Eight Men Out Blu-ray Review: We’re Talking Baseball…Scandals, and Say It Ain’t So, Joe!

Bottom of the ninth, writer/director John Sayles steps to the plate. He takes a big swing and hits a home run with Eight Men Out (1988), his depiction of the events surrounding the1919 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. Eight Men Out also features an all-star, murderer’s row lineup of actors that include John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, D.B. Sweeney, David Strathiarn, Michael Rooker, John Mahoney, Clifton James, Micael Lerner, and Christopher Lloyd. Based on Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book of the same name, it’s a story that remains relevant because its lasting effects are still being felt to this very day. 

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In 1919, Charles Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox put together one of the best teams in baseball history. The American League champs could do it all with ease: hit, run, field, pitch. No problem. Comiskey’s boys include the legendary left fielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackon, center fielder Oscar “Hap” Felsch, third baseman Buck Weaver, superstar second baseman Eddie Collins, and the anchor was pitcher Eddie Cicotti who had mastered the “shine ball.” This team of greats couldn’t lose and were expected to easily bulldoze the Cincinnati Reds who won the National League pennant. Commi’s got a major league issue though; he’s a tightwad who doesn’t want to pay his players what they are worth (seems few owners did in those days). He’s so cheap his idea of a bonus for winning is flat champagne.  

Word of the players’ discontent spreads among the underworld and two shady gamblers (Lloyd and Richard Edson) decide the time is right to make a move. They approach the team’s well-known malcontent, Chick Gandil (Rooker), with the idea to throw a few games, grab some loot, and kick old Commi in the pants. Chick ponders the idea a bit before he starts recruiting some of the others that he thinks will go along with the scheme of dropping a few of those best-of-nine World Series games. Nothing wrong with grabbing the loot they were denied by the fat cat upstairs, right? Some of the gang are all in from the first pitch, while others hesitate and a few will back out completely. Things get hairy when two reporters, Ring Lardner and Hugh Fullerton (Sayles and Studs Turkel), covering the game begin to pick up on questionable plays and start keeping tabs on their own score cards as to who’s missing what, when, where, and how.  

After the Reds win the series five games to three, an investigation is launched into the alleged wrongdoings and a trial is set for eight key players thought to have purposely dropped the ball. Meanwhile, Commi and the other team owners decide they need to clean up the image of the game once and for all. So they hire the no-nonsense federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to be baseball’s first commissioner. The eight not-so-straight ball players are eventually acquitted but they’re not completely off the hook as they still have the owners and Landis to deal with. 

Landis takes a hard stance and calls the eight men out. He hands them all lifetime bans from the game they love so much. No matter how or if they were actually involved, they will never be allowed back on the field in any capacity or allowed induction into the Hall of Fame. The game lost one of its all-around best players that year in Joe Jackson and the nation gained the phrase, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Thankfully for baseball, that off-season a pitcher was traded from Boston to New York and the game would begin a whole new era and the Black Sox would become a tarnished, faded memory. 

Eight Men Out is an outstanding, timeless baseball drama. Sayles manages to capture the thrill of the game and the agony of those players that were banned despite their protests of innocence. The cast does a fine job in their portrayals of those involved, from mobsters to ball players to businessmen and newsmen of the time. Though the young movie stars are a bit more handsome than those lads that took the field in 1919, they play with just as much intensity. Knowing a few of those guys like Cusack and Sheen are big fans of the sport make it more fun to watch as they dive around while playing hard. Watching them relive those thrilling games of yesteryear is a sight to behold. 

The movie holds up and remains relevant because it does a fantastic job of making the intense drama of that gambling scandal entertaining so modern fans of the game can get a better understanding of the emotions and consequences of it all. Its release was timely as just a year later another baseball great, Pete Rose, would be banned for life for betting on baseball. Oddly enough, its Blu-ray release comes at a time when baseball’s current superstar, two-way sensation Shohai Otani, is surrounded by rumors of sports gambling. There’s even been a round of suspensions, bans, and fines for a few unfortunate souls, though no major stars have fallen as of this writing.  

I hadn’t watched Eight Men Out in its 120-minute entirety in over 20 years and I’m glad I got the chance to do so. Sayles does a great job in capturing the essence of how the game was played 100 years ago and in bringing those old timers back to life in those heavy, wool jerseys. Collins, Weaver, Jackson, those guys matter for their skills on the field. They deserve the spotlight away from the scandal and this film helps keep them from being lost to time as does documentarian Ken Burns’ masterpiece Baseball (1994). That whole affair is a stain on baseball but Eight Men Out brings a human aspect to a terrible situation. Fortunately for baseball, that error (and the “dead ball” era) was eclipsed by Babe Ruth and the mammoth home runs that came from the baseball being wound tighter and “taking off like a rabbit.”

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Joe Garcia III

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