilliantly as the backdrop of the fall season – the notorious crime figures of the Chicago underbelly during that time period had reaches as deep as the American pastime and Chicago is depicted as a quaint small town amidst a giant city (a far cry from the murderous streets of today).
In the midst of a February blizzard, the smell of cut grass and the sound of the bat seem a lifetime away. But whether you’re a fan of baseball or not, “Eight Men Out” is a great and historical film that anyone can enjoy.
– by Matt Christopher