Eight Men Out (1988): Of Greedy Players, Wicked Gamblers and Stingy Owners

EIGHT MEN OUT (1988)

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.

EIGHT MEN OUT (1988)

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.

EIGHT MEN OUT (1988)

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.

EIGHT MEN OUT (1988)

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.

EIGHT MEN OUT (1988)

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.

Susan Doll

19 Responses Eight Men Out (1988): Of Greedy Players, Wicked Gamblers and Stingy Owners
Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : February 27, 2017 10:29 am

I’m not sure where to start. As a movie fan, I think “Eight Men Out” is a great film, I’ve seen it ten or twelve times. As a baseball fan, it’s not very good history. I’ve read Asinof’s book, and it isn’t that great as history, either. Jackson hit .375, but not when it mattered. Buck Weaver didn’t get a dime, but kept his mouth shut about it until it was too late. Cicotte spent the rest of his life making excuses (“I did it for the wife and kids”). The film goes out of its way to portray the two untainted White Sox starters (second baseman Eddie Collins and catcher Ray Schalk) as pompous, humorless jerks (they both ended up in the Hall of Fame, personality being beside the point), and makes manager Kid Gleason into a clueless buffoon. (And also misrepresents his playing career. The film character says he was a pitcher, but the real Gleason spent 80% of his career as an infielder for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1890s. While I’m at it, it’s worth noting that team owner Charles Comiskey had been a famous player for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1880s.) As much as I love this movie, it’s completely fictional.

Posted By EricJ : February 27, 2017 1:36 pm

Then, there wasn’t REALLY a “Say it ain’t so, Joe” kid for real? ;)

It’s better at explaining the Black Sox scandal than “Field of Dreams” did, FWIW, and Sayles does manage to keep the tense tone of guilt as the main theme of the movie. As Sayles himself delivers, with his singing, stinging Ring Lardner cameo.
Gleason isn’t a “clueless buffoon”, there’s the continual guilty whispers between the players of “No, he knows, he’s got to…”, and his faith in the team, especially in front of the reporters, and putting it aside to keep the team together (“Everybody’s talking about ‘odds’ like it’s a horse race!”) is meant to make him the one tragic good character.

I’m not fond of Sayles’ navel-gazing indie films–thought he applied his good screenwriter sense much better to his Roger Corman days of “Alligator”, “The Howling” and “Battle Beyond the Stars”, where it had to deliver to an audience and still be smart–but this is probably Sayles’ most approachable “good” commercial audience film.

Posted By Emgee : February 27, 2017 2:56 pm

the list does not feature my favorite Sayles film either,which would be Lone Star, with Limbo a close second. Navel-gazing indie films, hardly.

Posted By chris : February 27, 2017 3:46 pm

Whether Joe Jackson was a part of the fix or not, it’s not up for debate that he hit above his average for the series and had no fielding errors. He was the one who was truly robbed. People whine about Pete Rose not being in the Hall of Fame. Well, it was proven that Pete ACTUALLY did bet on games when he was a manager(which got him out of baseball). I say that if Pete is to be let in, Joe Jackson should get in first. And, I think that Pete should have to wait as long Joe did after his banishment from the game(about 97 years now) before being let in.

Posted By George : February 27, 2017 4:14 pm

My favorite Sayles: BABY, IT’S YOU, because of my ’80s crush on Rosanna Arquette. Haven’t seen it in ages, though.

And I’m a fan of two movies he wrote early in his career, PIRANHA (1978) and THE HOWLING (1981), both directed by Joe Dante.

Posted By EricJ : February 27, 2017 5:19 pm

@Chris – In Ken Burns’ “Baseball” coverage of the real-life trial, they mention the line where the prosecution tried to shame Jackson by asking what his wife thought about it when he told her. Jackson replied “She said she thought it was a rotten thing to do…”
Given how Jackson in the movie was portrayed as just loyally going along with the guys so not to be considered “slow”, that would have been a perfect Sayles history-meets-script moment if he had included it, just like the kid.

@George – Battle Beyond the Stars, if you can look past the campy low-budget (which, if you know Sayles is on the script, is easy to do), is still the most infectious example of early-Sayles’ smarts winking at us on a drive-in budget, but also look out for 1982′s “The Challenge”. (Or whatever alternate title it’s under at the moment: Scott Glenn trains as a modern Japanese samurai, in a feud between two brothers, one who’s now a corporate tycoon–The old-meet-new-Japan message is as intentional as you’d expect in the 80′s.)
Sayles’ only other commercial-Hollywood hire-work was a bit unfortunate (Clan of the Cave Bear, Spiderwick Chronicles), but leave him to his own devices, and he’s got the right instincts.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : February 27, 2017 6:36 pm

Eric (and Chris): This film (and Joe Jackson) has to stand on its own merits, and be judged for its own faults, not by the merits or faults of Field of Dreams (or Pete Rose). Like I said, I really like this film, but it’s not very good as history. This essay spends very little time talking about the film as a film, and a lot of time talking about it as history, taking its version of events as accurate, which it isn’t.

Posted By Doug : February 27, 2017 6:42 pm

chris said above: “And, I think that Pete should have to wait as long Joe did after his banishment from the game(about 97 years now) before being let in.”
Another baseball fan here-Jackson should go in, from the little I know…and Rose NEVER(!) in the HOF.
Oh wait-this is a movie blog- Sayles is an acquired taste that I’ve never acquired.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 27, 2017 6:59 pm

Ed Buskirk: I appreciate that you don’t find the film accurate. It doesn’t have to be accurate to be a good film, or to make a point, which I think Sayles does. If you read carefully, I do not assume its version of events is accurate, and I don’t claim they are. I cite other sources on some of the lore surrounding the story.

I have a file of information on this scandal, which I saved from when the film was originally released. Several knowledgeable Chicago baseball historians and sportswriters were interviewed or wrote articles at the time, and I relied on those articles to craft this essay. I recognize that this piece is not about the film per se. I was simply intrigued by the colorful characters surrounding the scandal, including the gamblers and Rothstein. I thought others might be, too. And, I was saddened by the way Jackson was chewed up in the press for much of his career, and I thought people would be interested in more info on him.

Posted By Adam : February 27, 2017 7:22 pm

Easily my favorite entry in Sayles’s filmography, most likely because I first saw it as a kid and became enamored with the script, especially the witty barbs traded by the gamblers and reporters.

“I won a few games.”
“You lost a few more.”

Plus, it has one of my all-time favorite final scenes, which was memorably homaged in a great episode of “Married with Children.”

Posted By AL : February 27, 2017 7:49 pm

a favorite: The Brother From Another Planet

Posted By George : February 27, 2017 8:18 pm

EricJ: I saw THE CHALLENGE decades ago and thought it was a good action flick.

I’ve read that Sayles did some uncredited writing on APOLLO 13.

And Emgee is correct that LONE STAR is worth seeing. Its scope (in its dissection of a community and its history) makes it an experience similar to reading a good novel.

Posted By chris : February 28, 2017 3:23 pm

Okay, new Sayles topic: favorite Sayles appearance in a film.
Mine: Matinee(along with Dick Miller).

Posted By EricJ : February 28, 2017 6:27 pm

@Chris – The preacher in Matewan, hands down. (A good movie to rewatch for the Trump era.)
Although “I’m forever blowing ballgames…” still takes second.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 28, 2017 6:54 pm

Good topic Chris. I would have to go with either the Man in Black from Brother from Another Planet, or the tiny, tiny role in Passion FIsh in which he plays a doctor on a soap opera. (Remember the main character was a soap actress.)

Also, I remember he was in that Dolly Parton movie in which she is a radio talk show host, but I don’t quite remember his whole role. Just bits and pieces. Been years since I’ve seen it.

Posted By kingrat : March 3, 2017 12:58 am

But RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN is the film where Sayles appears nude.

Interesting topic for TCM Underground: films where the director appears naked. RETURN OF THE SECACUCUS SEVEN. FOX AND HIS FRIENDS. I don’t recall if TAXI ZUM KLO is another.

Posted By Kira : March 3, 2017 5:47 am

Hello, I was reading your first Forgotten Films to Remember post; and I was fascinated by the idea of your friend owning thousands of inherited movies. I was wondering, could you send me a list of the movies that he has so that I could watch them?

Posted By MDR : March 3, 2017 2:41 pm

Emgee, thank you very much for recommending Lone Star (1996), which (because of your mention of it here) I have now seen, and would recommend it as well.

Posted By Emgee : March 3, 2017 3:34 pm

My pleasure; told you it was good :)

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