When you think of baseball movies from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there are a lot of titles that probably pop into your head. We’ve covered a goodly number of them in this space over the past few months. But, if you’re like me, one you always forget about is Eight Men Out. Which is a shame, because it’s a fine movie.
Eight Men Out is based on the true story of one of baseball’s biggest gambling scandals: the 1919 World Series that that eight White Sox players gambled on and subsequently threw. The first thing you should know is that, according to my research, it’s only loosely based. Many of the details are contested or have been outed as outright falsehoods in the time since the film came out.
This movie tells a story of baseball players who just couldn’t stop getting screwed by people with more money than them. First, they were screwed by owner Charles “Commy” Comiskey - try giving someone that nickname these days eesh. Among his many faults were paying out a promised bonus for making the world series in the form of fewer than a dozen bottles of flat champagne, ordering the manager to bench the team’s best starting pitcher so he wouldn’t get 30 wins and qualify for a $10,000 bonus, and generally making himself an enemy of his players. Next, they were screwed by the gamblers they got into bed with. Two different people approached key players of the team and offered to pay them $10,000 each (for a total of $20,000 to each player) to throw the World Series. However, once the team had gotten itself in a deep enough hole that they seemed unlikely to climb out, the gamblers stopped paying the players. Finally, they were screwed by the sport of baseball itself; the owners gathered together, to cover their own butts, and hired a judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis to become baseball’s first sole commissioner. Landis, using the power the owners agreed to give him, banned all eight players from the sport for life based on the fact that they had all been approached with the idea to throw the game but didn’t report it to ownership even if no one could prove they’d actually thrown the series.
The thing that’s most interesting about this movie to me is that it doesn’t focus overly much on any particular character. Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams, and Buck Weaver get the majority of the screen time as far as players to earn more sympathy for them from the audience. Cicotte didn’t get benched for two weeks but he did get pulled from his final start of the season after the second inning with his team in the lead, Buck Weaver didn’t go in on the fix even though he knew about it, and Lefty’s wife being threatened if he didn’t throw the final game was a detail included in one of the books about the scandal that the movie was based on even though the author later admitted adding it simply to prevent plagiarism.
But while all of them are, at times, conflicted about the arrangement and their role in it none of them features much of an arc. Which makes sense in a movie about an event instead of about people. That represents just a few weeks in their lives. Dramatic weeks to be sure, but still a drop in the bucket of their lives. When you’re telling a fictional story people can change drastically over the course of a few hours or days. When you’re dealing with real life it doesn’t often work that way.
While the movie doesn’t focus on characters it does focus on perspectives. We get the perspectives of the players, of the gamblers, of the owners, of the reporters, and of the kids who were just fans of the game. They’re all unique and interesting perspectives that, when pieced together, paint a rich tapestry of a story. The necessity of the players’ perspective is obvious. The kids’ perspective helps us understand what the fans were feeling but also gives depth to the players’ perspective; it makes us believe that these guys would have far preferred to play the game without cheating. The perspective of the gamblers and the owners shows us why the players did end up cheating. Because none of those guys were going to even consider giving the players a fair deal if they thought they could get what they wanted without one. (A trend that continues among many baseball owners today, if we’re being honest, but I digress...)
In one of those strange oddities of film, Christopher Lloyd and Charlie Sheen get second and third billing in this film due to their then-recent success on the films Back to the Future and Platoon. This is despite the fact that neither actor has a particularly large role in the film either in terms of plot or screen time. If you removed all of their scenes from the movie and showed it someone who hadn’t seen it in a decade or more I doubt that person would even realize they were missing. All of the performances are pretty good, though. There’s very little focus on the baseball action so people who are distressed by awkward attempts at throwing, fielding, and hitting shouldn’t have to endure much of it.
If you’re hoping to watch this movie to get a better grasp on the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 you could do worse for a primer. Just make sure you do some additional reading to get some of the details straightened out. If you’re looking to escape from the stress of 2020 you might want to look elsewhere. Can I recommend Little Big League? However, if you want to watch it just to see some well-acted drama play out, you’re set and I hope you enjoy.