Posted by Susan Doll on February 27, 2017
Long before there was a recognizable indie-film scene, IndieWire magazine, or the Independent Spirit Awards, there was John Sayles—the independent’s independent. FilmStruck is offering five of Sayles’s films for streaming: Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), Lianna (1983), The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Eight Men Out (1988) and Casa de los Babys (2004). The release of these titles for streaming affords me an opportunity to write about Sayles, one of my favorite directors.
While the list does not feature my favorite Sayles film, Matewan (1987), it does include my second favorite. Eight Men Out tells the story of the infamous 1919 Black Sox Scandal in which eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of conspiring with gamblers to fix the World Series. The eight players were acquitted of criminal charges, but they were banned from baseball forever. The most tragic figures in the story were Buck Weaver, who did not participate in the fix, and Joe Jackson, arguably the best hitter in the game at the time, who will never be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The story of the Black Sox was well suited to Sayles’ preferences as a director, particularly his understanding of the socio-political underpinnings of culture and history. In his films, social, economic and cultural issues are never black and white; they are a complex interweaving of the struggles, perspectives, and contradictions of various groups of people. In Eight Men Out, which is based on the book by Eliot Asinof, baseball is neither pastoral nor nostalgic; it’s not even a game. It’s a business rife with the corruption of corporate capitalism. Greedy owners, ambitious administrators and crafty gamblers control professional baseball, while the players are exploited and manipulated. This perspective provides a motive and an understanding for the players’ decision to throw the World Series, even if some of the players are unsympathetic and unlikable.
I used to live in Chicago, where learning the story of the Black Sox was practically obligatory. This knowledge proved convenient for understanding the complexities of the film’s storyline. The White Sox ballpark used to be called Comiskey Park, after Charles “Commie” Comiskey, who owned the Sox from 1900 to his death in 1931. Comiskey was notorious for holding tight to his purse strings. Stories abound about his refusal to pay for the players’ uniforms to be cleaned, but, that is an exaggeration of his request for the players to cut back on the frequency of the cleanings. In the film, his cheapness is illustrated when he sends the team one case of flat champagne to celebrate winning the pennant. According to the film and book, Comiskey went back on an agreement with pitcher Eddie Cicotte for a $10,000 bonus if Cicotte won 30 games. Supposedly, Comiskey benched Cicotte at the end of the season to rest his arm, making it impossible for him to reach that goal. There is debate about whether the pitcher’s inability to win 30 within the season was Comiskey’s fault or not, but it is true that Commie did not pay his star players a comparable salary compared to other teams.
The architect of the series fix was first baseman Chick Gandil, a former heavyweight fighter and boilermaker. Gandil knew gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan from frequenting pool halls where bets were made, and the two hatched a plan in a Boston hotel room to throw the series. Their original plan was for the Sox to lose the series in exchange for $80,000. While gambling in baseball was not unknown, incidents of fixing games for big pay-offs had increased after racetracks were shut down by the government when the U.S. entered WWI. Professional gamblers simply shifted their focus from horse racing to baseball. Apparently, Gandil also offered the deal to throw the series to another pair of gamblers, Sleepy Bill Burns and Billy Maharg, which complicated the set-up. It seems that Sullivan did not know about Burns and Maharg, and vice versa, but racketeer Arnold Rothstein knew about both deals. Burns and Maharg used former featherweight champion Abe Attel as their messenger to Rothstein, whom they tapped to finance their deal. The web of gamblers involved in the fix allowed Rothstein to remain untouchable in the background, and he would profit heavily when the Cincinnati Reds won the series five games to three.
Gandil and shortstop Swede Risberg approached their teammates with the deal. Crucial to the plan was to get the pitchers and heavy hitters on board. Pitcher Lefty Williams agreed right away, though Eddie Cicotte turned them down at first. He quickly changed his mind, likely because Comiskey did not follow through with his promised bonus, at least according to Asinof’s book. Eventually, seven players were persuaded, bribed or prompted to join the plan. When the series began, some of the players seemed ambivalent about intentionally losing. During the heat of the game, they felt compelled to give it their all. But, there were also moments when their attempts the throw the games were obvious, and rumors swirled during the series that the fix was in.
Most of the myths and legends regarding the scandal swirl around Shoeless Joe Jackson, a shy, illiterate player from rural South Carolina. According to recent supporters and biographers, Jackson was bullied or duped into participating by Gandil and Risberg. Like the other players, he signed a confession, but he later denied the validity of that statement. In a civil trial in 1924, he revealed that he did receive $5,000 from the gamblers, but the day after the envelope was pushed under his hotel-room door, he spoke to Comiskey’s secretary about the fix and requested he be pulled from the series. Because the secretary and Comiskey denied this took place, some speculate that Comiskey knew about the fix as early as the first game. If Jackson did participate in the fix willingly, it must have been incredibly subtle. He hit .375 in the series, which was the highest for both teams. He hit the only home run in the eight-game series, and he batted in five runs.
Jackson had always been at the mercy of sportswriters accustomed to spinning fact into fiction in order to turn players into heroes or clowns. The nickname Shoeless Joe was coined in 1908 when Scoop Latimer of the local paper in Greenville, South Carolina, reported that he played a game in his stocking feet because his new shoes caused painful blisters. Other sportswriters embellished the story by claiming he used to play ball barefoot back in the hills of rural South Carolina. By the time Jackson was traded to Chicago in 1917, the nickname had faded away. But rumors about the fix, and the ease in which he was duped, made him seem like a dumb rube. Soon, the “Shoeless Joe” stories were back on the front pages, with sportswriter Hugh Fullerton fabricating a tale in which former teammates hog-tied him in order to get him to wear shoes.
Rumors of the fix dogged the White Sox the following season. Finally, in the fall of 1920, eight players and five gamblers were indicted for conspiracy to commit fraud. Comiskey hired the best criminal defense lawyers in the city for his players, an act that some have called generous, but if he did have something to hide, good lawyers only served his interests.
There were some odd occurrences during the trial—which was not unusual for Chicago in the 1920s. For example, the players were tried together, over Buck Weaver’s protests. Also, the players had all signed written confessions, which mysteriously disappeared before the trial. Judge Hugo Friend presided over the hearing. When Asinof was researching the book in the early 1960s, he tracked down Friend, who confessed that he thought something was amiss from the beginning, because the biggest criminal lawyers in the city were so heavily involved.
The players were acquitted, but they lost in the court of public opinion. Everyone knows the story about Joe Jackson who was supposedly stopped by a small boy as he was leaving the courtroom. The boy pleads, “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” and a guilty Jackson has to tell him that it was all true. Many believe that this was another story fabricated by Fullerton. However, novelist James T. Farrell in his memoir My Baseball Diary claimed he and a group of boys followed Jackson and some of the other players as they left the courtroom and headed toward their cars. Supposedly, one of the boys yelled, “It ain’t true, Joe,” refusing to believe his idol had fallen. Fullerton’s version, which quickly became folklore, is far more judgmental, because it forces Jackson to admit his guilt.
In 1920, Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed the first commissioner of baseball—a result of the scandal. He banned the eight Sox players from the major leagues and repeatedly turned down their pleas for reinstatement. Buck Weaver never stopped trying to clear his name to be reinstated, and his last remaining family member worked tirelessly to do the same. All in vain. In July 2015, Commissioner Robert D. Manfred, Jr., became the latest commissioner to refuse to reinstate Weaver.
The coda at the end of Eight Men Out shows Weaver and Jackson—the two players who were innocent of conspiracy—several years after the scandal. Weaver anonymously watches Jackson play bush-league ball under an assumed name. As he hits a home run and waves his hat to a cheering crowd, we are reminded of the real spirit of the game—or, perhaps we are haunted by it.
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