Eight Men Out from 1988
Wrapped inside Eight Men Out, one of the best baseball movies ever made, is a morality tale that can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it.
If you haven't first read Eliot Asinof's outstanding book Eight Men Out (comments here: #8,388 ), the movie will be a bit confusing, especially if you try to keep every player and every gambler straight. Instead, it is easier to just follow, at a high level, the movie's sweeping story of the "Black Sox scandal" of the 1919 World Series.
The outline of the scandal is reasonably well known to history, (probably) eight players on the 1919 White Sox team agreed, to some extent, to throw the Series in return for money provided by gamblers looking to profit on some of the, potentially, greatest inside-sports information ever.
(Spoiler alert if you don't know the general history of the story.) When the story broke into the open shortly after the Sox lost the Series, it created a national scandal, appropriate in notoriety for the country's national pastime, that led to an exonerating jury trial, but a ban from baseball and general public condemnation for the eight players.
"Say it ain't so, Joe" became part of the American lexicon, reflecting the fall of one of the greatest players in baseball history and a hero to many Americans at the time, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson.
There are, at least, two fascinating angles to the story, the most prominent being the morality tale at its core. It seems beyond a doubt that seven of the eight players took money to throw the series and, then, took some actions in some games to do so.
In the players' defence, in that era, players were treated unfairly by the owners, with the White Sox owner, Charles Comiskey, being a particularly penurious and mean-spirited one. Conversely, they were still paid, as they acknowledged, a multiple of what the average American made...and this was to play a game, not work in a coal mine.
It's easy and right to say the players cheated for money and should be condemned. Nobody's life is fair and the players were hardly Jean Valjeans, plus society creates rules and morals that are the guardrails of civilization. Yet you can't help somewhat understanding, on some human level, even if not condoning it, how the gross injustice they faced inspired some to cheat.
The other incredible angle to the story is how poorly the players and gamblers executed the fraud. Had one smart player and one smart gambler led the effort, it might have worked with the players getting paid, the gamblers making a bundle and the scandal not coming out for many years after it was too late to impact those who participated. Too many were involved for it not to, eventually, come out.
Instead, though, the players and gamblers acted like Keystone Cops who turned into a circular firing squad as the gamblers stopped paying the players during the series, laughingly noting (paraphrasing), "who were the players gonna complain to, the cops," while in response, the players won a few games that (happily) caused many of the gamblers to lose money.
The really smart gamblers, like Abe Rothstein, probably profited from it, but he, like the other smart ones, also understood the risks and machinations well enough to keep his fingerprints off the evidence. The entire scheme and its fallout is a perfect example of individual greed and venality trumping the cheaters' own common good.
Director John Sayles and an impressive cast including (there are too-many outstanding performances to note them all) John Cusack, D. B. Sweeney and David Strathairn as players, John Mahoney as the team's manager and Clifton James as Comiskey engagingly bring this complex story to life in an early example of Hollywood starting to care about having accurate details in its period movies.
Sayles and the cast also realistically capture the feel of the game, the talent of and pressures faced by the players, the beauty of the diamond, the overwhelming-at-times noise of the crowd and the individual passion of the fans.
Equally impressive, the nuances of the story - the contention of the players, the stupidity of so many involved, the attempted cover up, the unequal justice, the arrogance of the owners and the creation of the role of the baseball commissioner - are all smartly limned in a reasonably balanced manner.
Eight Men Out is a complex story whose complete picture has been lost to history. It's a morality tale of Greek Tragedy proportions that has plenty to teach us today as human nature has not changed one bit.
And finally, it's one heck of a baseball movie that probably doesn't get the mention that other famous baseball movies do as it's not an inspiring tale about the sportsmanship, beauty or poetry of the game.