Somewhere between "Say it ain't so, Joe," and "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth," there's America's game: mythologized and demythologized, full of dreams and optimism and heroics, but dogged by the scandals that persistently tarnish its image. No other sport obsesses so much about the state of the game, or goes to such lengths to preserve its great moments in amber while shuffling its embarrassments under the table. The release of 1942's The Pride Of The Yankees and 1988's Eight Men Out is a case in point: Made shortly after Lou Gehrig's death, the first film was rushed into production to honor one of baseball's good guys, but the latter, about the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal, was stonewalled as a book and a movie, and barely made it out in either form.
Nominated for 11 Oscars (it won one, for best editing), The Pride Of The Yankees has a vaunted reputation as a sports-movie classic, perhaps because the only scene anyone remembers is Gary Cooper humbly, affectingly delivering Gehrig's famed farewell address at Yankee Stadium. The film that surrounds that speech, however, is surprisingly dreary and lifeless, a slapped-together piece of studio hackwork that's thick with sentiment and short on illuminating details about Gehrig's life and career. Oddly enough, the story places an inordinate emphasis on the Oedipal tug of war between Gehrig's "best girls": His domineering working-class mother (Elsa Janssen) and his good-hearted wife (Teresa Wright). The wife wins out eventually, but while the two women scrap over wallpaper, the film nearly forgets to mention that Gehrig was part of the Yankees' famed "Murderer's Row," or that he was baseball's famed Iron Man before ALS got the better of him.
By contrast, John Sayles' Eight Men Out is rich in specificity and purpose, sorting through the murky backroom deals, mixed motivations, and emotional tumult behind the blackest mark in pre-Steroids Era baseball history. The White Sox conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds is one of those "end of innocence" moments, but Sayles, working from Eliot Asinof's book, extends sympathy to many of the players, who weren't getting a living wage from tight-fisted owner Charles Comiskey. Sayles' expertise in writing for ensembles pays off in an exceptionally fair, nuanced look at everyone involved and not involved, and the toxic mood of a clubhouse where winners are cajoled into losing. The film's love for baseball isn't blindness.
Key features: A clutter of mini-featurettes and a tribute by Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling on Yankees. A much better package on Eight Men Out, including a two-part, hourlong documentary, a book-to-film short feature, and an excellent Sayles audio commentary.