There was a time when the Black Sox Scandal was central to the moral education of young American males. The fact that it involved baseball players -- members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox -- who conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series (no less) struck at the very center of boyhood. The fact that the consequence of the act was so dire -- permanent banishment from baseball -- in comparison with the paltry rewards (a few thousand dollars to each man) imparted ironic force to the story. And then there were the poignant sidebars: the little boy crying "Say it ain't so, Joe," as Shoeless Joe Jackson, greatest of the team's several great players, emerged from the grand-jury room one day; the sports-page paragraph that almost annually recounted Buck Weaver's latest pathetic attempt to clear his name (he was not part of the conspiracy but knew about it, failed to report it and was punished with the rest).
Haunting in its humanity and unambiguous in its morality, this story was turned by fathers into a parable that helped set several generations of sons on the path of righteousness. But as the last of the "Black Sox" died, the story dropped out of common consciousness. Now it is near impossible to find anyone under 40 who has heard of the Black Sox, let alone been moved by their tale. Grander thefts, bigger (and more successful) crooks, preoccupy our imaginations today.
More power, then, to John Sayles for insisting on the continuing relevance of the scandal and for bringing it to the screen despite the narrative problems it presents. These include lack of a heroic central figure; hard-to- dramatize subtleties in the relationships between teammates (and between players and their cheap owner, Charles Comiskey) that ripened some of them for corruption; the fact that the ballplayers were legally exonerated yet exiled from the game by a commissioner hastily recruited to spruce up baseball's image.
It would be good to report that Sayles, who likes to portray groups under pressure (Return of the Secaucus Seven, Matewan), has solved all these issues, but he has not. Based on Eliot Asinof's definitive book of the same name, Eight Men Out lacks either the spacious simplicity of legend or the patient detailing of realism. And Sayles often seems like a man who, trying to stretch a single, gets caught between bases and is desperately trying to evade the rundown.
In other words, he has tried to cram too much onto the screen in too little time. Perhaps if he had focused tightly on the team's inner dynamics, seen the unfolding tragedy entirely through the players' eyes and kept everyone else at a distance, he might have done better. But outsiders, ranging from ) sportswriters like Ring Lardner (played by Sayles himself) to Supergambler Arnold Rothstein, are present and superficially accounted for. They take screen time away from the team, where the only ones who lay full claim to our attention are the great but aging pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn); Third Baseman Weaver (John Cusack), an appealing victim; and Kid Gleason, their manager (John Mahoney), who is suspicious of his charges yet sympathetic to them. The rest of the club, including Charlie Sheen as Hap Felsch, is reduced to bit-player status in its own drama.