Written by Eliot Asinof and John Sayles
Directed by John Sayles
The game of baseball back around 1919 was quite a bit different from the game we know now. There were the aesthetic differences, of course. Equipment wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as it is now, nor was safety a big concern. Spitballs were routinely thrown and an accepted practice. The World Series was best five out of nine games. Fans could afford to buy tickets for an afternoon game and spend a day at the game without forking over a mortgage payment.
But perhaps the biggest difference was the players themselves. They were more common men, living among their fans and encountering them on a regular basis. This was because while the owners were raking in the big bucks, they were paying the players a lot less than what they were worth. The owners were vicious, going as far as to bench a pitcher to prevent him from collecting on a bonus written into his contract if he achieved a certain number of wins for the season.
Into this atmosphere come the Chicago White Sox of 1919. They seemed destined for unparalleled success thanks to a great pitching staff led by an aging Eddie Cicotte (portrayed by David Strathairn) and a killer line-up. They are a virtual lock to win the World Series over the Cincinnati Reds. Their owner, Charlie Comiskey (portrayed by Clifton James), is portrayed as greedy beyond any sympathy. His promised bonus for winning the pennant is the flat champagne the players celebrate the League Championship with.
Along come the gamblers. With the White Sox such a sure bet, the only way to make money on the Series is to bet against them, and for them to lose. The players are ripe to be coerced into throwing what starts out initially as a few games.
The cast is superb, nearly perfect in their roles. From the players to the gamblers, they are all right on target. John Cusack is excellent as the righteous Buck Weaver who becomes inadvertently embroiled in the scandal. D.B. Sweeney gives the role of Shoeless Joe Jackson the right degree of soft-spoken quietness that indicates his feelings of inferiority among the conversations of his better-educated fellow players. James Read is the reluctant Lefty Williams who only goes in because he figures it’s a done deal anyway.
The focal point, though, seems to be Strathairn’s Eddie Cicotte. Cicotte is aging and his arm is feeling it. He knows he only has a few short years to play ball … and then what? He has two young daughters and a wife to support. This was a time of no pension and no huge salaries. The moral quandry for him is just what to do to make sure his family is cared for in the long run. Strathairn has been a favorite of mine and he gives Cicotte a lot of the same qualities he’s given to other roles; a man who knows right from wrong and yet still makes a poor choice. He does so in a quiet way, without speeches, platitudes, or diatribes. Only near the very end of the film as he’s facing being put on trial for his “crimes” does he vocalize his frustration at the way he and the players have been treated with a short speech. It’s because of this understated performance that many can look inside themselves and ponder what they would do in the same situation.
Perhaps the best role is the pivotal on of manager Kid Gleason, portrayed by John Mahoney. You might recognize his name from Frasier and here he’s trying to walk the line between the owner he himself detests and the players who are doing something so distasteful to his core being. His frustration is evident at the situation as he can’t quite bring himself to stop protecting the players and hoping they will turn the situation around on their own. In the end, though, his loyalty is to the game and he tries to salvage the dignity and respect it deserves over all personal issues.
On the fringes are the gamblers and the writers. Michael Lerner is the gambler Arnold Rothstein, bitter due to his exclusion from games as a child. This had more of a ring of modern thought to it, but Lerner does a good job with the role bringing in both greed and revenge into his motivation. Kevin Tighe of Emergency startled me in one of the few roles I’d seen him in out of that series as a Boston bookie of Irish heritage who gets too greedy for his own good. Christopher Lloyd is terrific as a small-time gambler trying to hit it big and having a hard time dealing with the other, wealthier gamblers he’s thrown in with.
If there’s one glaring problem felt that the players are put in too much of a sympathetic light. The sports writers even comment about Comiskey not paying his players “a living wage.” It’s sort of the “stick it to the man” syndrome where viewers are supposed to feel that excuses the actions of the ballplayers to a degree. While I can understand where they are coming from and what motivates their actions, that doesn’t mean I would condone what they do. Is Sayles asking for this? It’s hard to say sometimes, although the fact that so little time is spent on their trial and banning from baseball by its first Commissioner, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis (portrayed by John Anderson) that I felt this was the direction I was being coached in.
Say it ain’t so, Joe. Say it ain’t so…
A more subtle problem is the changes in history. Shoeless Joe Jackson spent most of his life trying to exonerate himself and was the player banned who was the least deserving of that ban. As was highlighted in the baseball film Field of Dreams, his stats for the series point out his lack of culpability and he always claimed to have gone to Comiskey about the fix when he knew about it. If Comiskey is truly the brute he is portrayed as in Eight Men Out, there’s no doubt he could have kept quiet and allowed Jackson to take a much undeserved punishment out of spite.
I positively loved the music. The ragtime jazz was a perfect compliment to what’s going on. It wasn’t a world war – the country had just come out of one of those – but at the same time it was something that impacted the very psyche of the nation. The costuming is great as well. The payers uniforms appear to be the authentic heavy woolen uniforms whle the gamblers appear the dapper gentlemen and ladies appear to be elegant. The attention given to these details is magnificent.
The DVD release has no extras to speak of, and that’s a shame as there is so much that could have been done with Eight Men Out. Any number of the cast doing commentary could have proved enlightening as well as some of the historical background to this black mark on baseball would have been interesting.
By far, though, just on the acting merits, attention to detail, and the story itself this is my favorite film about baseball. At a time when players are often called to be “role models” (and wrongly so, I say), Eight Men Out serves as a reminder of just how human they are, with human frailties and human concerns just like the rest of us.