It’s hard to believe now that baseball players were ever underpaid and mistreated, but in the early part of the century players took what they were offered, played where they were told, or they found another profession. The 1919 Chicago White Sox were widely considered to be the greatest baseball team of all time. They had won the 1917 World Series, and they had the pre-eminent writer of the day, Ring Lardner, as one of their biggest fans. They also had, in Charles Comisky, the cheapest owner in the league.
It was always hard for me to believe that the 1950’s quiz show scandal was really that crushing a blow to America’s innocence, but baseball’s World Series must have seemed beyond reproach. “Eight Men Out” tells the complicated true story of how baseball’s biggest heroes, underpaid and under represented, almost destroyed the national pastime. People have speculated that if baseball’s other prime time crook Hal Chase had been on the Reds that neither team may have been playing to win. It must have been nearly impossible to stay honest in the era of prohibition and gangsters, especially in Al Capone’s Chicago. John Sayles had previously made the labor dispute film “Matewan,” and is a huge baseball fan. This is the first script he ever wrote and when he got the power and the money he was able to bring it to film. He does a great job filming a confusing true story full of backstabbing, doublespeak, and double crosses. He makes the audience an expert on the era and the incident.
The film is impressed by the awesome talents of Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney), but it is honest enough to show that he willingly went along with the scheme. Jackson was an illiterate left fielder, who next to Ty Cobb was probably the greatest hitter who had ever lived. Jackson was the first hitter to really go up to the plate and let things rip, and his free-swinging hitting style was openly credited and copied by Babe Ruth. Even today, it is hard for people to deal with the fact that Jackson was crooked. They will argue that he wasn’t mentally capable of knowing what he was doing or that he took the money but played the games straight, as if that were an adequate excuse. If you read Eliot Asimov’s authoritative book of the same title, you will find that Jackson even complained and sought a larger payoff for his dishonesty.
If the story has a true victim, besides the hearts of baseball fans, it can be found in Buck Weaver (John Cusack). Weaver was approached by his friends on the team to participate in the fix, but turned the other players down flat. Perhaps not believing that they would really go through with it or hoping that they would change their mind, Weaver kept silent about his teammate’s plan. For this knowledge he was banned from baseball for life with the other seven conspirators and would desperately spend the rest of his life petitioning major league baseball for his reinstatement. The banned players spent their final days in the shadows of America’s consciousness, disgraced and humiliated, while the gamblers who took advantage of their situation skated away with their profits. Most of the players never even received the money they were promised for the scam. Catcher Ray Schalk (Gordon Clapp) made the Hall of Fame almost strictly for his honesty in the situation.
“Eight Men Out” tells the story of workers mistreated, innocence crushed and talent wasted. The film is sympathetic to the underpaid players, but doesn’t shirk away from their crime. Cusack is particularly good as the player whose faith in his friends and baseball was destroyed while his life was torn asunder by circumstance. David Straithairn is equally convincing as the conflicted key player in the scheme, Eddie Cicotte. John Thompson gives an amazing five minute performance as Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the hard-line racist judge that was brought in to save the integrity of the game. There are also plenty of disappointed women and children, which leads up to the cloying if necessary “Say it ain’t so Joe!” scene. “Eight Men Out” chronicles a key event in the maturing of American with a good eye for baseball and the detail of the period. The White Sox haven’t won a World Series since, but yet another White Sox owner was responsible for a World Series disgrace when Jerry Reinsdorf convinced his fellow owners to cancel the 1994 Series to lower player salaries. They never learn.