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VEB Movie Club - Eight Men Out

Josey Curtis & J.P. Hill watch “Eight Men Out” and review the movie. Watch it and join the coversation.

Group Shot of 1919 White Sox

Jason: The second movie in our VEB Movie Club is “Eight Men Out” starring John Cusack, Clifton James, Jace Alexander, among others. The movie tells the story of the Black Sox scandal of 1919, where “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the Chicago White Sox were paid by gamblers to throw the World Series. This scandal has always been of great interest to me and I know there are questions about what actually happened. Did they really try to throw the Series? Did they start out cheating and then change their minds late in the series? Is the whole thing a lie and Jackson et al are all completely innocent? The movie attempts to address this in a dramatized fashion. If I have seen the film, it was long ago and I don’t remember much about it. Josey Curtis and I will be watching the movie and then we’ll share our conversation here.

Movie summary
(Warning: Spoilers ahead! But come on. The movie was made in 1988 about an event that happened over 100 years ago. You’ve had your chance not to be spoilered.)

“Eight Men Out” is a dramatized retelling of the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal. It attempts to present the story through the lens of not just the players involved but also ownership, fans, sportswriters, and the gambling mafia.

Josey: Like Jason, this was my first time watching “Eight Men Out” in full. Charles Comiskey was the owner of the Chicago White Sox, the best team in the league in 1919. Despite being the best team, the White Sox were the lowest paid team. Comiskey promised his players bonuses for good performances, but he never followed through. Back then, it seemed like being a baseball player was a ‘common’ job (like an accountant or a mechanic would be today), and Major League players weren’t paid the mounds of money they are paid today. So, to be promised some extra money and not receive it bothered a handful of White Sox players, as it would any of us. When the gamblers heard of this, they really leaped at the opportunity. They convinced some players that playing badly in the World Series against the Reds would make them more money than playing to their potential; Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver were two of the several White Sox players who could not bring themselves to intentionally play poorly.

The White Sox fell to the Reds in the best-of-nine World Series, five games to three, and the suspicion grew among the media and the public that something had been going on. Players later admitted that there had indeed been something going on. After the investigation and trial, eight players were surprisingly acquitted of all wrongdoing by the jury after the players’ confessions were “lost.” Nonetheless, all eight players, including Jackson and Weaver, were ultimately banned for life by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first Commissioner of Baseball. Landis felt obligated to clean the game up, and the best way to achieve that was to get rid of those linked to the gambling.

Shoeless Joe slashed .375/.394/.563, and Weaver batted .324 with four doubles in the 1919 World Series. It seems clear these two players were not partaking in the gambling scheme and were wrongfully punished, but Landis never budged on his decision.

Jason: I thought the movie was interesting as a dramatized history. It did feel like the goal of the film was to portray what happened from multiple point of views, ranging from the players themselves to the children who grew up idolizing them while playing street ball in Chicago. Sportswriters, the manager, and multiple gambling rings were all given significant time in the film. Perhaps because the film took a brought look at the scandal, these characters lacked depth and the dialogue only casually touched on the social and relational dynamics that were at play. Take Bucky Weaver, played by John Cusack, for example. His character was portrayed in the most simplistic terms. His sold motivation was his intense desire to win. Yet, when he was approached by his teammates about cheating, he was easily swayed. The acting was fine, but the script and directing eliminated some of the nuance of personal relationships and over-simplified the cultural dynamics of the period. I also expected “Shoeless” Joe Jackson to be the centerpiece of the story — and he was featured at the beginning and end of the film — but he was almost a none factor in the story’s central arc.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the film for me was the conflict between the Sox players and owner Charles Comiskey. Consider the current conflict in baseball. Right now, the Players Association is demanding full compensation to play games, regardless of the presence of fans. Owners are demanding that the players assume more of the risk from lost income. After all, as Buck said of the owners in the film, “it is their team and stadium”. That’s the same argument made in 1919 and the primary motivation behind the gambling scheme. Little has changed in 100 years. (Except perhaps the gambling?) Players have always felt underpaid and underappreciated and owners have always been heartless and greedy. This is the way of baseball.

Josey: Overall, I liked the movie and enjoyed learning about the 100-year-old scandal that I did not know much about. Much of the movie was filmed at the old Bush Stadium in Indianapolis; I grew up in Indiana, so this was cool to me! I think the movie itself was well done, with polished and convincing acting. There were several young stars in the movie, from John Cusack and Charlie Sheen to D.B. Sweeney and Michael Rooker. (It’s easy to forget this movie came out in 1988!) Some sports movies can be hurt by a poor portrayal of the actual sport; this is not the case here, as the players, games, and surrounding events were believable. Times have changed drastically in the last 100 years. As Jason noted, players feeling like they aren’t compensated enough is a problem we still see today. The current situation we are seeing unfold between the owners and players union during this strange time is much like what we saw in the movie between Comiskey and his players.