With baseball (hopefully) starting up soon, and having already watched and reviewed The Natural (1984), I decided to get my cinematic mood for America’s pastime going by watching Eight Men Out (1988). As a native Chicagoan, I enjoy most films about the town I still call home, even if it focus on the team for which I do not cheer, the White Sox. Actually, I did not mind the South Side squad until they won the World Series in 2005, two years after an infamous end to my beloved Cubs’ season. Unfairly or not, I grew sour. I justified my admittedly arbitrary feelings by reminding people of events like that portrayed in Eight Men Out.
Set the way-back machine for 1919, the year in which Eight Men Out starts. The Chicago White Sox are the best team in baseball and everyone believes they are a cinch to win the World Series. When they finally clinch the pennant and earn the right to play the Cincinnati Reds for the championship, their owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James) demonstrates his spendthrift ways by giving the players their promised “bonus” for making it that far of a few bottles of warm champaign. This causes certain members of the team to look for other means of obtaining the supplements to their pay, and this attracts the attention of a group of gamblers seeking to fix the World Series. Promising a large sum of money, greater than their annual pay, they are convinced to play poorly so that bets made on the huge underdog Reds would bring in substantial amounts of cash. The linchpin in the whole scheme was staff pitching ace Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn). Everyone agrees that without him, there is no way that the plot would succeed. The only reason he agrees to the plan, though, is because he felt cheated out of extra money when he was inexplicably benched earlier in the season, thus bringing him up one win shy of thirty. When he accepts a role, the team’s other pitcher, Lefty Williams (James Read), goes along with it, and the fix is in. Despite the pushback of several players, including the fantastic play of the enigmatic “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (D. B. Sweeney) who did not seem to understand how to play poorly despite taking money, the White Sox officially lost the World Series on purpose. They would have gotten away with it too had it not been for the reporting of two Chicago journalists, Ring Lardner (John Sayles) and Hugh Fullerton (Studs Terkel). As observers of the series, they noted several plays that looked suspicious. The stories they publish about their suspicions launch a further investigation that uncovers the whole sordid business. Despite being acquitted in court of conspiracy to fix the series (Chicago corruption at its finest), newly appointed baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (John Anderson, and, it must be said, he was a dead ringer for the actual person) makes the decision to issue a lifetime ban from professional baseball for all players implicated.
Eight Men Out has one of the more famous lines in cinematic history (based on real life) of a young kid pleading with Jackson after he emerges from the courthouse, “Say it ain’t so, Joe, say it ain’t so.” His innocence brings up short the legendary baseball player, and he can hardly bring himself to look at the boy. It is a hard moment, but most of the other characters are so cheerfully corrupt that you are almost rooting for them to be punished. I say most, though, because the one character for which you are definitely cheering is Buck Weaver (John Cusack). Though friends with all the conspirators (“One of the boys,” as is the oft repeated phrase), the one thing he does not like doing is losing. They attempt to bring him in on the plot, but he will not accept any money to purposely throw a game. So forceful is his will to win that for a moment you think he might pull off victory despite his teammates’ antics. I admire Weaver from a Christian perspective. He honors his friends with his silence, despite them not deserving it, but nor does he hide the truth when brought before a judge. His honesty is virtuous. Thus he provides a good role model for the neighborhood kids who he passes on his way to and from the stadium, and who idolize him.
Eight Men Out, it should be noted, is one of the better baseball films around. All the actors seemed to know what they were doing on the field, and that is always appreciated by this reviewer. It might be hard to explain what is going on to a younger viewer, but neither is there anything particularly objectionable in it where they could not watch it. The players in question (Weaver excepting) got what they deserved for taking money to fix the World Series, making it instructive as to what can happen when greed trumps conscience.