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.