Can you imagine if a major sports championship was rigged? If it happened in today’s world it would shake the very foundation of American entertainment. The Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup playoffs, these are institutions. That’s what makes the story told in 1988’s Eight Men Out that much more intriguing. It’s the story of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, forever known as the Black Sox.
They were the team that helped throw the World Series that year, but before all that they were arguably the best baseball team ever assembled up to that point. They were damn near unstoppable and before the series, it was a foregone conclusion that they would beat the Cincinnati Reds in decisive fashion. But a penny pinching owner, a team who played in an era in which they were held hostage by that owner, and some opportunistic bad guys made sure that never happened. Let’s open up the SBS Film Vault and have a look at Eight Men Out.
This was an all star team that White Sox owner, Chalres Comiskey (Clifton James) had assembled for the 1919 season. They were led by “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (DB Sweeney) who had a .351 average and 96 RBI’s, and star pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn) who finished the season 29-7 with a 1.82 ERA. The 1919 Chicago White Sox are still one of the greatest teams ever and finished 1st in the American League with a 88-52 record. There was no way they were going to lose to the Cincinnati Reds in the 9-game World Series. That is, until gamblers “Sleepy” Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd) and Billy Maharg (Richard Edson), and famous gangster Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner), got involved.
Despite the fact that Chicago White Sox owner, Comiskey, had a historically talented roster, he was known for being cheap with his players and out of that grew a disdain for ownership. When word of the discontent among players on the team reaches Burns and Maharg, they convince a group of players on the team, including Cicotte, who was turned when Comiskey screwed him out of a $10,000 bonus.
Eventually Rothstein takes over the conspiracy and eight players including Happy Felsch (Charlie Sheen), Swede Risberg (Don Harvey), Joe Jackson, Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker), and Buck Weaver (John Cusack) get involved. Weaver maintained his innocence after the fact, claiming to have given it his all during the series, but he still had knowledge of the fix and didn’t bring it to the attention of the authorities.
Up until Cicotte hit the leadoff hitter, Morrie Rath, with a pitch in game 1, sending the signal to Rothstein that the fix was in, no one was sure that the team would go through with it. Once they began to lose people became suspicious. It became obvious to some that the team wasn’t giving their full effort on the field. After the Reds won the series 5-3, the whispers of a fix in the World Series turned into shouts.
A Chicago newsman writes an article condemning the White Sox, spurring an investigation into the World Series. All eight of the players tried in court and eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing but not before being implicated in some sort of underhanded behavior. Three players signed confessions but the documents were stolen before they could be presented to the court during trial, rendering them useless, but that didn’t stop the owners from taking the necessary precautions so nothing like that would ever happen again.
The owners came together to install the first ever league commissioner in baseball and he proceeded to ban seven players for their knowledge of the fix. Jackson was spared, but the rest never played professional baseball again. The new commissioner had the power to levy punishments against players and the position helped elevate Major League Baseball to a new level of legitimacy.
Eight Men Out is a cautionary tale about what can happen when ownership and management squeeze labor and profit off the sweat of others without properly compensating those who do the heavy lifting. The players involved in the fix paid the ultimate price by losing the ability to play the game they loved at the highest level but the league had its reputation tarnished and it took years to recover. With an old timey feel and a star-studded cast, you should go watch this movie right now before you judge these players about the mistake they made.