SnakePit Movie Night: Eight Men Out

The fourth in the series of MLB Network 'Costas at the Movies' see the saga of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox unfold, in 'Eight Men Out'. Director John Sayles joins Bob Costas at 6pm Arizona time to discuss the movie, and the film starts 30 minutes later.

The 1919 White Sox

This section will be fairly brief, as we already discussed the infamous fix as #3 in our count-down of baseball's greatest scandals [a series I vaguely hope to finish at some point between now and Opening Day!]. Go read that if you want the whole story, but a brief summary here is perhaps appropriate. Disgruntled by their cheapskate owner, several members of the pennant-winning Chicago White Sox agreed with gamblers to throw the World Series against Cincinnati in exchange for payment. The series went to the Reds in eight games (at that time, the World Series was a best-of-nine affair), but the authorities caught wind of the scheme.

There was a great deal of argument - and, indeed, there still is - about who knew exactly what regarding the fix. There was a criminal case brought against some of the White Sox players, but they were found not guilty. However, that was not enough to save them from the wrath of then commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who banned eight members of the team for life, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, who would certainly be in the Hall of Fame if it were not for the ban. The scandal led to a major clean-up of the game, and any association with gambling or gamblers remains one of its strictest prohibitions to this day, as Pete Rose found out.

Eight Men Out

Based on Eliot Asinof's book of the same name, originally published in 1963, the movie was directed by John Sayles, who has long been one of the independent darlings of American cinema. He actually got his start working for B-movie legend Roger Corman, and wrote the script for Piranha [the original one, directed by Joe Dante]; Sayles has also done a number of other genre projects, including The Howling and Battle Beyond The Stars, which has special effects by a very young James Cameron and a score by future double Oscar winner James Horner. The fees for this work have been a large source of funding for Sayles' more personal projects.

Much as with last week's A League of Their Own, actors were cast as much for their ability to play the game as their thespian talents. This was Charlie Sheen's first baseball movie, playing the role of outfielder Happy Felsch a year before his iconic role in Major League, and his talents were reported to be the best among the actors. However, D.B. Sweeney, as Shoeless Joe, had perhaps the hardest task: much like Chris Pratt in Moneyball, he had to learn to hit left-handed, despite being a natural right-hander. But at least they had help, with a Hall of Famer, the late Ron Santo coaching John Cusack for his role as third-baseman Buck Weaver.

Bush Stadium was the main park used - no, not BusCh Stadium, despite what Google is trying to insist I mean. This one was in Indianapolis, until it was turned into an apartment building last year: with clever set dressing, it was able to be used as a stand-in for both Comiskey Park and Crosley Field. Sayles himself shows up in the movie, in a cameo as sports writer Ring Lardner (whose son was a scriptwriter, blacklisted by Hollywood during the McCarthy era, who later won an Oscar for writing M*A*S*H). It took Sayles a dozen years to get his screenplay made, and he does get remarkable value from his $6 million budget, a low amount for a period piece like this.

He definitely did with with the cast, many of whom have now gone on to bigger things. Besides Cusack, Sheen and Sweeney, there's also the likes of John Mahoney, David Strathairn (who has worked multiple times with Sayles, and was also in last week's feature, so he'll get another shiny new nickel from the MLB Network) and Michael Rooker. The film is, perhaps surprisingly sympathetic to those who threw the games, but the theme of workers exploited by the bosses, rising up to take action against them, has been seen elsewhere during Sayles' career, in movies such as Matewan.

Tonight's film is also available on Netflix streaming, if you have that. I actually reviewed this one for the 'Pit in 2008, and wasn't that impressed, saying "The painful authenticity and the overall lack of focus combine to make this more plodding than it should be, and it feels just too much like a PBS re-enactment to be entertaining." So I'm not sure how much I'll stick around for this one. If I'm not here, check the concession stand. :)

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