A great ensemble cast and so much atmosphere that it feels like the 10th man on the field.

James Plath's picture

It was the biggest scandal in baseball, but surprisingly it wasn't until 1963 when a book came out giving fans a full account of the 1919 Chicago "Black" Sox, who took money from gamblers to throw the World Series. Maybe that's because despite a trial that took two years, details of what actually happened have always been sketchy. Director John Sayles ("Sunshine State") retooled the book by Eliot Asinof to make an entertaining film that's got a great ensemble cast and so much period atmosphere that it feels like the 10th man on the field. Asinof said that his main source was outfielder Oscar "Happy" Felsch, because the others still living wouldn't talk to him about what happened.

And now it's been 20 years since "Eight Men Out" played in theaters. This anniversary edition features an audio commentary by Sayles, a two-part retrospective documentary, and short features about the real 1919 Black Sox and the 2005 White Sox who finally broke the long World Series draught.

"Eight Men Out" is one of three DVDs that MGM released in time for this season's first pitch (the others being "Pride of the Yankees" and "Bull Durham"), and there doesn't appear to be any audio/video upgrade in any of them--just added features. If you've already got this title in your collection, I'm not sure there's enough here to make it worth buying the anniversary edition. But if you don't own it, "Eight Men Out" is a solid baseball film and courtroom drama (make that dramedy) that's worth adding to your home video library.

Sayles, a big baseball fan, thought of casting himself as one of the Sox, but because it took more than 10 years to finally reach production, he had to settle for playing famed sportswriter Ring Lardner--for whom, incidentally, he's a dead-ringer! But the treat for Chicagoans is that one of the City's greatest living treasures, author Studs Terkel (who was seven at the time of the scandal), plays sportswriter Hugh Fullerton and teams with Sayles/Lardner. Studs adds a real touch of Chicago that even partial location filming can't approach.

And here's the line-up for YOUR Chicago Black Sox:

Playing 3rd base, George "Buck" Weaver (John Cusack)
In the outfield, Oscar "Happy" Felsch (Charlie Sheen)
Also in the outfield, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney)
On the mound, pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn)
At 1st base, Arnold "Chick" Gandil (Michael Rooker)
At shortstop, Charles "Swede" Risberg (Don Harvey)
And the utility infielder, Fred McMullin (Perry Lang)
Also pitching, Claude "Lefty" Williams (James Read)

I have to confess that I couldn't tell half of these players without a scorecard, but the main ones were enough to get a sense of how this "fix" apparently went down, with the agreement followed by a middlemen double cross, then a players' double cross, with one player (Weaver) changing his mind and not taking a penny and playing his heart out, but the series ultimately going to the heavy underdog Cincinnati Redlegs.

It's the gamblers that get kind of confusing in Sayles film. I read The Great Gatsby, and so I knew that old Meyer Wolfsheim was based on gambler Arnold Rothstein (played here by Michael Lerner), widely regarded as the man who fixed the series--and here, given the motive of resenting being picked on by athletes as a kid. But it's not a simple top-down affair. There are a couple of guys whom we see first sizing up the players and deciding whom to approach, and for much of the film it's not totally clear what the relationship is between Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd) and Billy Maharg (Richard Edson) and other gamblers, one of whom ends up double-crossing the players who agree to throw the game, expecting $10,000 each up-front and the rest of the money after it's over. In fact, it's not just the gamblers. It's all the non-players that can be a bit confusing. I never knew, for example, that Sayles was supposed to be the famous Lardner until the credits rolled at the end. A hint would have been nice. But if you can not fret over this muddle in the middle, Sayles' period film moves along at a surprisingly brisk pace. Sometimes, his choice of scenes is suspect-as when we see only glimpses of the men's family situations that ultimately drive their decisions, and yet the cameras linger over cloyingly sweet (but surprisingly stiff) scenes between Weaver and neighborhood kids. And that's before we even get to that famous kid line, "Say it ain't so, Joe."

There's actually more in the way of baseball sequences in this complicated film than there are in many others, including the two that MGM just re-released. I haven't read Asinof's book, but Sayles' screenplay is another "Field of Dreams" for the disgraced players. Compared to tight-fisted owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James), the players look like angels. The rotund Comiskey is set up to be the heavy here. In reality, this fellow paid his star players, the best in the league, $6000 a year when other teams were playing mediocrities $10,000 or better. He also benched star pitcher Cicotte when he hit 29 wins, just to keep him from getting the 30th win and having to pay a $10,000 bonus. So he's deserving of the tightwad tag and the implication that this might not have happened if he had only played fair with his talented team. The scene that perhaps oversells this point is a juxtaposition between the players' clubhouse celebration which falls as flat as the one bottle of champagne Comiskey sends them, and a regal scene in the suite Comiskey set up to entertain sportswriters--with more of them hoisting a glass of champagne than could fit in a whole case of champagne bottles.

Though this is a true ensemble film, with the focus spread out over the whole cast, a number of characters emerge as being sympathetic figures. Chief among them is Weaver (Cusack), who first agreed to the fix but then changes his mind and doesn't take a penny. His treatment is the same as the ones who took money, and it's clear that Asinof and Sayles don't agree with that--or else why have him be the one who's shown interacting with kids? Coach "Kid" Gleason (John Mahoney, "Frasier") also comes across as one who guesses a fix might be in, but sympathizes with the players and hopes to turn things around with a few well-chosen words. Pitcher Eddie Cicotte (Strathairn) also gets the spotlight as he's the one Comiskey has wronged the most. Surprisingly, there's not all that much done with the most famous player of the bunch, "Shoeless" Joe, who's depicted here as so inarticulate and illiterate that all he can do is make an X on a document.

By the end of the film, you have your own sense of who's a winner and who's a loser. I'm not sure that all of the subtle theses that the film advances are true--for one thing, Sayles goes with an immediate suspension for the players, when in fact they got to play some the next season before the final verdict was handed down--but there's enough here to make for an interestingly textured film that works for non-fans as well as baseball nuts.

"Eight Men Out" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the film has a golden look to it, tinted to give it a kind of bronzed and antiqued look. With so many new outfits (even on the kids) I'm not sure that a color wash accomplishes the whole thing, but by the time you add old advertising, buildings, cars, and a soundtrack by Mason Daring that reinforces the period, you end up with a pretty convincing atmosphere. There's a graininess throughout, but it's subtle enough to not pose much of an annoyance.

The featured audio is a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, but if you want to further enhance the period feel you can also listen to Sayles' film in English, Spanish, or French Mono, which I actually preferred. Subtitles are in English (CC) and Spanish.

As I said, if I already had this film in my collection, I don't know if I'd upgrade. Then again, for $14.98 SRP, we're not exactly looking at a huge investment. Sayles' commentary shows the passion he had for the project and gives some insight into how he approached the film and what he took from the book. It's an above-average track. The two-part "retrospective" documentary is also worth watching, though it covers all the standard "making-of" bases. White Sox fans may enjoy a feature on the 2005 team that broke the World Series Draught (and whatever curse might have been associated with the 1919 scandal), but I have to say that my favorite of the bunch was the one that has author Asinof talking about the scandal and giving us the "straight dope" about what went down, as far as his research led him to believe.

Bottom Line:
I wouldn't call "Eight Men Out" one of the best baseball films ever made, but it's a solid-enough line-drive to be a hit with most movie (and baseball) fans. It's saturated with the period, and it advances a few theories that convincingly answer that little boy's question for Jackson, which, beneath that plea for a denial, really wanted to know one thing: why?


Film Value