Eight Men Out: Say it
Ain't So, Joe.
By Jochen S. Arndt
This film has as its central theme the darkest hour in the history of Baseball: the rigging of the 1919 World Series, more commonly known as the Black Sox Scandal. This scandal destroyed individual lives, devastated a team, and revealed the penetration of organized crime into America's favorite pastime.
The movie Eight Men Out, directed by John Sayles (Matewan, 1987) and first released by Orion Pictures Corporation in September 1988, is a historical drama that deals with this infamous chapter of professional baseball. The story line is based on the book with the same title by author Eliot Asinof and benefits from his carefully researched account of the scandal and its aftermath. Starring actors of reputation, such as John Cusack (Runaway Jury, 2003), Charlie Sheen (Platoon, 1986), and John Mahoney (Frazier), the film succeeds in revealing, with admirable detail, the width and breadth of this scandal. The movie fails, however, to place the story in the wider social and economic context of the time, or to draw broader conclusions concerning the causes and effects of the scandal. On October 1, 1919, the American League champion, the Chicago White Sox, and their National League counterpart, the Cincinnati Reds, faced each other during the first game in a best-of-nine Wodd Series at Redland Field, Cincinnati. Eight days later, to the surprise of most baseball fans, the heavily favored White Sox lost the series by an astonishing five games to three. Almost a year after the series, however, a newspaper reporter, Hugh Fullerton, played by famous oral history author Studs Terkel (Conversation with America), exposed the scandal and revealed that seven or eight players of the Chicago White Sox had made a deal with professional gamblers to throw the series and purposely lose to the Reds in return for a $100,000 pay-off. Even thoughall players were acquitted during the subsequent Cook County Grand Jury trial, a trial which showed as many signs of being rigged as the World Series, the newly appointed Commissioner of Professional Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banished the eight players for life from Major League Baseball in 1921.
In the movie the idea of
throwing the World Series originated with White Sox first baseman Arnold Gandil
(Michael Rooker) and an acquaintance of his, professional Bostonian gambler
John Sullivan. Since Gandil could not throw the game himself, and Sullivan did
not have the financial muscle to bribe a sufficient number of players, both
enlisted the support of co-conspirators. Benefiting from general resentment
among the players toward the elitist and exploitative team-owner Charles Albert
Comiskey, Gandil succeeded in enlisting several of his teammates for the scheme.
Eventually, seven players - Arnold Gandil, Charles Risberg, Oscar Felsch, Claude
Williams, Fred McMullin, Eddie Cicotte, and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson
money in return for a defeat in the series against the Reds. An eighth player, Buck Weaver, knew of the deal but did not participate in it. In the meantime, Sullivan persuaded Arnold Rothstein, a successful professional gambler from New York, to provide the financial incentive for the players.
The movie finds its key characters in three of the ballplayers: Cicotte, Jackson, and Weaver, and then explores their roles in the scheme. Cicotte, played by David Strathairn, is portrayed as an honest ball-player who knows that he has only a couple of more years left to play. Having just been swindled out of a $10,000 bonus by Comiskey, he enters Gandil's plan out of spite. However, as the World Series continues and he has to face betraying his teammates, including team manager William Gleason (John Mahoney), his conscience catches up with him and he is overtaken by remorse. The naIve and illiterate Jackson, played by D. B. Sweeney, and theidealistic and strong-minded Weaver, played by John Cusack, represent the more tragic figures of the movie. While Jackson gets reluctantly involved in the scheme due to peer pressure and lack of good judgment, Weaver stays out of it because of his appreciation for the game and the young fans who regard him as their role-model. Ironically, his honesty does not save him from the dishonesty of others in a double sense: once the scheme is exposed, he is accused of conspiracy together with the other seven players even though he did not participate in the rigging of the series; afterward he is banned from professional baseball by Commissioner Judge Landis for having known of the conspiracy but failing to bring it to the attention of the authorities. Thus, while Commissioner Landis, who received a $50,000 salary, a fortune for the time, cleansed professional baseball by banning the eight players, he conveniently ignores the fact that clubowner Comiskey, American League President Ban Johnson, and a group of professional gamblers had been informed of the scheme and were using him merely to protect their long-term interests.
Director Sayles, who appears in the movie as famed sportswriter and humorist Ring Lardner singing "I'm Forever Throwing Ball-Games", achieved a high-quality production on a comparatively small budget with this 120-minute movie. The soundtrack and costumes are welldone and allow for an immediate visual move into the earlier twentieth century. The film succeeds admirably in presenting the injustices that existed in professional baseball at the time of the scandal. Sayles paints a telling picture of club-owner Charles Comiskey, who offers his business associates champagne and luxurious banquets, while treating his players with contempt and avarice. Sayles also shows the viewer how criminal minds like Rothstein and Sullivan took advantage of the widespread lawlessness of the era as well as the ignorance and lack of education of some of the player yet, remained unscathed due to an inefficient legal system, in which evidence and witnesses conveniently disappeared if the price was right. In a judiciously selective manner, Sayles took advantage of the meticulous research done by writer Eliot Asinof. Unfortunately, due to the limited time and the transient mode of presentation in a movie, many of the broader and deeper interpretations of the scandal were disregarded or touched upon merely in a brief and superficial manner. The accusatory and resentful narrative style, which characterizes Asinof's works, is to a large extent underrepresented in this movie. While Asinof rarely fails to call a problem by its name or to poke his finger where it hurts the most, Sayles focuses on telling the story rather than analyzing and interpreting its wider meaning, causes, and effects for the viewer. This is unfortunate, for the Black Sox Scandal has much more interpretative value than the story of a rigged World Series might suggest. In a sense, the scandal was only the last straw in an "annus horribilis" for America, and it should therefore be viewed in the context of the year as whole.
1919 was not a typical year in American history for a number of reasons: there was President Woodrow Wilson's defeat at the Peace Conference in Paris and his failure to obtain Senate approval for the League of Nations; there was the growing Red Scare; and then there was the Eighteenth Amendment and the beginning of Prohibition. With so many things going wrong, how could anybody expect that professional baseball, which had many problems of its own, could retain its "innocence"? The year had not begun badly, however. In November 1918 the Central Powers surrendered in World War I. Wilson and America were sure that the world would be forever thankful that they had helped swing the tide in favor of democracy. Yet, Wilson, when he arrived in Paris for the Peace Conference, was in for a "great awakening" of a different kind than his pious forefathers. The British Prime Minster Lloyd George and French Premier Georges Clemetlceau outmaneuvered Wilson diplomatically, chipping away at his Fourteen Points until all the prewar talk of "Peace without Victory" was nothing more than empty shell. Next, when Wilson returned to the US, a Republican-dominated Senate defeated the US membership in the League of Nations with a 55 to 39 vote. The hyperbole of the "War to end all Wars" had ended in an anticlimactic fashion that injured the American psyche. Moreover, as the economy shifted from war time to peace time, the recently returned, and immediately demobilized 4.5 million soldiers found themselves transitioning, as Asinof remarked, from "war heroes to peace pests." The disappointment was considerable and the new fads, such as jazz music and rising hemlines, could scarcely compensate for it. In addition, the cost of living was rising faster than wages and the standard of living was decreasing. The result was that workers were demanding higher wages, and before the year ended, the US experienced more than 3,600 organized strikes.
1919 brought also a rising tide of anti-communist hysteria known as the Red Scare to America. The Red Scare was quickly seized upon by Big Business as a medium to fight back against organized workers and their menacing strikes. By accusing every striking worker and liberal in the country as a Bolshevik in disguise, Big Business took the offensive and with the help of the American Legion, the National Civic Foundation, and the Ku Klux Klan, the unions were gradually weakened and destroyed.
Next came the Eighteenth Amendment, which, pushed by Wayne Wheeler's Anti-Saloon League, was fully ratified by all states in January of 1919. Only six months later, the country went dry. Prohibition, however, did not mean that the profitable business of manufacturing, smuggling, and dispensing alcohol stopped. This business of alcohol became the business of organized crime and made men who defied the law, such as Al Capone, rich beyond measure. Neither did people stop drinking because of a law they tentatively defended in public but disregarded completely in private. They continued to do so illegally and the effect was that they began, just like the gangsters, to lose respect not only for the Prohibition but for law in general. Having to deal with all these social and economic issues, America looked, maybe somewhat gullibly, to professional baseball and the World Series as an American pastime where the world was still trustworthy and honorable standards prevailed. It was, after all, "just" a game. What the public failed to realize in 1919, however, was the fact that professional baseball was just a microcosm of American society at large, and hence, suffered from almost identical ailments. Just as the labor relations were strained between the United States Steel Corporation and The National Committee for Organizing Iron and Steel, the relationship between the team-owners and baseball players had been strained for a long time. In fact, it was the exploitative behavior of the team-owners of the National League that was responsible for the success of the American League, which had been created as a rival to the National League in 1900: players, who wanted to escape the National League's reserve clauses and capped salaries, enlisted with the American League instead. However by 1919, both leagues used the same methods and the players were once again reduced to mere laborers controlled by the "bosses" of professional baseball. Just as the vulture picks up the scent of a wounded animal, so the professional gambler picked up on the discontent of the players. By offering bribes to the players, the gamblers were able to exploit this discontent and change the odds in their favor.
Sayles' movie does not totally fail to shed light on all these issues, but occasionally it is only a dim light. For example, while the movie makes it clear that Comiskey exploited his players to the extreme, the viewer may only deduce that such a behavior had a long-standing and widespread tradition in professional baseball and reflected a general problem in American society in 1919. While the film aptly shows that Prohibition was generally disregarded, it hesitates to reveal how drinking released the inhibitions in the players (and society in general) in both a social and a legal sense. Thus, Sayles presents us the drama of the Black Sox Scandal in a context somewhat isolated from the rest of American society. This is not wrong per se, but he thereby misses the opportunity to present the scandal as a product of the various economic and social influences of the time. The eight players of the Black Sox paid the price for their wrongdoing, but many wrongs were done in 1919 that enjoyed complete impunity. When Joe Jackson leaves the court house after it has been revealed that the World Series had been thrown, director Sayles shows us a young boy calling on Joe Jackson with an anxious voice that says "Say it ain't so Joe." In 1919, the boy would have had ample reason to beg: "Say it ain't so Woodrow Wilson, Wayne Wheeler, Charles Comiskey - Say it ain't so America." Eight Men Out, as many other low-budget historical dramas, was not a box-office hit: it generated only $5.6 million in revenue in the same year that a baseball-inspired comedy, Bull Durham (also an Orion production), generated nearly ten-times that amount. Despite this limited success at the box-office, true baseball enthusiasts should consider this movie a must-see solely for its historical accuracy and for the fact that it deals with a chapter of professional baseball that is less glorious and less glamorous, but nevertheless true.
Those viewers who would like to focus on the "nuts and bolts" of the scandal may want toconsider Asinof's book Eight Men Out (Henry Holt, 1963) and the History Channel documentary In Search of History: World Series Fix! The Black Sox Scandal (A&E Production, 1997). Asinof is also the author of the book 1919: America's Loss of Innocence (Donald I. Fine, 1990), which offers a highly critical account of the issues that shaped the year of the Black Sox Scandal. It would be naIve to assume that the Black Sox Scandal was the only time gamblers tried to fix baseball games. As author Daniel E. Ginsburg reveals in his book A History of Baseball, Gambling and Game Fixing Scandals (McFarland, 1995), there were many "irregularities" in professional baseball between 1845 and 1980. A book that explains how professional baseball tried to deal with the problem is Jerome Holtzman's The Commissioners: Baseball's Midlife Crisis (Total Sports, 1998). In order to get insights into one of the professional gambling minds of the era, one may refer to David Pietrusza's book Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series (Carroll & Graf, 2003). A long-time controversy exists over the fact that team-owner Charles Comiskey was inducted into the hall of fame, while ballplayer "Shoeless" Joe Jackson was not. Two works which, at least in part, try to shed light on this issue are Donald Gropman' s biography of Jackson, Say It Ain't So, Joe!: The True Story of Shoeless Joe Jackson (Citadel Press, 1999), and G. W. Axelson's biography of Comiskey, "Commy": The Life Story of Charles A. Comiskey (McFarland, 2003).