The Batter’s Eye: Eight Men Out

Baseball is about cheating. That’s maybe overstating it a bit, but it’s an accepted part of the game that players often bend the rules to their advantage. The key is just not to break the rules. Or, at least, not get caught.

Eight Men Out (1988, directed by John Sayles) is based on the events of 1919’s Black Sox scandal where eight members of the Chicago White Sox agreed to throw the World Series in exchange for money. The players had their reasons — they felt underappreciated and underpaid by greedy owner, Charles Comiskey. It wasn’t the best idea, no, but it was a way for these players to reclaim some of their power.

Sayles’ movie plays both sides of the issue well — the players are all sympathetic for the most part, but it doesn’t make excuses for them, either. The players aren’t presented like scrappy underdogs getting one over on the people who have done them wrong, but as flawed individuals who made the wrong choice.

The cast is stellar, with John Cusack, D.B. Sweeney, and Charlie Sheen disappearing into their roles. Although maybe they disappear a bit too much — other than Sweeney’s simple Shoeless Joe Jackson, most everyone is mostly blank ciphers. They’re less characters than representations of baseball players.

Still, that works for the sort of movie Eight Men Out is. It’s not meant to feel like real life. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions of the circumstances, though. The baseball sequences are well-shot and definitely add to the drama. There is an economy of filmmaking on display here — at two hours, the movie moves steadily through the events while never rushing them. The courthouse sequences do feel less compelling than the baseball action, but they provide a necessary conclusion.

The White Sox players weren’t convicted of legal wrongdoing but were banned from ever playing professional baseball again. For them, that was probably the worst punishment. Even when baseball enjoys pushing the boundaries of the rules, the goal is usually to win. Intentionally losing does go against the spirit of the game and the story of Eight Men Out highlights that effectively.