Friday, September 08, 2006

Movie Review: "Eight Men Out"

by Matt Sandler

“Say it Ain’t So, Joe”

There is much talk nowadays about the integrity of baseball, of how the recent home run records are tainted. There was also a minor scandal brewing a few weeks ago, in which Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca was said to have run up gambling debts, a charge he vehemently denied.

With this backdrop in mind, I recently viewed John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out” (1988), which shows the lowest moment in the sport’s history, the White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series to the Reds. Yes, I am including the Pete Rose scandal and all the strikes and lockouts when I say this is the low point in baseball history.

The movie does a wonderful job of evoking the time and place. We see kids playing stickball in the street, and needing just “two bits” (one quarter) to get into Comiskey Park. The players walk home from the ballpark into the neighborhoods where they live with the fans they know on a first-time basis. In general, it is a romanticized view of what many people miss about the game and players’ relationships with fans.

But of course, the movie does not shy away from showing the dark side of Chicago and other cities. Prohibition was on the horizon, but that did not stop people from willingly breaking the law. Some White Sox are amusedly shocked when one of their teammates decides to spend time with his wife on the road; clearly that is the time to spend with another woman. And then there is all the gambling, with the most powerful bookie being the New Yorker Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner). To these gamblers, talking about the integrity of the game would be laughable; it is all about maximizing their profit, no matter the damage to the sport.

The players are tempted to fix the World Series because, in short, their owner, Charles “Commie” Comiskey (Clifton James) is a greedy bastard. The most telling example of his greed is when respected veteran and family man Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn) approaches Comiskey at the end of the 1919 season to collect on a bonus Comiskey had promised if Cicotte won 30 games that year. Comiskey reminds him that he only won 29, but Cicotte points out that Comiskey forced manager William “Kid” Gleason (John Mahoney) to rest him for two weeks during the season. It is this act of naked greed that convinces Cicotte to join the fix.

The scam is led by first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil (Michael Rooker), who shows a remarkable lack of compunction about his acts. For him, it is all about sticking it to “Commie.”

The movie does a good job of keeping some of the figures sympathetic. Third baseman George “Buck” Weaver (John Cusack) is implicated as one of the eight, but seems to give maximum effort in the Series, and insists that he never took any money. The manager, Gleason, at first can’t believe at how poorly his favored Sox are playing in the Series, then he starts to catch on and is furious. But he can’t stop playing his best players, many of whom are among the eight, so he is in a no-win situation. He doesn’t know who is in on the fix. And then there is poor catcher Ray Schalk (Gordon Clapp), who plays the game with the fiery determination that we expect from all players, and knows something is amiss. He would eventually make the Hall of Fame.

Even the manager, Comiskey, has some redeeming qualities in that he cares about the integrity of his team and his sport. The scandal would lead the owners to install Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the first commissioner to oversee the sport.

Most of all, the movie reminds us that besides being entertainment, baseball is a business. In business, there is money to be made, both aboveboard and illicitly. The idea of the romanticized old times is clearly a myth. At the beginning of the film, Comiskey is discussing his powerhouse of a team with reporters as it is about to clinch the pennant. Odds are already being set for the World Series, and Comiskey is confident. He says, “A bet against my White Sox is a sucker’s bet.” Well, the entire American public turned out to be the suckers.

Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan", appears alternate Fridays.

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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine