John Sayles’ Eight Men Out pities the plight of the working baseball player

John Sayles’ Eight Men Out pities the plight of the working baseball player

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: 42 has us thinking about our national pastime.  

Eight Men Out (1988) 
As a writer and a director, John Sayles has always had a soft spot for the blue-collar working man, from the oppressed, striking miners in Matewan to the weary, methodical sheriff shoe-leathering his way through a mystery in Lone Star. The way his 1988 movie Eight Men Out applies that sympathy to a bunch of major-league baseball stars may initially seem strange in an era of $3 million average MLB salaries, with the top players making nearly 10 times that. Especially since the sympathy is going to the eight members of the White Sox team who famously accepted bribes to throw the 1919 World Series. But Eight Men Out makes an empathy-driven argument for the eight tarnished “Black Sox” as people reluctantly pushed to extreme action—some by the abuses of conniving cheapskate Sox owner Charles Comiskey (played by Clifton James), and some by simple threats of violence if they don’t go along with the fix. At the time, Sayles argues, pro baseball players weren’t that immensely different from Matewan’s coal miners, locked into jobs with little freedom or recourse, and perpetually watching their labors enrich other people who treated them as disposable and exploitable.

But Eight Men Out is a baseball movie as much as a labor-dispute movie. It opens in a style worthy of Robert Altman, with a game day that starkly contrasts the many mini-environments at a baseball field: Two excited kids thrill to the action from the bleachers, while the players (including John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, D.B. Sweeney, and Sayles regular David Strathairn) jostle and feud among themselves. Meanwhile, the sports reporters (including Sayles himself, in a key role) snark and analyze, and Comiskey preens and smirks. Those two happy kids represent a public view of baseball as the all-American pastime, but Sayles implies that every game is a powder keg of resentment, class and social differences, and personal tensions waiting to blow. His historical portrait is detailed and memorable, with attention given to the many personalities and agendas involved, but while it finds sympathy for the men who feel pushed to cheat for money, it offers just as much sympathy for the fans who love the sport, and can’t figure out why their beloved players would betray them.

Availability: Streaming on Netflix, available for digital rental/purchase on a wide variety of networks, and on DVD. 

Filed Under: Film

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