Eight Men Out (1988) John Sayles

 

Disillusionment with sport heroes is something sport fans have had to deal with quite a bit recently. However, is it really a new occurrence?  Scandals in sports seem to have been with us throughout the years. Way back in the 1870’s, a professional ballplayer named George Gerchtel was accused of throwing games. Over the years, innumerable boxing matches have been fixed, the career of Primo Carnera being a prime example, with many of his fights being considered mob influenced set ups. The College basketball world was rocked in the 1950’s when seven colleges involving thirty two players were bribed by bookies to keep games close.  The mob was also involved in bribing Boston College players during the 1978-79 season. One of the mob members included Henry Hill, a name movie fans will remember from Martin Scorsese’s, “Goodfellas.” Then there was the Pete Rose gambling mess, the continuing steroid mess that has destroyed the integrity of baseball, the tour de France incidents a few year back where various cyclists were disqualified for using dope or testing positive for steroid use. There was also the NBA referee who was under investigation for betting on games including some he actually worked in. Tonya Harding was banned from ice-skating for her 1994 involvement in the Nancy Kerrigan episode. Notre Dame Coach, George O’Leary resigned after it was proven he fabricated his resume. Gambling, poor sportsmanship and even criminal activity, remember Michael Vick? And of course, the infamous1919 Black Sox scandal. 

In John Salyes 1988 film, “Eight Men Out,” a young boy is seen standing outside the courthouse when “Shoeless” Joe Jackson exits. The boy yells out to his hero, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”   Those same words can be yelled out today by so many young boys and girls, looking at today’s sports “heroes.”  Change Joe to Roger, or Jose, or Barry, or Jason and we are in modern times. 

“Eight Men Out” focuses on the story of what is generally considered the worst sports scandal of all time, the 1919 World Series when the Chicago White Sox intentionally lost to the Cincinnati Reds. The scandal shocked America. Baseball, at the time was the only professional sport with an organized league, and the shockwaves stretched across the entire country. The conspiracy was hatched when Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker), first baseman for the Sox, a man with close relationships to the underworld convinced some local professional gamblers that he could enlist enough of his teammates to throw the series. One connection led to another and before you know it big time money and big time gangsters, like New York’s Arnold Rothstein became involved. Gandil was able to recruit several other teammates all with one thing in common. They hated club owner Charles Cominsky who was known for being cheap.        

The White Sox clubhouse was not a happy place. There was division between teammates, a split between the educated and less educated players who did not associate with each other on or off the field. Sayles touches on this when some of the players in on the conspiracy argue with the college grad teammate, second baseman Eddie Collins (Bill Irwin). 

The film follows the story closely focusing on Buck Weaver (John Cusack) who claims in the film, as he did in real life, that he never took any money. Also reenacted is how starting pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Stratharin), who was at the end of his career, had a deal with Comiskey that if he won 30 games during the season he would get a bonus. Cicotte won 29 games. He then complained to Charles Comiskey (Clifton James) that he was “rested” intentionally for two weeks, so Comiskey would not have to pay the bonus.

Cicotte became one of the eight (in real life, Cicotte was in on the fix the same day he won his 29th  and had no knowledge of any attempts to stop him from winning his 30th  at that point in time). Things began to unravel quickly once the series started. The Sox mediocre play during the series plus rumors that began to spread about a fix caused newspaper sports writers Hugh Fullerton (Studs Turkel) and Ring Lardner (John Sayles) to investigate. Additionally, some of the players became discontent with the gamblers when they were not given any money, being told that it was all tied up with the bookies. Threats were supposedly made to the players and their families that they had better continue to lose or else. After the series, eight players were indicted. However, just like the World Series, the court proceedings were also corrupt.  Confessions made by the players suddenly disappeared.  Without this crucial evidence and a sympathetic jury, the players were found innocent. However, newly appointed baseball commissioner Judge Landis (John Anderson) banned the players, including Weaver, who proclaimed his innocence until the day he died, from ever playing major league baseball again.

Excellent photography and a nice feel for the period contribute, especially the ballpark scenes that were filmed at Bush Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. There is one magnificent shot that has “Shoeless” Joe Jackson driving a triple into the right field corner. The camera remains on Jackson as he rounded the bases and the ball in the same shot for the entire play.  

There are many fine performances starting with David Stratharin, who gives a strong portrayal of the conscience stricken Eddie Cicotte.  John Cusack is appealing as Buck Weaver who was branded along with seven others even though he took no money. If there are any tragic figures in this film, it is Cicotte and Weaver. Charlie Sheen as Happy Felsch provides a winning performance. Also notable is D.B. Sweeny as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, who, to this day, it remains unclear how involved in the scandal he really was. Villains are led by Michael Learner who is a stylishly cool Arnold Rothstein. Christopher Lloyd and Richard Edson as the two small time gamblers who are the first to approach the players.

The White Sox would not win a World Series until 2005 when they beat the Houston Astros in four games straight. Their first Series win since 1917.

The innocence of that young boy, and subsequently many others over the years, who we first saw begging “Shoeless” Joe Jackson to say it isn’t so, has been decimated by scandal, greed, corruption, and a lack of ethics.

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22 comments on “Eight Men Out (1988) John Sayles

  1. scott wannberg says:

    Excellent film. Sayles had to cast 3 bankable names in order to be able to cast DS as EC-the 3 were Sheen,Cusack,and Sweeney. Sayles has a new novel due soon.

  2. J.D. says:

    Love this film. I would rank it right up there with BULL DURHAM as one of THE best films about baseball. I also thought that D.B. Sweeny was very good in this film – his performance is quite a sharp contrast compared to how Ray Liotta played him in FIELD OF DREAMS. I also thought John Cusack did a fantastic job and remember it being one his early “mature” roles.

    Excellent review and good timing seeing as how a new pro baseball season is gearing up.

    • John Greco says:

      This is one of my favorite baseball films also along with BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY and a personal favorite PRIDE OF THE YANKEES.

  3. It’s probably the best baseball film, though there’s a Japanese film with Mifune and Takeshi Shimura that I’d love to see. Sayles had a really strong run of films from Matewan at least through Lone Star, and this is my favorite of his. For a moment between the sentimentalities of The Natural and Field of Dreams this made enough of an impression for the ending to be parodied in a Married With Children episode, though it may just be a case of “inside baseball” that I recognized the reference.

    • John Greco says:

      Samuel,

      I am interested in the Japanese baseball film which I am totally unfamiliar with. Agree with you on Sayles streak of strong films during that period.

  4. Sam Juliano says:

    To my good friend Samuel Wilson:

    EIGHT MEN OUT is exceptional, but the “best” baseball film of all-time for me is Phil Alden Robinson’s FIELD OF DREAMS(1989). But it comes down to taste, and my ‘emotional’ sensibilities would have it no other way. I love THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES and BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY as well, and have generally high regard for BULL DURHAM. I’d love to know more about that Mifune film though. I’m in the dark on that one. I’ll agree THE NATURAL get drowned in it’s sentimentality, unlike Robinson’s film which evinces an acute spiritual underpinning.

    “The White Sox would not win a World Series until 2005 when they beat the Houston Astros in four games straight. Their first Series win since 1917.”

    Sounds like they were cursed John, though we could certainly say the same about the Boston Red Sox, (Curse of the Bambino) and the Chicago Cubs. (the latter a still running drought). You’ve wonderfully franmed in all aspects this popular and critically-praised Sayles film, which for me comes close to MATEWAN, MEN WITH GUNS and LONE STAR in the Sayles literature. Typically you do a great job assessing the performances, and the vital components..i.e. the period replication and the cinematography.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam,

      As I mentioned to JD, this along with BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY and PRIDE OF THE YANKEES are favorites and I could easily add BULL DURHAM in the group.

  5. Great post! I’ve been meaning to re-watch this film for some time now – and what better time than right before Opening Day. Thanks for reminding me to do so.

  6. Diandra says:

    This is a very good movie, with fine performances. I remember being particularly struck by the use of the “I’m Forever Catching Bubbles” parody.

  7. Sorry to be late with this, but in case anyone is still curious, the Japanese baseball film is known in English as No Time For Tears. The 1955 release was directed by Seiji Maruyama and features Shimura as the manager whose family is falling apart in the middle of a pennant race, with one of his players romancing his daughter. According to Stuart Galbraith’s The Emperor and the Wolf, Mifune has little more than a glorified cameo and was included in the cast to inflate the film’s marquee value. Galbraith writes that Toho prepared a subtitled version but most likely never released the film in the U.S. I’d think the curiosity of Japanese film icons in baseball uniforms alone might justify a DVD release, but who knows?

  8. Rick29 says:

    Fine review, John, of a film which indeed does a fine job of capturing a time of when baseball was becoming a national pastime–which explainS why the scandal was so devastating. Glad that someone mentioned MATEWAN, my favorite Sayles film (followed by THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET).

    • John Greco says:

      thanks Rick. There was no other major sport at the time so yeah it had to be a big, big scandal at the time.

  9. Robert Vote (Jimmy Austin-St. Louis Browns 1919) says:

    Yes, the shot of DB’s (Shoeless Joe) triple was magnificient…and it was done in just a few takes. The camera was on a track from home plate to third base. DB’s task was to hit the ball to the proper area in right field for the relay throw to arrive in my glove at third at precisely the same time as he was sliding in to my tag. It worked beautifully. DB made a nice swing, the ball landed in perfect spot in right, the throws were perfect, and I managed to hold on to the ball at third and make the tag. It was a “real” baseball play because it was all one shot.

    • John Greco says:

      Hi Robert, thanks for sharing this. That shot was fantastic and amazing that it just took a few takes. Great sports film. It truly has an authentic feel to it.

  10. John D. Anderson says:

    I had fun working on “Eight Men Out” as an extra and getting to know John Sayles and cast. Did not know the story about the scandal but learned as things progressed. I was in the court room scence. When John Cusack kept raising his hand saying he was innocent a good shot of me came up. I told the gentleman to my right if he knew who he was seated next to just tell them John Anderson. John Anderson (Judge Landis) and I were both John Anderson.Because we both had the same name I was able to talk more with the cast when off set.The movie “Eight Men Out” and the movie “Hoosiers” and “Field of Dreams are three of th best sports movies in the 1980’s on.

    • John Greco says:

      John,

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story. Very much appreciated. EIGHT MEN OUT and the two other films are indeed three excellent sports films though admittedly I favor EIGHT MEN OUT and HOOSIERS over FIELD OF DREAMS.

      • John D. Anderson says:

        Hoosiers as you say was a great movie. We had a reunion of the players and cast that wanted to come in 1993 at the 10th anniversary in Indianapolis. In 2003 we had a get together in Knightstown, Indiana and for the
        25th we were at Nineveh, Indian site of the school in Hoosiers. Movie was loosely based on Milan ,Indiana ball team. This was the first movie I got in as an extra. Both Eight Men Out and Hoosiers was filmed in Indiana.

      • John Greco says:

        Thanks again for sharing this John! It’s always great to hear this stories.

  11. John D. Anderson says:

    I am sorry for a small error .John Anderson was to the gentleman’s right(Judge Landis) and I was on his left side.He was in the middle of us.

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