The best baseball movie ever? Some think it's got to be historical and respectful like The Pride of the Yankees, others feel the humor and blue-collar naturalism of Bull Durham best captures the spirit of the game. Is it Field of Dreams, The Babe Ruth Story, Bang The Drum Slowly (which version?), or Angels in the Outfield (again, which version?)? How many folks know how great Anthony Perkins was in Fear Strikes Out, but a great performance does not a great "baseball movie" make. And what about Safe At Home, which was filmed in the middle of the Maris and Mantle homerun race of 1961? Real ball players, the American kids who worship them, and Fred Mertz! But no discussion of baseball movies would be complete without the consideration of John Sayles' Eight Men Out, maybe not the best baseball movie ever, but undoubtedly one of them. If The Natural was a fairytale composite of various ball players and their experiences, Eight Men Out deals with a specific team and a specific event -the Chicago White Sox and the infamous 1919 Black Sox Scandal.
Eliot Asinof's (who appears in the film as John Heydler) book was originally published in 1963, and it took Sayles several years before he could get the green light for the film, but the story that made it to the screen tells the tale of the seven players who conspired to throw 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, and the one player who objected but still got banned from baseball anyway. They didn't need all the players to go along with the bribe - money coming from hustlers like Joseph "Sport" Sullivan (a hilariously slimy Kevin Tighe), "Sleepy" Bill Burns (a creepier than "Doc," but still lovable Christopher Lloyd), and Billy Maharg (Richard Edson, coming in right off the character-bench), but ultimately all from the fat wallet of gangster and speakeasy kingpin, Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner, with an imperious touch) - but if they could get disgruntled pitcher, Eddie Cicotte (a convincingly somber David Strathairn) and outfielder "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney as "Say It Ain't So Joe") then some others would surely fall in line. And from the depiction of Charles "Commie" Comiskey (Clifton James), it wouldn't be that hard to persuade the other players to betray the miserly ball club owner, the grinch that benched Cicotte so he wouldn't have to pay out his 30 games/$10,000 bonus. Coach William "Kid" Gleason (Frasier's John Mahoney, who couldn't be cast better if they got Sparky Anderson for the role) was suspicious about his team playing on the level, but like the rest of the players didn't know or didn't want to know for sure. Charlie Sheen (is he in as many baseball movies as Kevin Costner?) takes the field as "Happy" Felsch, the center fielder that happily went along with it all for a measly five grand, and a post-Henry Michael Rooker is first baseman, Chick Gandil - though he may as well be a Charles McGraw-like heavy. Then there's the Gordon Clapp (NYPD Blue) as the feisty but honest catcher, Ray Schalk, who is fed-up because his pitcher is disregarding his calls for pitches.
If Matewan taught us anything about writer/director John Sayles, it's that he's a union man all the way, and his favorite pitch is usually the high-heat, straight to the head of the big businessman who takes advantage of the little guy. The scandal is pieced together in a combination gangster-heist/detective story, except in on this case the gumshoes are sportswriters Ring Lardner (John Sayles himself, and holding his own) and Hugh Fullerton (Studs Terkel). The two keep track of the scorecard so that we can take in the scenery of the vintage cars, sepia-rich watering holes, and the sounds of an arriving Jazz Age. But this is no Cotton Club: while the production design (by Nora Chavooshian) shows attention to detail, Sayles still keeps it simple, concentrating more on the growing discrepancy between the powerful and the vulnerable, and ever changing role and expectations of our heroes. Sayles takes us back to a time when the players didn't even have their names on their uniforms, and a place where they walked through the neighborhood and tossed a few to the kids on the way to work at the ballpark. As players became much larger than life, so did the machine that controlled them, and the one thing we learned from Rollerball is that owners don't want to see any one player become larger than the game. Instead of beating the owners at their own game, however, the White Sox of 1919 manipulated the game and altered the integrity of the game either by specifically fouling up, or much less conspicuously, by just not trying as hard. It's the violation of trust that hurt Chicago's youth much more than just giving up the World Series trophy; it was the moment they found out that even their superheroes could be on the take.
Remember that baseball not only withstood the black eye of the Black Sox, but the game soon thrived, winning over youthful hearts and minds, many before there even was a House that Ruth Built. Innocents once again put their hopes and dreams in the hands of the Babe's or DiMaggio's, and despite getting the royal treatment, the men who took the field somehow represented the city's proletariat - at least they got their clothes dirty like the average Joe. With his Eight Men Out, Sayles gets you thinking about old-time verses modern ball players. The new ball player is no longer the factory worker that needs an Upton Sinclair sticking up for him; he's an independent contractor who's out to maximize his earning potential. Sayles' Black Sox are more like Karen's description of Goodfellas; regular stiffs who aren't afraid to hustle on the side to make ends-meat for the family, but what about the modern player? Is it the pure but unbridled desire to win that causes them to play with a corked bat, or is it a lifestyle that needs keeping up with? The Reggie Jackson-era begat the Roger "the Rocket" Clemens-era (which was like the Reggie era only on steroids. No, really), and in 1988 Sayles may very well be warning us that the greed that consumed the millionaire owners is consuming today's millionaire players. Kind of makes it easy to see how "Say it ain't so Joe," can turn in into "Say it ain't Sosa."
The image looks fantastic. Presented in Anamorphic Widescreen, every color is perfectly represented, from the green of the grass to the brown dirt to the soon to be soiled white socks. The layer change escaped me, but for the most part, the transfer looks crisp and mostly artifact free.
With a new Dolby Digital soundtrack (your choice of languages, mono, or 5.1) you will feel like you're right at the park. Can you get me some Cracker Jacks?
Audio Commentary: John Sayles gives you more breakdown then he would give the cast and crew, from character motivations, to the real stories behind the scandal, and all sorts of trivia. Sayles knew studied every play of the series and did his best to realistically put it on the screen, which is why by the end of the film we really feel as if we've watched those games.
Two Part Retrospective Documentary: Talk about extra innings? From pre-production to post-production, this documentary covers it all. John Sayles takes us through acquiring the creative property to achieving that impressive shot of Shoeless Joe's triple.
The Story Behind the Movie Featurette: Writer Eliot Asinof tells us the backdrop of his book, which originally was going to be a television drama before the MLB put the kibosh on it. We also learn that Cicotte's motivation for throwing the game really had nothing to with the 30-game bonus. Along with some other experts, John Sayles gives some historical background on Comiskey, embellishing it all with old footage and stills.
DB, THE BAT, and the 2005 WORLD SERIES: D.B. Sweeney talks about shooting nearby the Louisville Slugger factory, and how they sent over the patterns of some of the original bats, specifically, Shoeless Joe's bat - one of them so stained with tobacco juice it was affectionately dubbed, the "Black Betsy." Sweeney had two leftover bats from the set, one of which he sent to the 2005 Chicago White Sox, who made it to the World Series just in time to shake loose whatever hold 1919 had over them. Turns out the White Sox won, and saying they'd looked to the bat for inspiration, the team signed it and sent it back to Sweeney.
One of Eight Men Out's greatest achievements is that its success didn't depend on one star player, but rather a wonderful team effort. With a couple of hot rookies and a couple of journeymen, and a whole lot of heart, they may have blown the series but they still win us over. The quality picture and sound make it a joy to watch, but it's all the extras that will satisfy both your baseball and your true-crime fix. You can bet on it.
Why are our days numbered and not, say, lettered?