Spring Training Recommendation: Eight Men Out

While attending a Super Bowl party over a month ago, I decided to thumb through my phone for any news. I saw a rumor that the Mariners were close to signing Hong-Chih Kuo. Kuo, late inning relief pitcher, had been an All-Star as recently 2010, but he performed somewhat abysmally in 2011. Still, this news made me more excited than any single play or event that occurred during the Super Bowl. My reaction confirmed two truths: I like baseball and the Mariners much more than American football, and the Super Bowl is a rather dull, cardboard-tasting media affair.

So as spring training passes its mid-point, I felt that I would once again recommend one of the few baseball movies worth a damn: Eight Men Out (1988).  This film, directed by the perennially underrated John Sayles, chronicles the 1919 Chicago White Sox and the scandal that nearly brought down professional baseball.  Sayles’s film is not perfect; it has a tendency to traffic in the over romanticization of baseball, and at times it tries too hard to tug at our heart strings in drawing out sympathy for some of the eight White Sox who were punished with lifetime bans for attempting to throw the World Series.  I think that the actual historical record will not look as kindly upon Buck Weaver (John Cusak) and Joseph “Shoeless Joe” Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) as Eight Men Out does.

Regardless of the bouts of sentimentality and occaisonal historical inaccuracies, Eight Men Out rises above the usual baseball film fare, which ranges from mediocre to disastrous.  Part of what helps Eight Men Out succeed is that it exposes the seedy and unseemly side of professional baseball.  Baseball is a busines,s and the players and owners are out for themselves.  Some a greedier and slimier than others.  And Charles Comiskey, according to this film and anecdotal evidence, was one of the greediest and slimiest.  Comiskey is probably the film’s most prominent villain.  His greed and indifference to his employees helped spur many of the players to engage in an arrangement to throw the Series.  Yet few, if any, escape without some blame attached to them. In many ways, this baseball story is much more “American” than the more conventional baseball films.  Moments of fun and joy become intertwined with regret, sorrow, and, ultimately, loss.  Like Sugar (2008), which I recommeded last year, Eight Men Out refuses to end on a victorious note.  There is no triumph, and I believe that this violation of the sports film genre has led it to be forgotten among the pantheon of baseball and sports films.  Victory is easy to narrate; loss is difficult.

The other factor that separates Sayles’s film from so many other baseball projects is Sayles himself.  I have long admired Sayles, and Eight Men Out does not even number among my favorite Sayles flicks.  Matewan (1987), City of Hope (1991), Lone Star (1996), and Sunshine State (2002) all rank higher on my personal list.  Eight Men Out‘s ranking says more about Sayles’s quality as a director than it does about Eight Men Out.

As a writer, Sayles has always been able to capture men and women in moments of moral dilemma.  His characters have no good options.  Every avenue they choose has consequences, but they must choose an avenue and live with what that choice brings.  In Eight Men Out, pitchers Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn) and Claude ‘Lefty’ Williams (James Read) embody this trait.  As viewers, we hate what they do, but we cannot hate them.

Eight Men Out also contains the requisite brilliant visual sparseness that can be found in most Sayles films.  The eye of Sayles’s camera rarely if ever capture broad vistas and horizons in glorious detail.  Everything in Eight Men Out is much more condensed, almost limiting.  Hotel rooms, train cars, and locker rooms all put the characters in close contact with each other, thus elevating the tension.  Even the ball parks seem bounded by the stands and outfield walls.  Many cinematic view of stadiums provide the grand overhead shot that projects largeness and possibility.  Sayles’s camera rests on the ground level, chaining itself to the field of play.  In the same way that the players have limited possibilities, we have limited vision.  And while the cinematography of a Sayles film would never be confused with that of Malick or Scorsese, I can still distinctly recall the colors in Eight Men Out.  The outdoor shots have a brightness that seems slightly drained, as if dusk is always closing in.  Of course, for eight players it metaphorically is.

I suppose that my recommendation of Eight Men Out has more to do with my love of baseball than of the film itself.  I do not think that Eight Men Out is a great film, but it is a good baseball film, which might be one of the rarest films of all.

P.S. Kuo has pitched abysmally this spring, and might be cut.

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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