Classic Film Review: John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out” (1988)

The things some people will go to avoid watching the damned Yankees.

Stumbling across “Eight Men Out” last night brought back memories of the film, what it represented — a turn towards mainstream by indie film icon John Sayles — and how it came off in an era when “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams” and “The Natural” put America’s game on the screen as a backdrop for all manner of screen stories.

I remember thinking at the time that the play of the cast was about two thirds to three-quarters the speed of “real” big leaguers. It’s generally a mistake to assume athletes of the past were wholly inferior — conditioning standards notwithstanding — to their modern counterparts. But that seems to matter less, seeing it now.

Sayles found an excellent “Shoeless Joe” Jackson for this account of the 1919 World Series-fixed by gamblers crime that came to be called “The Black Sox Scandal.D.B. Sweeney played more than one jock in his prime, and he hit left-handed (unlike the “other” Shoeless Joe in “Field of Dreams”) and carried himself like a baller. Acting workshop kids like John Cusack or Martin Sheen’s son Charlie Sheen (who’d go on to do the “Major League” comedies) and future Broadway clown/mime Bill Irwin did a decent enough job of faking it, with a little editing help.

The director was coming off a celebrated period piece, the mining town drama “Matewan,” that turned him in an “I can hire established actors now” direction. James Earl Jones was in that one, and the former TV star, Kevin Tighe (“Emergency!”) was in it, and he and Sayles’ muse David Strathairn would appear in “Eight Men Out.”

Sayles, working from an authoritative book account of the scandal, shows the “greatest team” of its era embittered by its stingy owner, Charles Comiskey (Bond “Sheriff” Clifton James), who cheated them out of promised bonuses for wiping the floor with the rest of the American League that season, and screwed-over star pitcher Eddie Cicotte (Strathairn) in particular.

Enter some gamblers with different financiers and the same agenda (Tighe, and Christopher Lloyd and Richard Edson). All they needed was the backing of gangster Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner) and the ear of one disgruntled player, first baseman Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker), who’d bring on a few other players, a couple of all-important pitchers included, and the fix was on.

Sayles treats the story as a “loss of innocence” parable, with cynical, predatory owners, predatory gangsters, cynical sports journalists (historian Studs Terkel played Hugh Fullerton, and Sayles himself was the legendary Ring Lardner) and naive but corruptible players misused by one and all.

A couple of the White Sox — (Cusack’s third baseman Buck Weaver) and illiterate outfielder Shoeless Joe– were wise to the scheme and even considered part of it, but played their guts out instead of dogging it in the best-of-nine World Series with the Cincinnati Reds. As reporter Fullerton makes his suspicions known and baseball decides to get to the bottom of it, the “Eight Men Out” and part of the scheme wind up in court, a trial that tramples all over the simple ballplayers’ rights thanks to baseball’s first “commissioner,” the power-drunk Kennesaw Mountain Landis (legendary character actor John Anderson).

Sayles made a modern old fashioned baseball movie that may have lacked the gloss and grandeur of “The Natural,” but still found glory in the historical game, and tugged at the heartstrings by reviving the corniest bit of Black Sox lore, a devoted newsboy fan catching Jackson’s eye as he left the courthouse and uttering the immortal line, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

The film holds up beautifully largely because of that cast. John Mahoney, later a star on “Frasier,” is the perfect pick for “Kid” Gleason, the manager who has his suspicions and is at a loss about what to do. Strathairn makes Cicotte a villain with motivations — his career was winding down, his style of pitching (spitballs and “shiners” would be banned) and the “dead ball” era was about to end, so he needed his promised bonuses.

Sweeney’s forlorn presence as Shoeless Joe anchors the picture in pathos. Cusack and Sheen show the sparks of stars in the making and Irwin and Rooker make great contrasts as an aloof “college boy” star (Eddie Collins) and a working class mug ready to pocket easy money.

Sayles makes the most of his screen time here, even crooning a made-up version of the period hit “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” with the lyrics “I’m forever blowing BALL-games.”

One of the most important figures in the history of independent cinema, Sayles still turns out the occasional screenplay, but hasn’t directed a movie in nearly a decade. “Matewan” and “Eight Men Out” started a run that included such gems as “The Secret of Roan Inish,” “Lonestar,” “City of Hope” and “Men With Guns.” His more recent films include a few that didn’t work and didn’t find an audience, and “Honeydripper,” which did but which came out 15 years ago.

Watching this account of one of baseball’s darkest hours is –with a few historical quibbles — almost as good as seeing an authoritative documentary on the subject. “Eight Men Out” still stands out as one of the best baseball movies ever, and watching it again beats watching the damned Yankees or cheating Astros any day.

Rating: PG, some profanity

Cast: John Cusack, David Strathairn, D.B. Sweeney, Charlie Sheen, Michael Rooker, Bill Irwin, Studs Terkel, Christopher Lloyd, Nancy Travis, John Sayles, Maggie Renzi, John Anderson, Michael Lerner, Clifton James and John Mahoney.

Credits: Scripted and directed by John Sayles, based on a book by Eliot Anisof. An Orion release now streaming and showing on various sites, PositiTV, etc.

Running time: 1:59

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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