One of the single most infamous and important moments in Major League Baseball history is the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal. Most of you know the story. Eight members of the White Sox agreed to lose the 1919 World Series to Cincinnati on purpose. In 1963 Eliot Asinof wrote a book about it. In 1988 Hollywood brought the book, and the scandal, to theaters with the movie “Eight Men Out.” So as a sort of companion to my review of the book The Betrayal, here’s a review of the movie.
The movie is quite atmospheric. From the beginning credits when the titles and cast names go up the screen then peak and come down again on the other side in a tribute to a pop fly, to the ending scene the movie stays true to its era. The bar scenes, the scenes on a train, the ballpark scenes are all done with just the right amount of smoke and subdued lighting.
The cast is terrific. John Cusack as Buck Weaver does a wonderful job showing both the conflict within him of trying to play straight while staying true to his teammates and at the same time we can see the unreality of his belief that if he just plays it on the up and up that everything will work out for him. Michael Rooker’s Chick Gandil is wonderfully odious, Gordon Clapp’s Ray Schalk is fiery and angry, and David Strathairn steals the movie as the conflicted Eddie Cicotte. John Mahoney’s Kid Gleason, the manager who just can’t believe his players would lose on purpose, is stunningly good. Although it’s a small role, John Anderson has Kennesaw Mountain Landis played exactly right.
Equally good are the gamblers. Michael Lerner, Christopher Lloyd, Kevin Tighe, and Michael Mantell (why hasn’t he had a better career?) do good turns as the sharp and not so sharp gamblers who know how to make a buck and callously don’t care about anyone or anything else.
But the great scene stealers are John Sayles (who also directs) as Ring Lardner and Clifton Webb as Charles Comiskey. Lardner wants desperately to believe that the World Series is being played straight while knowing it isn’t. His “You lied to me, Eddie” scene is one of the great wrenching moments of the flick. And Webb is stunning as Comiskey who is absolutely unable to understand that his actions are turning his team against him in such a way that they are willing to do the unthinkable.
There are some historical mistakes. For instance there’s a scene involving flat champagne that happened in 1917, but is woven into the fabric of 1919. But even this adds to the conflict between the owner and the players. The impression the movie leaves is that Hugh Fullerton’s (Studs Terkel) article that first blew open the scandal was written earlier than it was actually penned. And of course the apocryphal “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” scene is there. And the scene where Williams is threatened is totally fictional.
The subtle nature of some of the scenes is wonderful. Look especially for the scene where Swede Risberg is talking up the fix to Lefty Williams. Off stage Williams’ wife is heard asking who it is. Williams tells her it’s a salesman (and indeed Risberg is selling the fix). She tells Williams we don’t want any (not knowing what it is being sold) and alerts us to exactly what’s going on. Finally, it’s tough to root for anybody in this film. The players are crooks, the owner’s a jerk, the gamblers are in it for themselves. Gleason, the kid who drops the “Say it ain’t so” line, and the reporters are about all there are in the way of good guys. There are the White Sox, but most are so minor as to be forgettable (except for Clapp’s take on Schalk).
All in all, I can’t recommend this movie highly enough. It is wonderfully paced, greatly acted, and worth the time, despite the historical inaccuracies. Pick up a copy or find it on Netflix, then set back and enjoy the movie, but not the actions of the players.