The title characters the film Eight Men Out are those eight ballplayers for the 1919 Chicago White Sox who were banned from baseball for allegedly throwing the World Series. When you hear the story of the team that came to be referred to as the Chicago Black Sox, the initial reaction is likely to be one of disgust and acceptance. Any athlete low enough to accept money from professional gamblers in order to violate the one single inviolate rule that applies across all professional sports—you do not cheat—deserves far more than a lifetime ban, right?
Alas, the truth in this case as in so many other seemingly black and white issues is far more complicated. And if there is any director qualified to handle the complex labors and social issues at work behind the scenes which led to the still-disputed question of whether all eight of these players could be proven to have thrown the World Series, it is John Sayles. Many people have no idea who John Sayles is and could not name a single movie he directed. The reason for Sayles’ relative anonymity despite a long career highlighted by some of the most critically acclaimed indie films of his era is not that he makes bad movies, but rather that he makes movies that deal with complex stories that he refuses to dumb down in a grab for a larger piece of the box office pie.
The complexity of the Black Sox Scandal that Sayles must get a handle on starts with the fact that the eight men who were kicked out of the game they love turn out to be just one small part of a much larger narrative that is as equally dominated by the colorful sportswriters who helped make baseball the national pastime, gamblers and other assorted members of the underworld and the one figure on the White Sox who seems to be the only member of the team actually deserving of being banned from the game.
Those already familiar with the work of John Sayles will hardly be surprised to find that even though he presents a remarkably fair and balanced version of the story which call into the question the relative guilt of each individual member of the eight’s actual contribution of subpar performance on the field capable of contributing to actually throwing games, he reserves his sharpest criticism for White Sox owner Charles Comiskey.
Indeed, Eight Men Out becomes less a movie about baseball than a social critique of how the relations of production between owners and workers can result in the most unexpected of consequences when the underclass is finally pushed to the limits of just how much exploitation by the ruling class are willing to endure. More at fault for the Black Sox Scandal than the greed of the gamblers and the desperation of the players the gamblers sought out to pull off their can’t-miss scheme was the view toward his players that was more consistent with a feudal lord and his serfs than a responsible business owner and his employees.
By the end of the movie, viewers are almost sure to question any preconception that they players merely got what was coming to them as they ponder the true moral of the story:
When you pay your employees the wage they deserve, they will have no reason to betray the company.