I loathe sports films in general. Basically, most are patronising children’s films, dealing into the common adolescent fantasy of young men where all of life’s problems can be solved with a home run, and heroism can be nobly acknowledged with the tip of a cap. One’s favorite sport is filled with heroes of saintly origin, and we can forever look to yesteryear as a simple time and a source of inspiration. That adolescent fantasy dies a humiliating death in the excellent Eight Men Out.
Eight Men Out can be considered a baseball movie that is about anything but baseball. This John Sayles film ostensibly concerns the 1919 Chicago ‘Black Sox’ scandal, where a group of players who were part of one the greatest baseball teams in history took bribes to throw the World Series. From the opening sequence, it becomes clear that the focus is on the money behind the game. The conspirators are introduced from two opposing but cohesive perspectives – firstly, the idealized view of a team of larger-than life stars who love the game of baseball, and from the more pragmatic view of underpaid lackeys who could use some extra cash. In support of the latter, gamblers are present from the off and the idea of throwing the World Series is a fairly natural one, never being painted as an abomination indulged in by hedonistic thugs. The owner of the White Sox, Charles Comiskey, is a fat, cigar-chomping boss, and is the only character resembling an actual villain. In reality, there are no villains or protagonists, and no real struggle to speak of – only a set of circumstances that plays itself inexorably to the dawning horror of a city that treats its home team with a mixture of love and contempt, something that resonates with the modern game.
The players have fame, but they live in the same shacks their fans do, and once their talent wanes, the implication is that they’ll be swallowed whole by poverty. Eddie Cicotte won 29 games in 1919, with his arm is practically falling off – Comiskey benches him in order to avoid paying a bonus for 30 wins. Joe Jackson, considered one of the greatest batters of all time, is illiterate, gullible, and seems to understand very little that takes place off the diamond. Chick Gandil, the first baseman, has been demonized as one of the ringleaders of the Black Sox, but in the film is one of the few players with the intelligence to realise the desperate gravity of his and his team-mates’ situation. He says:
“Once I was fighting a guy, my eyes were all bloody but I landed a lucky punch. The next thing I know I’m steppin’ on something and it’s the other guy’s teeth. The referee raised my hand and someone shoved 50 bucks in my shorts. ‘What does he get?’, I asked. The referee says, ‘From the looks of this jaw, a liquid diet for six weeks.’ Now what we should have done is held each other up for thirteen rounds and split the fifty.”
After Comiskey presents his pennant-winning team with flat champagne (this was their bonus for the season), plans are set in motion to throw the Series. This was hardly the well-crafted conspiracy of renegade outlaws – at least three teams of gamblers attempt to make deals with the team, and nobody seems to know who is getting paid for what, and when. In the end, the players only receive a fraction of what was promised, and in exchange they submit to the humiliating spectacle of losing ineptly in front of the watching world. They fool nobody; while the sportswriters defend their brave boys from the home team, mobs burn their effigies. Two of these journalists expose the plot to throw the Series in detail, and these cynical characters make an interesting pair. John Sayles plays the sardonic Ring Lardner, who quietly loses his faith in the game. Hugh Fullerton is played by author and historian Studs Terkel, whose world-weary performance is pitch-perfect in a film that deconstructs the mythology of baseball. The journalists tease apart the plot, fairly simple given that baseball players make terrible actors (”I could have beaten that throw with my shoes tied together”), and gamblers talk way too much for their own good.
After an utterly corrupt trial at which the players are judged innocent of conspiracy, newly appointed commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis bans them from baseball for life. This harsh finish signals the point where the shit can no longer be put back into the horse – baseball had lost its innocence.
Baseball was never innocent, however. Gambling and bribes were present from the very beginning – Hal Chase (who Babe Ruth declared the greatest first baseman to ever play the game) was said to be fixing games during his entire career before he was banned in 1919, after he won $40,000 betting on the Reds to beat the Sox. Arnold Rothstein, the big handicapper in Chicago at the time, put it this way:
“I was the fat kid they wouldn’t let play. ‘Sit down, fat boy’. That’s what they’d say ‘Sit down, maybe you’ll learn something.’ Well, I learned something alright. Pretty soon, I owned the game, and those guys I grew up with come to me with their hats in their hands.”
Baseball is, and always has been, a business like any other. Though this idea is hardly a new one, it clashes violently with the identification of baseball as America’s Favorite Pastime, a noble and sophisticated game that signified the good old days before steroid use ruined everything. Even today, the announcers labor intensively to make the viewer believe that you are watching an extension of those glory days when Gary Cooper played for the Yankees, or some other nonsense. Back in 1919, this scandal rocked the city of Chicago and seemed to strike at the foundations of America’s identity. This is best exemplified by the young boy who said “Say it ain’t so, Joe…” on the courthouse steps, not as a mawkish footnote, but as a representation of the end of adolescence, when the sport grew up. Or realized that it had already grown up, with all the cynicism and compromised morals that adulthood brings, and its parents were throwing it out unceremoniously.
Not everyone involved learns this lesson, though. Stuck in an unseemly naiveté, some characters are blindsided by these events, and proceed to throw their toys out of the pram. The manager of the White Sox, Kid Gleason, is deeply shocked that his players are taking bribes; on the stand, when asked what he thinks of his players, all he can muster is “They’re the best ballclub I’ve ever seen,” a damning remark considering they lost to a clearly inferior team. Buck Weaver knows about the plot, but hopes that it will not happen, and pretends not to be involved, since the game is everything to him. He doesn’t seem to realize that the game, money, and politics are inextricably linked, now and forever. The biggest asshole of all is Judge Landis, who bans every player involved despite their acquittal in court, and denies all appeals. This remained his final decision on the matter despite later proof that some of the banned players knew nothing about the deal. Landis went on to rule as baseball’s commissioner with an iron fist, notably keeping black players out of the league until his death. There are times when decisive action is called for, but to say, for example, that Joe Jackson truly understood what was involved in a conspiracy despite being functionally retarded is, well, retarded. He was an inflexible cock who still believed in the perfection of the game.
Innocence is lionized in cinema and in American culture as an asset to be preserved, with its passing forever mourned. I have never understood this phenomenon, since innocence leaves you ill-prepared for life in a complicated world, and one becomes an inviting target for those who harbor no such notions. Buck Weaver is the most tragic figure here, for his deep devotion to the game of baseball has completely blinded him to the possibility that the sport is a business first and foremost, and that it would have behooved him to have covered his ass when he became an accessory to a crime. His childlike attitude is obvious, as he rarely associated with other adults, speaking for the most part with the children from his neighborhood. In comparison, those characters who have embraced the adult world in all its compromised glory survived the scandal intact while the players took the heat.
In the closing scene of the film, Weaver is watching the great Shoeless Joe Jackson play in an obscure minor league under a false name. A fan who suspects Joe’s true identity is assured by Weaver that ‘those guys aren’t around anymore’. He is speaking of the Black Sox, but even more so, he refers to the kids who saw baseball as a pure game that rose above the seedy material world. It took him a lifetime to realize this. The same could be said of the many baseball fans that reacted with the deepest shock to the revelation that the oversized mutants who have been crushing the ball in the modern were juiced on steroids the entire time. Any fan who had eyes should have at least suspected this was happening, but like Buck Weaver, they held those eyes shut and were whisked away to a place of adolescent abandon. Cynicism is a painfully undervalued commodity in this and any society, and should be gripped tightly as an essential tool and perpetual companion.