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The film adaptation of Eliot Asinof’s book Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series, Eight Men Out stars John Cusack, D.B. Sweeney, John Mahoney, Michael Rooker, and Charlie Sheen as members (and the manager) of the 1919 Chicago White Sox that fixed the World Series with gamblers and lost to the Cincinnati Reds.
For fans of baseball, the 1919 “Black Sox Scandal” is relatively well known, and the movie begins with the White Sox clinching the American League, only to be met by flat champagne provided by their owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James). Chick Gandil (Rooker), first baseman for the club, meets with Sport Sullivan and the conspiracy to lose the upcoming World Series began. In exchange for $10,000 per player, Gandil assures Sullivan that he can get “6 or 7” players to go along, but the key is to get two of the three pitchers to go along as well.
Eddie Cicotte (David Straithairn), coming off a 29-win season, is approached by Gandil, but he passes, as he is on his way to meet with Comiskey in regards to a bonus for winning 30 games during the season. Though he came up one game short, he believes he was owed the bonus after having been shutdown for a few weeks during the season in an attempt to keep him from reaching the milestone. Comiskey refuses to pay the bonus, as 29 wins is not 30, and Cicotte returns to Gandil and informs he is in, requesting $10,000 in advance of the first game to take part.
Meanwhile, Sullivan heads to New York to speak with Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner) to acquire the required funds to pay the players. He eventually receives $80,000 for the eight involved players, half of which due to the players before Game 1, with the remainder to be paid out after the Reds win the World Series. Sullivan, being the shady ass gambler that he is, instead takes most of the money and places bets of his own on the Series, calling it a “loan” from Mr. Rothstein.
Once Cicotte hits the first batter in the first game, Rothstein and the others no that the fix is in. The next hour of the movie covers the Series and the misadventures of the involved players, who ultimately lose in eight games after Lefty Williams throws away the final game after receiving a threat against his wife.
Sportswriter Hugh Fullerton (Studs Terkel) figured “the fix” was in and starts to dig in to the shadiness surrounding the Series. He publishes story after story regarding his findings, and eventually a grand jury is convened against the players, while all the gamblers make themselves scarce. Meanwhile, Comiskey and the other owners approach Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis to become the first commissioner of baseball to investigate the sport and its ties to gambling. The grand jury, on the strength of confessions from Cicotte and Jackson, indict the eight players in the conspiracy to throw the Series for the benefit of the gamblers.
The trial, which features a cast of characters involved in everything, eventually results in a not guilty verdict for the players, but Commissioner Landis decides that the damage to baseball had been done, and banned the eight players for life from baseball. Years later, a man named “Brown” is seen playing baseball in New Jersey, and Buck Weaver denies to the fans in the crowd that it isn’t “Shoeless Joe,” despite it being the man himself. A sad end for a solid ballplayer.
Of the eight players, six were definitely guilty in the conspiracy. Buck Weaver, who never received any money and hit .323 in the Series and didn’t make an error in the field, claimed innocence for the rest of his life, though he did participate in meetings where the fix was discussed. “Shoeless” Joe, all but illiterate, marked a confession during the grand jury and received money from the plot, but claimed to have never really been involved, and his play during the Series seems to attest to this. Nevertheless, his career ended following the 1920 season, perhaps one of the greatest tragedies in sports.
None of the other players involved in the scheme were likely on their way to the Hall of Fame like Joe Jackson. Cicotte was probably closest, though he likely would have needed a few more seasons to get there, especially in an era where pitchers won lots of games. The Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor, in which a score of 100 represents “likely Hall of Famer,” Cicotte finished with a score of 110. Under various other metrics, he comes up short as well, but he likely had at least another few seasons in him, and went 21-10 during the 1920 season before he was banned from baseball.
Jackson was another story, however. He played 13 seasons in the major leagues, though one season was interrupted by his service in World War I. He hit .375 during the 1919 World Series, including the only home run. In 1920, he was even better, leading the league in triples for the third time while batting .382! He ended his career with a .356 career batting average, third-highest of all time behind Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby.
On the same Hall of Fame Monitor score, he scored 121, and had he played another 5 or 6 seasons – he was playing semi-pro in 1925, when he was 37 – he could have approached 3,000 hits and guaranteed enshrinement, though I imagine he would have got in short of that milestone due to the time he missed because of the War.
Buck Weaver, himself banned from baseball, fought for Jackson’s reinstatement until he died, and there have been other movements in the century since to lift the ban. Recent attempts have failed, but it is possible that the Hall of Fame could change their mind independent of Major League Baseball and allow him to come up for a vote in a special committee. However, since he is long dead, and the Hall’s focus on more recent players in their special committees, it could be a while before he gets more consideration.
Regardless, Eight Men Out is perhaps the best portrayal of Jackson in a movie. He is also a major character in Field of Dreams, played by Ray Liotta, but they didn’t even bother to have him bat left-handed in that movie. Sweeney inhabits Jackson as the player that all contemporary accounts do, as a hard charging player that hustled and always made the routine plays look easy and the hard plays look routine. And, for being the “name” player that helped get the gamblers on board, he has been punished for nearly a century.
In advance of my re-watch, Eight Men Out ranked #1126 on my FlickChart. This review was based on one ranking who knows how long ago. That ranking places it in the bottom third of all movies that I have ranked thus far. However, after re-watching the movie and ranking it again, it has settled at #764, one spot behind Saw and ahead of The Mask. In my estimation, this is a much more fair ranking for the movie. We’ll check back in a couple of months to see if it has moved around as other movies do throughout this little experiment.
If you’re a baseball fan, or a fan of baseball movies, and you have not yet seen Eight Men Out, I encourage you to give it a watch. It is not currently on any streaming services available with a subscription, so I paid $3.99 (plus tax) to rent it on Amazon Prime. It was well worth that small fee, but once you’ve seen it once, you probably don’t need to see it again.
Until next time…