Saturday, 6 August 2016

Sports Movie Marathon: Eight Men Out (Baseball)

Who's on first? I don't know, but that's not important at the moment. There have been a lot of movies dealing with baseball, but none quite like Eight Men Out. John Sayles' attempt to dramatize the 1919 scandal is hardly what one would call a conventional sports film. Instead, he gives us another side to the world of baseball, and through remarkable attention to detail offers a glimpse into the very different world of a bygone era, even if the actual story is one more easily followed by those who actually know something on the history of baseball. While the film hardly skips out on its detailed baseball sequences, the focus is instead on a different side to the sport.

The story is based on an actual incident that occurred in 1919, a time which presented a very different world. With it, we see a very different rendition of baseball from that of today. For one thing, this was long before women were allowed to compete. It was also a time when players of the sport lacked the concern for safety that they show today (the umpire and catcher are the only ones who seem to have any sort of protection, and even then the latter repeatedly takes off his mask mid-game), a detail shown at the very beginning when one of the players is nearly injured after crashing into a wall (he isn't hurt, though it takes a moment for that to become clear).

The other detail that's easy to forget is this was a time when unions acting for people's rights were only starting to gain a foothold in the workplace. Many businesses actively worked to shoot down unions and crush them wherever possible. In fact, the Oscars originated as a scheme by Louis B. Meyer (owner of Metro Goldwyn Meyer, fittingly the same studio that later produced Eight Men Out) to deter his employees from joining unions. The one Union they did support was IATSE, which was run by a man with ties to Al Capone and made backroom deals to encourage its members to submit to their employers and actively prevented strikes.

The specific events depicted in the movie occurred due to the lack of unions in baseball, leaving players at the mercy of their managers. One popular trick was to place something called a reserve clause into players' contracts, a method which functioned much like the contracts of Hollywood actors in the studio era. When a baseball player signed a contract, they were more or less owned by their team's manager, even when it expired. This meant that the player was prevented from signing on with another team without being sold or leased. Lack of unionization meant most players had no choice but to accept the contract's terms.

Among the various men who ran the business was Charles Comiskey, played in Eight Men Out by Clifton James. Historically, the man had a reputation for mistreating his players, something which is also established early on in the film. When Comiskey first appears in the opening scene, he brags that he has the "best" team in the business. However, one thing that quickly becomes apparent is that he doesn't want to pay minimum wage (one of the main reasons why he was so disliked in his day). After winning a game, the players find a set of bottles containing flat campaign in what appears a weak attempt to substitute a bonus they were promised. It's also very indiscreetly implied that he promised Eddie (David Strathairn) a bonus if he could win 30 games, then kept him out for two weeks to avoid paying.

Unsurprisingly, with a boss like this, the players are making next to nothing. When an opportunity to make some extra cash shows itself, it's hard to resist. Enter a gambling ring with the idea to make lots of money by rigging the game and a few mob ties, and things get out of hand very quickly. From there, it was only a matter of convincing the right players to do badly with the promise of a financial reward and one of the most infamous sports scandals was born.

What makes a film like Eight Men Out unusual is that it gives us this very different side to baseball. Most of the focus is placed on the business end of the game, rather than on the actual sport itself. We follow a variety of different people who all have different roles to play. There's the manager who is only concerned with his own interests and the hope of increasing his already immense wealth, the gamblers who want to make money rigging the games, and the unfortunate players who are idolized by fans who remain oblivious to the fact that they're being exploited by everyone else.

In that sense, Eight Men Out offers a much darker side to the game. Most of the players are ordinary working-class men who are passionate about the game, only they live in a world where talent and passion alone aren't enough. Instead, they are exploited by nearly everyone for selfish gain, caught in a hopeless crossfire. Shoeless Joe (D.B. Sweeney) sums this very sentiment up when he is faced with a prison sentence and explains that all he wants is to do is go "play ball" and forget the politics he's mixed up in.

In short, Eight Men Out shows that there is far more going on in baseball than what the audience sees. Behind the field and its star players lies a bleak world of bureaucracy, greed, and corruption which drives many unseen individuals to questionable lengths.

1 comment:

  1. We recently revisited this film a couple weeks back and it still holds up so well. Really good script that forces you to pay attention to every word being said and some really great performances that help sell the whole thing. I think it gets forgotten because it isn't a "feel good" movie, like most baseball films. But it is an excellent drama that tells a story that most people don't know or like to forget happened.