“I like your interest in sports ball, chiefest of all base-ball particularly: base-ball is our game: the American game: I connect it with our national character.” –Walt Whitman
“You go back to Boston and turn 70 grand at the drop of a hat? I find that hard to believe.”
“You say you can find seven men on the best club that ever took the field willing to throw the World Series? I find that hard to believe.”
“You never played for Charlie Comiskey.” –John Sayles, adapting Eliot Asinof, Eight Men Out
American history is rife with useful mistruths, convenient obfuscations, and outright lies. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Carleton Young says “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” which is how the majority of our history was written. So it is with the Black Sox scandal, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were permanently banned from baseball for colluding with gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series. The story, put forth by the baseball establishment to save both face and profit, was that greedy, immoral players cravenly took huge piles of money from anti-semitic carictures of gangsters to sully the angelic name of baseball. Noble jurist Kenesaw Mountain Landis assumed the post of commissioner, cleaned up baseball, then Babe Ruth started hitting home runs and inspired disabled children to walk and America as we knew it was free once more and morally pure. This narrative went largely unchallenged for decades, until Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book Eight Men Out (not entirely coincidentally a mere year after Liberty Valance), which John Sayles adapted for the screen a quarter century afterward; in the intervening time a couple things happened here and there in the culture, and works like Ford’s film and Asinof’s book that squinted back at the history of the American legend stand as precursors to a higher level of national existential skepticism.
Sayles’ film is about baseball only inasmuch as baseball is, per Whitman, part of America’s spiritual DNA. It depicts institutions weaponized against the vulnerable, who whether through innocence, self-delusion, or simple lack of knowledge of how rigid class structure really is, never see the enormity of the system until it’s too late and the rigged game is over. But it is not an angry film. It revels in the guileless love of baseball, luxuriating in the motions and acts of the game in long, carefully composed takes, celebrating the childlike love for the game shared by those very children and the adults they inevitably become, who find that as John Cusack’s Buck Weaver puts it “things get complicated.” Again, this is all about life itself as much as it is baseball.
All of the schemers in the film, from the street-level gamblers who initially think of the idea for the fix, to the pair of players who serve as the liaison between those gamblers to the rest of the team, share a similarly innocent sense of the system as a thing that they can rig. This illusion is maintained by the few who do ascend from the depths to a place in the power structure, here personified by Arnold Rothstein, a figure of such renown that he ended up lightly fictionalized in The Great Gatsby and the subject of a fond reminiscence by Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II. Michael Lerner’s portrait of Rothstein is that of a one-time arriviste who has long since had a spot at the table of power, and he is staying for the entire meal, and dessert, and coffee, and cigars. What the other would-be gangsters fail to realize is that Rothstein is the exception, rather than the rule.
The Black Sox themselves, in Eight Men Out, are the rule. One interesting note about the structure of the 1919 White Sox was that one of the team’s great stars, Eddie Collins—the only member of the team to ever make baseball’s Hall of Fame—was never even considered as a target of opportunity by any of the conspirators. Collins, a Columbia University graduate, was a rarity in baseball at the time in that he was a college graduate, thereby possessing a degree of social mobility his teammates lacked. Played in the film with an innately aloof golden perfection by Bill Irwin, “he’s the only one on the team getting paid what he’s worth. Had it in his contract when he got traded,” as Christopher Lloyd’s ex-ballplayer turned would-be Series fixer notes. The rest of the team suffered at the hands of an owner, Charles Comiskey, so miserly that he gifts the team with flat champagne as a bonus for winning the American League pennant, rather than money, and orders the manager of the team to bench star pitcher Eddie Cicotte to eliminate his chances at a contractual bonus for winning 30 games (he tops out, by design, at 29). This wanton, casual cruelty on Comiskey’s part is the direct cause of the players’ decision to throw the Series. They are all shown, clearly, by Sayles to be doing so out of desperation, anger, and as a means of recapturing some of the agency stripped of them by their careless, despotic master. Comiskey’s subsequent revenge against his players, leading to the establishment of the system by which baseball is run to this day, is one of many small, localized historical moments in which America, a country born from revolution, took great pains to insure that no further revolutions would happen.
Sayles doesn’t overstate his case, limiting the explicit address of this subject mostly to one speech toward the end where Cicotte (played exquisitely by David Strathairn) bitterly laments, “I always thought it was talent that made a man big, you know, if I was the best at something. I mean, we’re the guys they come to see. Without us there ain’t a ballgame. But look who’s holdin’ the money and who’s facin’ a jail cell. Talent don’t mean nothin’. Where’s Comiskey? Sullivan [a gambler]? Attell [another gambler]? Rothstein? Out in the back room cuttin’ up profits, that’s where. That’s the damn conspiracy.” Sayles’ concern in Eight Men Out, as in his other work, is with the people all of these worldly and unworldly forces affect. The fiat by newly-appointed dictator-for-life Landis that none of them ever play baseball again is introduced so abruptly and harshly that it underscores the caprice of the act, and this injustice it represents. (Landis’ subsequent hypocrisy with regards to enforcing his absolutism about gambling, and his ardent insistence on officializing and enforcing baseball’s color barrier, while extratextual, nonetheless compound the bitterness of the pill that is Eight Men Out‘s ending.)
The film, though, ends on the same note on which I would like to, with the blissful languor of spring, summer, and fall baseball. What happens on the field is not subject to the whims of despots, or the avarice of the moneyed. A baseball field is a place where the innocence of a Shoeless Joe Jackson or a Buck Weaver can run free. Sayles’ ball field might be overcast with sadness (the baseball scenes are all certainly filmed on cloudy days), but it’s a place where the exuberance of a pure belief in baseball nonetheless blooms in full. Baseball may be all that some people have, but as Joe Jackson shows in the denouement, no matter how hard evil men may try to steal it, even if it means changing one’s name, a true lover of baseball, or anything else, will always find a way to keep it in their lives.