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Eight Men Out
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Eight Men Out

In the last generation, the game of baseball has gotten the opportunity to prove its immutable place in the fabric of American culture, considering how it's weathered some of the most palpable hits ever to its standing. The strike-induced cancellation of the 1994 World Series; the gambling-fueled fall from grace of icon Pete Rose; the public light shined on a private players' culture that embraced performance-enhancing drug use. Time once was, though, that the sport's status wasn't quite so sacrosanct, and a seismic shake in public confidence could have resulted in its toppling. Independent writer-director John Sayles turned in a meticulous and engrossing dramatization of baseball's most notorious incident when he crafted Eight Men Out (1988).

In 1919, free agency was generations away in the offing, and major league baseball players were more or less the indentured help of the team owners; in Sayles' scenario, few ran their plantations as shabbily as Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James). After finishing the season with the majors' best record, the team gets informed by a flunky that their promised bonus for winning the pennant consists of the clubhouse champagne--which, of course, is flat. Comiskey's maltreatment of the team is so notorious, in fact, that professional gamblers--who, in the day, had easy access to professional ballplayers--found it probable that enough of the players could be successfully bribed to throw the upcoming Series against the odds-against Cincinnati Reds.

With that mindset, the Boston fixer Sport Sullivan (Kevin Tighe) sets his sights on the Sox's most readily corruptible mark, first baseman Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker). Gandil's willing to play ball; in his greed, though, he goes behind Sullivan's back and jumps in the pocket of two other sleazy small-timers, Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd) and Billy Maharg (Richard Edson). Gandil now has to recruit enough teammates for the fix to work, and he finds relatively easy sells in shortstop Swede Risberg (Don Harvey), outfielder Hap Felsch (Charlie Sheen) and utilityman Fred McMullin (Perry Lang).

Integral, though, is the cooperation of the pitching staff's ace, the aging veteran Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn). Initially, Cicotte contemptuously flings Gandil's overtures back in his face. Subsequently, though, the 29 game-winning Cicotte enters Comiskey's office to lobby for the $10,000 bonus he had been promised for 30 victories. The owner, who had rather suspiciously mandated Cicotte's resting for the postseason after his 29th win, stands by the letter of the agreement, and the embittered hurler thereafter joins Gandil's conspiracy. With Cicotte in, it's a simple matter to ring in No. 2 starter Lefty Williams (James Read) and to lean on the team's pliable offensive superstar, outfielder "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney), for his cooperation. Aware of the fix, but unwilling to blow the whistle, is third baseman Buck Weaver (John Cusack).

Now needing the funds to grease the players, Sullivan supplicates to New York City crimelord Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner). Burns and Maharg, for their part, turn to Abe Attell (Michael Mantell), who lies about having Rothstein's backing. As the championship gets underway, the Sox's ineffectiveness against the supposedly overmatched Reds does not go unnoticed by the prominent Chicago sportswriters Ring Lardner (Sayles) and Hugh Fullerton (Studs Terkel). As they begin to scratch for the truth, the crooked double- and triple-dealings unravel, Cincinnati goes on to its tainted victory, and the eight "Black Sox" are left to the legal and professional aftermath of their transgressions.

Sayles had long harbored a fascination with the Black Sox scandal, and Eliot Asinof's thorough 1963 account of baseball's most notorious debacle. The onetime Philadelphia Phillies farmhand Asinof had actually first developed his project as a network TV play, and turned to print after production was squelched due to pressure from then-Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick. As early as 1977, Sayles had generated a screenplay based on Asinof's research for a studio-mandated test of his writing skills; he first approached the production team that held Asinof's screen rights in 1980, and Orion Pictures ultimately signed off on a distribution package seven years later.

"Eliot said that when he first started researching it, as far as he was concerned, these guys were bums; they sold out," Sayles told George Vecsey in a New York Times interview upon the film's release. "But as Eliot started to learn more, he couldn't keep this simplistic view any more. He felt things were more understandable; some of them were bums, others were not. This was a complicated world. Other people were guilty and implicated. He began to understand how one could do it, knowing where the guys came from."

With $6.5 million in production costs, Sayles acquiesced in Orion's demand to cast young actors of the moment for his ensemble. Onetime White Sox outfielder Ken Berry was brought in to school the cast on their play, and the on-screen results are credible, with onetime minor leaguer Sweeney standing out. Indianapolis' Bush Stadium was effectively dressed to sub for both Comiskey Park and Cincy's Redland Field, with cardboard figures occupying seats where there was a dearth of Indianapolis extras willing to put on period clothing.

Sayles, who does bear a degree of facial resemblance to the real Lardner, got to effectively function as his story's Greek chorus. Effective work also came from John Mahoney as Kid Gleason, the patient manager who tumbles too late that something's horribly wrong. Also strong were the sundry "Clean Sox," including Bill Irwin as Eddie Collins, Gordon Clapp as Ray Schalk, and Jace Alexander as Dickie Kerr, who rallied to scratch out Chicago's two Series victories. Chalk it to the period theme, the lack of star power, or the business of the plot, but Eight Men Out fell short of recouping its costs in spite of largely positive notices. It remains an evocative piece of filmmaking that twenty years--and baseball's subsequent headaches--have done little to diminish.

Producers: Sarah Pillsbury, Midge Sanford
Director: John Sayles
Screenplay: John Sayles; Eliot Asinof (book "8 Men Out")
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Art Direction: Dan Bishop
Music: Mason Daring
Film Editing: John Tintori
Cast: John Cusack (George 'Buck' Weaver), Clifton James (Charles 'Commie' Comiskey), Michael Lerner (Arnold Rothstein), Christopher Lloyd (Bill Burns), John Mahoney (William 'Kid' Gleason), Charlie Sheen (Oscar 'Hap' Felsch), David Strathairn (Eddie Cicotte), D.B. Sweeney (Joseph 'Shoeless Joe' Jackson), Michael Rooker (Arnold 'Chick' Gandil), Don Harvey (Charles 'Swede' Risberg), James Read (Claude 'Lefty' Williams).
C-119m. Closed captioning.

by Jay S. Steinberg

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