Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Eight Men Out

I have been lucky enough to grow up in the great state of Illinois, home of some of the best stories in American sports.  I came of age in a time where the Bears put up arguably the most dominant single season in the NFL, the Bulls had two three-peat championship runs, and the eternally cursed Cubs and White Sox continued to break hearts across the nation (until those bastard Sox actually won the World Series...grumble, grumble, Cubs fan).  This past Spring, I was lucky enough to get to visit the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and it was pretty awesome.  I won't lie, I teared up on a few occasions.  This weekend, I was very happy to learn that Chicago Cubs great (and one of the worst --- but lovable --- baseball announcers ever), Ron Santo, will finally be inducted into the Hall.  That got me thinking of other Chicago greats who have yet to receive baseball's highest honor.  Of course, that lead me to Eight Men Out, the supposed "inside story" about how the 1919 White Sox intentionally lost the World Series and conspired with professional gamblers to make a profit on their loss.
Sorry, wrong Black Sox movie

The owner of the White Sox in 1919 was Charles Comiskey (Clifton James), and the man was a cheapskate.  He had a world-class team, but insisted on paying them as little as humanly possible.  For instance, the ace of his pitching staff, Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn) had a clause in his contract that gave him a bonus if he earned 30 wins; Comiskey had him benched for the last few weeks of the regular season because he reached 29.  When the team was offered bonuses for winning the American League title, Comiskey instead gave them only cheap champagne.  Basically, Comiskey was a big enough douche to deserve having his stadium renamed "The Cell." 

When the gambling syndicate run by Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner) learns of the discontent on the heavily favored Sox, he makes an offer (through proxies, of course) to select players; if they lose the World Series on purpose, they will be paid far more handsomely than if they actually win.
Maybe then, they could afford some shirts that fit
Some players, like Cicotte, Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker), and Swede Risberg (Don Harvey) go along with the plan willingly.  Buck Weaver (John Cusack) doesn't agree to go along with the plot, but he doesn't report it, either.  The team's star, Shoeless Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) seems too dumb to understand any innuendo or threats, and plays hard and gets paid.  How does the Series turn out?  Well, it's ancient history now, but Eight Men Out plays it for all the drama it can.  But win or lose, the suspiciously poor play from the White Sox will have repercussions for the team and all of baseball for years to come.
Example: chaw is deemed mandatory for jerkwads

If you are unfamiliar with the story of the 1919 "Black Sox," then you're basically out of luck.  While Eight Men Out does kind of touch on why they may or may not have thrown the Series, it isn't exactly the easiest movie to follow if you are not a baseball fan.  Chances are, you will not realize the significance of who the characters are; the cast is vast and recognizable, but there are darn few introductions for them.  I would have loved to hear an announcer explain who these guys were, or have one of the sportswriters (who actually play essential --- but underdeveloped --- roles in this drama) give the audience the lowdown on some of these guys.  The script explains that Shoeless Joe is one of the greatest players ever, but why?  It's not shown on-camera.  As for the others, the script doesn't provide nearly as much. 
Weaver could have held a boombox over his head, for all this script cared

That's not to say that the performances were poor.  John Cusack, despite being a lifelong Cubs fan, is very good as the earnest Buck Weaver, and his protests and effort are what makes this plot chug along.  D.B. Sweeney was convincingly dumb as Shoeless Joe, but he lacked presence on the screen, making him seem a pale shadow of Roy Hobbs, a fictional character based on the man.  David Stathairn gave the most impressive performance, one that reeked of conflict and pride.  Michael Rooker and Don Harvey were fine as the detestable bad guys, although I would have liked maybe a moment of hesitation before they jumped on the "let's lose the World Series" bandwagon. 
Above: the most emotive Rooker gets in this film
Charlie Sheen plays a surprisingly small role in this, especially when you consider his starring roles in Platoon and Wall Street only a few years prior.  John Mahoney, who was apparently never young, was pretty good as the trusting White Sox manager.  Christoper Lloyd and Richard Edson (the parking attendant in another Chicago classic, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) are okay as small-time grifters, but neither is utilized much in this movie.  Director John Sayles cast himself (and Chicago institution Studs Terkel) as one of the two baseball newspaper columnists who helped break this story, although their contributions in this film are underplayed.
I really wish this scene was a highlight

When I was seven years-old, baseball was all I could think about.  I sponged up knowledge like...well, a very absorbent material.  While old age and beer have killed off some of my brain cells, I still retain much of my historical baseball knowledge.  Rewatching Eight Men Out should have been an emotional trip down memory lane for me, but it wasn't.  John Sayles directed his actors well enough, but he failed as a writer to make me care about any of them.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Eight Men Out is its soft focus.  Is this the tale of the entire 1919 Sox team, or is it about the innocents who were unfairly banned from the sport?  The point of view character is, at times, Buck Weaver, but who the hell remembers him?  This movie was made seventy years after Weaver was expelled from the sport, and occasionally showing him as the main character isn't enough to generate sympathy for him.  The most famous player on the team, Shoeless Joe Jackson, is relegated to a very minor role in the script; that's like making Pride of the Yankees with Lou Gehrig as the fifth-billed character.  Who is this movie supposed to be about?  The entire team?  Then Sayles should have explained the characters better in the script.  Shoeless Joe?  Then he should have played a more important role.  Weaver?  Then the focus should have stayed with him as he struggled to succeed despite his teammates.

There are many more problems that the focus.  Even with my near-encyclopedic baseball knowledge, I failed to recognize many of the characters in this film.  That's a pretty big problem; if I can't pick out some of these players, how can a casual viewer hope to understand what's going on?  The script is full of elliptical conversations that allude to the gambling conspiracy, but rarely acknowledge it outright.  As much as I appreciate scripts that assume the viewers are clever, the details of this story are left fairly obtuse.
...like whatever he is rubbing on the ball

Another problem I had with Eight Men Out is that it, really, isn't a baseball movie.  The script is too lazy to focus on any one game, so it instead allows every play shown on-screen to be of major importance; batters hit the first pitch every time, and pitchers give up crucial runs with every throw.  This is a movie about the scandal.  Unfortunately, there is a lot of baseball in-between the conception of the idea and the execution, and both suffer for it.  This isn't a bad movie, though.  Sayles clearly cared about this team and this story, but his passion was executed poorly.  At best, I have to say that this is a mediocre movie about a potentially fantastic film concept.

On a personal note, as a baseball fan with his head in the past (my prized baseball possession is a Ryne Sandberg 1960s-era throwback jersey), I believe that all eight men implicated in the Black Sox scandal should be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2019.  I think a 100-year ban is more than enough; the only two that sportswriters would even consider inducting would be Shoeless Joe and Buck Weaver, both of whom had a stellar, error-free World Series performance.  And baseball writers are notoriously vindictive, so if they forgive the players, so should the sport.  At least that way, we could expect to stop hearing Pete Rose's whining in about seventy-five years.  Besides, the commissioner that banned the 1919 Sox was a total bastard; he allowed Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker to keep playing after reports of them gambling on the sport surfaced.  Come on, Major League Baseball!  Act like the museum you are an induct the players that deserve it; if you want to hold them accountable for shady actions, include a steroids or gambling section and let the fans determine their legacy!  ...and I'm off my soapbox.

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