With the Major League Baseball playoffs currently going on and the World Series just around the corner, I thought it only appropriate to talk about what I consider to be the most underrated baseball movie of all time: John Sayles’ Eight Men Out. There have been many controversial events in the annals of pro sports, but none of them may be more notorious than the infamous Black Sox scandal from the 1919 World Series, where eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of accepting money from gamblers in order to deliberately lose games and throw the entire Series. Even the massive steroid scandals that have plagued baseball throughout the last decade don’t even come close to damaging the game as much as the Black Sox did, which is why the eight players wound up being banned from baseball for life. Eight Men Out may be a highly underrated movie simply because it was overshadowed by the acclaimed Field of Dreams, which came out one year later and also featured Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the Black Sox. This time, they were ghosts who magically appeared on a baseball field at a farm in Iowa in order to have the chance to finally play again. As much as I love Field of Dreams, the film was pure fantasy, so it never really dealt with the massive implications of the Black Sox scandal and why these players did what they did. If you’ve ever watched Field of Dreams and wanted to know the full detailed back story about the Black Sox, Eight Men Out is one hell of a companion piece.
The 1919 Chicago White Sox were considered to be one of the strongest and most talented teams in the entire history of baseball, and everyone assumed that they would crush the opposing Cincinnati Reds in the World Series that year. The only problem is that these guys weren’t being paid like they were the best team in baseball. The members of the Black Sox are not portrayed as overly bad people in Eight Men Out since the real villain of the piece is the notoriously cheap White Sox owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James). As hard as it may be to fathom now, in an era before free agency and player unions, many baseball players were grossly underpaid and had to settle for what the owners were willing to pay them if they wanted to have a career. Comiskey was so stingy that his idea of a bonus for winning the pennant that year was to send the team a case of flat champagne. Their star pitcher and respected leader Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn) has a $10,000 bonus in his contract if he won 30 games that season, but after Cicotte notches his 29th victory, Comiskey sees to it that he is benched for a couple of starts, so that he never gets the chance to collect the bonus. A gambling syndicate knows that most of the White Sox players are desperate for money, so eight of them are recruited to intentionally throw the World Series. Since the odds are heavily in favour of the Sox, anyone who places a bet on the Reds is bound to make a killing. The Black Sox, as they would come to be known, make a lot of deliberate mistakes in their games in order to lose the Series, and many of them are so obvious that they draw a lot of suspicion.
Now, I have to concede that the more familiar you are with the story of the Black Sox, the more likely you are to enjoy this film. Eight Men Out moves at such a fast pace and features so many different characters that viewers who know nothing about the events may have to pay close attention in order to follow everything that’s going on. That said, the whole thing is so well-made and contains such good performances from a terrific ensemble cast that you don’t have to be a baseball fan in order to enjoy the film. While the story contains a vast gallery of characters, for the most part, they’re all very well-drawn and clearly defined, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble keeping track of who’s who and what their motivations are. The eight members of the Black Sox all have vastly different mindsets about what they decide to do. The ringleaders, Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker) and Swede Risberg (Don Harvey) clearly have little remorse about what they’re doing, but that’s definitely not the case with everyone. Eddie Cicotte is appalled by the idea, but still participates because he desperately needs the money to support his family. Third baseman Buck Weaver (John Cusack) does not take any payoff money and does not participate in the fix, but still gets banned from baseball because he knew about the scheme and didn’t report it to anyone. Happy Felsch (Charlie Sheen) and Shoeless Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) seem to participate in the fix simply because they’re too dim-witted to know any better. Even though he takes money, Jackson still has a great World Series and doesn’t do anything to help throw the games. It’s quite interesting to watch how Shoeless Joe is portrayed in Eight Men Out after seeing how much the character was romanticized in Field of Dreams. Even though he was a tremendous ball player, Shoeless Joe Jackson was actually an illiterate and just not a very smart person at all, and the movie does not shy away from showing that. Since he clearly didn’t understand what he was getting into and still turned in a great performance in the Series, baseball historians will forever argue about whether he really should have been banned or not. After signing a confession about his participation in the scandal, Shoeless Joe would be confronted by a heartbroken young boy on the courthouse steps in one of the most iconic moments in sports history.
The production values in Eight Men Out are just top-notch in every category. The attention to period detail and the re-creations of the old-time baseball games are first-rate, which is especially amazing when you consider that the budget was only $6 million! I honestly don’t know how Sayles was able to pull a lot of these scenes off with the budget he had to work with. However, it’s obvious that this movie was a labour of love for a lot of people and that some of the big-name actors worked for a lot less money than they were used to. Charlie Sheen was one of the hottest actors in Hollywood at the time this was made, but he’s also a self-proclaimed baseball fanatic, which is probably why he was willing to take what is essentially a minor supporting role here. Every role in this story, from the players to the executives to the gamblers to the sportswriters, has been cast perfectly, as great actors such as Christopher Lloyd, Michael Lerner and John Mahoney pop up to do tremendous jobs in their respective parts. I think one of the reasons that Eight Men Out works so well and can still be enjoyed by people who aren’t even baseball fans is because its overall message is timeless. Like many problems in the world right now, the entire Black Sox scandal was driven by greed, and the whole thing was a demonstration of what can happen when desperate people decide they want to stick it to the wealthy, powerful folks who take advantage of them. While most of agree that baseball players are overpaid today, Eight Men Out shows us that there was once a time when they were also considered the “little guy” and had to struggle just as badly as the “little guys” of today.