At 25: “Eight Men Out”

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September 2, 2013 by billysparrow


Eight Men Out

Released: September 2, 1988

Starring: D.B. Sweeney, John Cusack, John Mahoney, Clifton James, Michael Rooker, David Strathairn, Charlie Sheen, Don Harvey, James Read, Gordon Clapp. John Sayles, Studs Terkel

There are movies about baseball that I probably like a little more than “Eight Men Out,” but I don’t think there’s a better baseball movie than “Eight Men Out,” the story of the 1919 Chicago White Sox and the plot to throw the World Series. Most movies about baseball feature actors who look unbelievably uncomfortable with a bat in their hands and kind of out of place on a diamond. Or there are implausibilities in the script that fly in the face of either the rules of baseball or the rules of humankind (I am, of course, speaking here mainly of “Rookie of the Year,” surely everyone’s favorite movie about baseball that is hamstrung by several unlikely occurrences, from the idea that a boy’s arm can break in such a way that it can make him throw the ball over 100 mph to the thought that Gary Busey would be allowed near an organized sport).

But “Eight Men Out,” while neither as funny as “Major League” or as dramatic as “Pride of the Yankees,” both gets all the little details right and tells a largely true story in an impressively compelling way. It fueled my still-lingering obsession with Shoeless Joe Jackson and a brief flirtation with being a fan of the Chicago White Sox (terminated just in time for them to win the World Series). And it gave me my first glimpse of one of my favorite listeners/journalists, Studs Terkel, in what I think may be both his feature-film debut and swan song. Plus the movie had its own baseball card set!

What I’m saying is I really like “Eight Men Out.” And most of the Black Sox. Gandil and Risberg can go screw. And Comiskey can do the same.

Terkel, who plays journalist Hugh Fullerton (alongside director John Sayles as Ring Lardner), is but one of the many actors who are fantastic in “Eight Men Out.” There isn’t a bum among them. In fact, many of them are so good and so believable that when I see pictures of the actual Black Sox, a little part of me thinks, “That’s not the real guys; they look nothing like them.”

The best of the bunch are probably John Cusack (as third baseman George “Buck” Weaver), David Strathairn (as ace pitcher Eddie Cicotte), and Michael Rooker (as first baseman and ringleader Arnold “Chick” Gandil). Each of those three pull you right into the scene they’re in and, in the case of Rooker/Gandil, make you want to punch him in the face (Strathairn/Cicotte can get you a little wound up, too). When I saw Rooker at a Chiller convention, I kind of still harbored a little animosity toward him. Or Gandil, I suppose. Either way, I was a little pissed.

But Gandil isn’t the true villain in “Eight Men Out.” That would be Charles Comiskey (played by Clifton James). I think I might punch that guy if I see him. Of course, according to IMDB, Clifton James is 92 now, so that’s probably not advisable. OK, I suppose, it’s never advisable to punch an actor who plays a creep in a movie. So, don’t do it, kids. That’s one to grow on.

Come on, though, you don’t want to punch him after this?

If not, you’ll surely want to thrash him after he refuses to give Cicotte a bonus because he didn’t get 30 wins, largely because Comiskey had manager Kid Gleason (John Mahoney, who is so great here that it almost made me want to become an avid fan of “Frasier”) bench Cicotte for five starts. What a dick, right?

And as I’m trying to find “Eight Men Out” clips to demonstrate the points I want to make, I am finding that almost all of the clips on YouTube lose the audio after about 20 seconds. Who do you think is to blame for this. Yes, that’s right: the ghost of Charles Comiskey. There is no other reasonable explanation. Ban that guy from the Hall of Fame! Or, at the very least, keep the 92-year-old Clifton James from visiting. Sorry, buddy. You just did a little too good of an acting job, and now you must pay.

And I say all that because I was so fired up with indignation of Shoeless Joe Jackson being kept out of the Hall of Fame that I joined the Shoeless Joe Jackson Society at the age of 14. As part of my duties as a member, I brought a petition to reinstate Mr. Jackson and put him into the Baseball Hall of Fame to my freshman-year classmates in high school, a large portion of whom either didn’t know who I was or would have preferred not to know who I was or would have just as soon that I wasn’t at all. Shockingly, this petition did not elevate me to Head Cool Guy status. I did fill a little over one page with signatures, though, so that’s something. Alas, this was not enough to put Shoeless Joe back in into Major League Baseball’s good graces (I’m actually not even sure I even sent the petition back, as I seem to recall finding it in a box a few years back). I have let you down, Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Shoeless Joe Jackson Society. Please accept my apology.

Anyway, in the battle of the on-screen Shoeless Joes, D.B. Sweeney (a multi-sport film star, as evidenced by his work in “The Cutting Edge”) crushes Ray Liotta, who either didn’t care to read up on or was told to completely disregard any factual information about Shoeless Joe” in “Field of Dreams.” Sweeney, on the other hand, taught himself to bat lefty to play Shoeless Joe. And, glory be, one of the clips that Comiskey didn’t get to on YouTube features Sweeney in action.

And if you don’t mind seeing the last scene of the movie, here’s another clip that’s not broken. If anyone can help me get my hands on “Brown”‘s Hoboken jersey, there’s a handsome reward waiting for you.

As much as I became obsessed with Shoeless Joe because of the movie, John Cusack was my favorite actor in the film. Then again, John Cusack is my favorite actor in just about every movie I’ve seen him in. But he’s particularly great as Buck Weaver, the heart of the film and the guy depicted as the most innocent of the Black Sox (historical accounts don’t quite show him so sweetly but close enough). Here’s where I would embed a clip. But the Ghost of Comiskey is gonna make you go here instead.

I’d also like to give a tip of the cap to the Sox not among the eight men out. Bill Irwin (soon to shine in “My Blue Heaven”) doesn’t get a lot of screen time as Eddie Collins (who was largely reviled by the rest of the squad) but makes the most of it. Gordon Clapp is great as the hot-tempered catcher Ray Schalk. And Jace Alexander is strong as busher Dickie Kerr, who wins Game 3 of the Series.

I can’t find much fault at all with “Eight Men Out.” It’s an interesting story, well told and crisply acted by actors who don’t look out of place as ballplayers (some had experience in their younger days, and Sweeney allegedly traveled with a minor league team to prepare for his role). It is everything a good baseball movie should be.

I only wish it had ended with a coda showing Shoeless Joe’s plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Now we can still make that happen, if you would just sign this petition I have…


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