Eight Men Out
In the golden days of baseball, where the heros became legends and young fans could actually afford to pay to attend the games, an incident that would scar baseball for life was committed in the World Series of 1919. Based on the Elliot Asinof’s 1963 best-seller of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, Eight Men Out is an attempt to tell the story of how the White Sox were hired by gamblers to throw World Series. Film maker John Sayles brings in a variety of well- known actors to play roles of players, gamblers, and everyone else that is involved in the scandal. However, the movie concentrates more on the events leading up to the scandal and the personalities of the characters, and overlooks minor, but extremely important, details that leave any avid baseball fan questioning it consistency.
Bill James, in his Historical Baseball Abstract, makes very clear the underlying problems with making a movie about the Black Sox Scandal. James, as well as many others, feels as though the problems with making a movie about that topic is that it engages the emotions of the audience. He points out that, “Unlike a book, a movie is more of something you experience than learn about, and as such, for a movie to work, one must, as a viewer, share in the experience of one of the characters” (pg.108). Since this story is about ballplayers who threw games and accepted bribes, this poses a difficult problem in asking the audience to share the feelings of the conspirators.
That is the problem throughout the movie that Sayles fails to resolve. Where do the audience’s sympathies lie? It is hard to maintain sympathy for the players with the likes of Swede Risberg and Chic Gandil behind the fix. Players like Buck Weaver and “Shoeless Joe Jackson”, who are portrayed as pawns in a game of chess, are overwhelmed by the gamblers and other players involved.
One could say that Sayles sees the team members as underpaid and unappreciated by team owner Charles Comiskey, and the results of the tension that existed between the players and the owner was the fixing of the 1919 Series. Sayles shows us the individual players going all out, running hard, dive for balls, stretching doubles into triples, and risking injury to win the pennant. The mood quickly changes as the players being ecstatic, having won the pennant, turning to anger and malcontent after their promised bonus turns out to be flat champagne.
Sayles emphasizes the dissention between Comiskey and the players by staging a scene between pitcher Eddie Cicotte and the cold owner. Cicotte, on a technicality, is not given the $10,000 bonus he was to receive for winning 30 games. Cicotte in fact only won 29 games, and implies that Comiskey purposely benched him so he couldn’t win 30. Sayles’s sympathy for Cicotte is clear in the movie when Ring Lardner (played by Sayles himself) responds to Comiskey’s praise of his players by stating, “If he is such a fan, why doesn’t he pay them a living wage?”. Sayles maintains that only after his failed attempt at his bonus did Cicotte partake in fixing the series. Cicotte is the key player in order to pull off the scam, once he falls, everyone else follows his lead.
Cicotte certainly led the way in dumping the first game of the series. In the bottom of the 1st inning of Game 1, he “plunked” the first batter he faced, as a signal to the gamblers that the fix was on. Cicotte (winner of 29 regular season games and a 1.82 ERA) gave up several hits and six runs in the opening innings of the game in route to a 9-1 loss (Baseball Encyclopedia pg. 311). Cicotte’s performance in Game 1 was accompanied by Swede Risberg’s error on a would- be double-play that eventually led to the Reds’ 5 runs in the bottom of the fourth inning. Lefty Williams, another key figure (pitcher) in the fix, pitched Game 2 of the Series. Though he held Cincinnati to only 4 hits, he uncharacteristically walked six batters and struck out only one batter. His performance was bad enough for an eventual 4-2 loss. Catcher Ray Schalk, who was not part of the scandal, complains in the movie that Williams crossed up the signals deliberately in order to aid the hitters. Schalk physically attacks Williams in a tirade because of his frustration.
Cicotte and Williams together made valuable contributions to the dumping of all 5 games that the Sox lost. Together their records were 1-5 with 13 BB’s, only 11 K’s, and an ERA well over 4.0 (which was unbelievably high for this time period). These men certainly held up their end of the bargain in not pitching to their full potential, and ultimately costing the Sox the Series. But they were not alone in their crookedness. The other players that made noticeable mistakes in the 8 games; Happy Felsch, Swede Risberg, and Chic Gandil each made their contributions for dumping Games 2 and 4 by making obvious baserunning errors, fielding and throwing errors, and of course being unproductive at the plate. Risberg, Gandil, and Felsch went a combined 15-81 at the plate for a meager .186 batting average, to go along with only 6 runs, and 8 RBI’S. The crew also had 3 costly errors in the field that resulted in 10 runs for Cincinnati.
The numbers certainly do not lie in telling the tales of these five men that took money to throw games in the World Series. The other men involved, Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin (who only had two at bats in the whole Series), and of course Buck Weaver were grouped together with others to have conspired to dump the games. However, Jackson hit .375 including the Series only home run, Weaver hit .324 as well as making numerous great defensive plays, and McMullin in his short role was 1-2 with a single. How did these guys contribute to throwing the games?
In the film Buck Weaver is present during the meetings, but doesn’t have the heart to take the money in return for playing bad in the Series. As gambler Billy Burns says in the movie “Buckie doesn’t like to lose…He can’t stand it!” Jackson seeks the acceptance of his teammates and accepts the money, but fails to turn in any bad performances in his action during the Series. He has the highest batting average in Series of any player with more than 7 at bats, never makes an error, and had been asked by the other conspirators to tone down his play. Weaver and Jackson hit a combined .352 with 1 HR, 1 3B, 7 2B’s, 6 RBI’s, and 9 of teams 20 total runs. As Asinof states in his book that, “these boys were made scapegoats for a greater corruption in baseball.” The audience of Eight Men Out gets a clear sense of average men, like Jackson and Weaver, being trapped by their circumstances.
Although the movie is fairly accurate in describing the emotions that the gamblers and players were experiencing during the scandals, it fails to maintain its consistency with its commentary and actions within the games themselves. The line scores check out, but basic statistics are so off that you would have to wonder if Sayles’ didn’t make some of them up to exaggerate the emotional aspects of the movie. Bill James would argue that the numbers involved in the movie are just as important, if not more, than the emotional side of the movie. Sayles failure to be accurate further emphasizes his inconsistency in directing a movie about an extremely important, monumental, scandal in baseball’s storied history.
The numbers don’t lie! That is on page 311 of Total Baseball IV – The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball. According to this book, there are many indiscrepancies between the movie and what actually happened. In the movie all of the line scores, box scores, and major events in the Series are portrayed very accurately. But that is Sayles mistake. He pays to much attention to the major themes and events. In trying to captivate the audience’s attention around the emotion of the major events, he overlooks and pays little attention to the smaller, finer, points of the movie. This is where the movie’s major weaknesses occur in portraying the Black Sox Scandal.
There are several major commentary, statistical, and even emotional misinterpretations throughout the movie. In each of the 8 Games of the World Series there is an inconsistency that can clearly be noted. In Game 1, Eddie Cicotte did in fact hit the first batter, but only after he threw a strike. Viable sources indicate that he hit the first batter with the first pitch of the game because he was afraid that the hitter might swing and hit the ball. In Game 2, catcher Ray Schalk tries to rally the rest of the team by stretching a single into a double. It is clearly stated in the encyclopedia that Schalk never hit a double in Game 2 let alone the entire World Series.
Sayles’ Game 3 represents the blatant disregard for factual data and interpretation of commentary between characters. In talking to Dickie Kerr while he was warming, manager Kid Gleason offered some inspiring words to the young pitcher. Gleason was enlightened to find out that Kerr had been at a game he pitched against Cy Young, where he threw a no hitter. In checking this fact, I found that Gleason never threw a no hitter in his entire career. The exaggerations continue to become extremely far fetched. In Game 3, Kerr struck out 11 batters in route to a three hit shut out. However, the numbers indicate that Kerr, in his two appearances only amassed 6 strike outs.
Other crucial indications of Sayles work being misguided, surprisingly, is how he ended Game 8. He has Jackson hit a home run in what seems to be the later part of the game, and rounded the bases to dismal mutter of the fans. Sources state that Joe Jackson hit the home run in the early innings of the game. Despite the 5 run lead that the Reds had at this point, the 32,000+ I’m sure would have responded to the Series only home run with more than a whisper.
The final discrepancy is in the court room, where Buck Weaver stands up and asks the court for a separate trial. He makes the claim that he never took a penny, and also that he hit .327 in the Series. According to Total Baseball Encyclopedia Buck Weaver actually hit .324. Although this mistake is minor and somewhat insignificant, the value of such information is crucial in upholding the accuracy and consistency portraying one of baseball’s most shocking and legendary stories.
These emotional misinterpretations severely weaken any legitimate claims that this movie is at all accurate in its portrayal of the action and events of the actual World Series. However, the aim of this film is not the accuracy of the games or commentary, but to create a story that captures the atmosphere reminiscent of the early “Roaring Twenties.” Eight Men Out shows how greed controlled many people, the players, the owners, and especially the gamblers. The clothing, the players’ uniforms, and the detailed ballparks offer an authentic look at the culture of baseball, which is stereotypical of this time period .
Sayles gives us an internal game in the movie that is very difficult for the average viewer to see. It is very much a game of wage earners against employers, not the Chicago White Sox vs. the Cincinnati Reds. The Black Sox scandal was an important symbolic event in American history. The great American institution of baseball, which represented our finest traditional values, was revealed to be corrupt. As Steven Riess so appropriately states, “If baseball was no good, what hope was there for the rest of our culture and society?” (pg. 65).