Program Notes: Eight Men Out (1988)

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For hard-core fans of baseball history, John Sayles’ Eight Men Out is a sort of cinematic Holy Grail, a recreation of the notorious 1919 “Black Sox” scandal that has been called “the most gigantic sporting swindle in the history of America.”

It’s the rare movie that celebrates the game while ruthlessly depicting its lowest moments.

For the uninformed: The scandal involved members of the Chicago White Sox who entered into a conspiracy with professional gamblers to throw the World Series they played against the Cincinnati Reds. In the wake of Chicago’s loss, eight players (including the legendary “Shoeless” Joe Jackson) were permanently banned from Major League Baseball.

This yarn proves perfect material for writer/director Sayles, the legendary independent filmmaker whose passions include both baseball and leftist causes. Eight Men Out perfectly melds those interests. It’s story of greed and corruption eating away at innocence. While not overtly political, it’s largely about economic inequality.

Film Screening:
Eight Men Out (1988)
Saturday, June 9 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Sayles based his screenplay on the 1963 non-fiction book by Eliot Asinof, who was able to interview several of the key players (virtually all of whom had remained silent for 40 years). Thanks to Asinof’s still-classic volume, the film is unusually accurate in its depiction of events.

It’s not like Hollywood was dying to get the movie made. Sayles had written his screenplay 12 years earlier. It took nearly a decade of his turning out strong critical and modest financial success (Return of the Secaucus Seven, Lianna, The Brother from Another Planet, Matewan) to burnish his reputation to the point that he could raise $6 million with which to make the movie.

In truth, a big studio could not have made Eight Men Out for less that $30 million. It’s a period piece requiring World War I-era costumes, sets, and automobiles. The World Series sequences would require thousands of extras. Not to mention the three dozen or so important speaking roles to be cast.

Incredibly, Sayles pulled it off, counting every penny. He filmed the Chicago street scenes in Cincinnati, the games in a stadium in Indianapolis. It was much cheaper than actually filming in Chicago.

Given that on most days the company could rely on only 200 or 300 extras to show up (at most they got 1,000), Sayles and cinematographer Robert Richardson (Wall Street, Platoon) became skilled at taking advantage of every body on hand to make the ballpark seem alive with a World Series crowd. You can see how carefully shots have been framed to give the illusion of a sea of countless fans.

There are an awful lot of close-ups in this movie. In part that’s because we have so many great faces to look at. But it’s also because the more a face fills the frame, the less money you have to spend filling the rest of it.

Perhaps nowhere did Sayles luck out so marvelously as in his choice of actors. Eight Men Out is crammed with then-unknowns who today are household names: John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, a pre-Frasier John Mahoney, David Strathairn, D.B. Sweeney (as the illiterate “Shoeless Joe”), Gordon Clapp (later an Emmy winner for NYPD Blue), and clown Bill Irwin.

When the film was released in 1988, some critics complained that you couldn’t tell the young actors apart, that they were interchangeable. That’s no longer a problem ... we’ve been watching these guys for years. They’re as familiar to us as the next-door neighbors. Today you can call Eight Men Out a star-studded production, though it certainly wasn’t at the time.


The Chicago "Black" Sox, 1919
 

Why would eight beloved and famous players give it all up to cheat on a game?

Sayles answers that question right off the bat by making White Sox owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James) a pig of the first order.

Here’s a millionaire who treats players like slaves (this was before free agency). He paid them barely a living salary. And having promised his team a big bonus if they won the American League pennant, Comiskey ended up delivering not cash but a case of flat Champagne.

Comiskey was the sort of guy who would promise a pitcher a chunk of money if he won 30 games in a season, and then bench that player when he hit 29 wins.

In fact, the “Black Sox” nickname preceded the World Series scandal. To save money Comiskey required his players to launder their own uniforms. In protest they wore the uniforms unwashed until they were so grimy that even fans watching from 100 yards away could tell that they were “black.”

Comiskey relented, had the uniforms washed, and at the end of the season deducted the laundry fees from each player’s final paycheck.

Moreover, these athletes had no pension, no health care – no security whatsoever. They felt used and abused, and as much as they loved the game they were ready to get something for themselves. It was about self preservation. It was also about revenge.

As the film depicts it, this was a hare-brained scheme from the onset. Players who were in on the fix didn’t tell other players whom they thought might blow the whistle.

So you’ve got some honest players wondering why their teammates are throwing wild pitches and dropping fly balls. At least one (Cusack’s Buck Weaver) refuses to participate but knows what is going on, and so must be sacrificed with the others.

And soon even the “dirty” players discover that their families are facing death threats from criminals who already have bet big money on a White Sox loss.

In the end not only will they not see a payday, they’ll be tossed out of the game they love.

In her review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin called Eight Men Out “an amazingly full and heartbreaking vision of the dreams, aspirations, and disillusionments of a nation, as filtered through its national pastime.”

Not bad for a low-budget production.

Other films in the series “Hollywood Homers”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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