Film as History: Baseball Style

How many times have you heard the expression “the book is always better than the movie?” For us book and film lovers, we hear it all the time. Very rarely do I watch a film and think to myself, that was better than the book. In fact, about 95% of the time I have read the book before watching the movie, I feel empty and disappointed when the movie ends. There have been very few exceptions to this, The Shawshank Redemption comes to mind, but those exceptions have been far and in between.

Well, how about baseball films vs books? This is something that I tackled a few years ago in graduate school. In 2016, I compared The film Eight Men Out with Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series (the edition I used was from 1987).

Let me know what you think, especially you baseball fans out there. Here is my review/comparison of the film Eight Men Out and Asinof’s book, unedited for your enjoyment. Please remember I wrote this almost four years ago.

Review of Eight Men Out (1988), Starring John Cusack, Clifton James, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, and David Strathairn.  Directed by John Sayles.

Based on the book by Asinof, Eliot. Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series. New York: H. Holt, 1987.

Eliot Tager Asinof turned to a career in writing after his baseball career ended prematurely because of an injury.  After spending a few years as a writer in Hollywood, Asinof found himself blacklisted and out of work.  The writer got a hold of his FBI file later and determined that his reason for blacklisting stemmed from an earlier incident involving the New York Yankees.  “I had at one time signed a petition outside of Yankee Stadium to encourage the New York Yankees to hire black ballplayers.”[1]  In between his years as a television screenwriter, Asinof published his first book, Man on Spikes, in 1955.  The story fictionalized the real-life story of Mickey Ruttner, a career minor leaguer who spent his playing days fighting against a system of greedy baseball owners.  Ruttner spent his prime playing days in World War II and never realized his dream of making it big in the major leagues.  Ruttner’s supporters in the book included scouts, his manager, and the commissioner of baseball.  His supporters are powerless against the will of the owners who run the system.  Even the commissioner of baseball, Asinof wrote, must abide by the will of the baseball owners.  A telling novel about baseball relations between players and owners, Man on Spikes foreshadowed the looming labor battle between players and owners that came to a head in the mid-1960s with the entrance of labor leader Marvin Miller as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA).

Born in New York City on July 13, 1919, Asinof was born a few months before baseball’s darkest gambling scandal unfolded in Chicago and Cincinnati.  After spending a few years writing television scripts, he wrote a television screenplay based on the 1919 World Series fix and pitched it to the network for production.  Baseball commissioner Ford Frick convinced the network to squash the project because the show would tarnish baseball’s reputation.[2]  Asinof decided to continue with the project and turned the screenplay into a book project.  Published in 1963, Eight Men Out became Asinof’s best-known work.  The story told how eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, in response to the actions of their frugal owner Charles Comiskey, agreed to throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.  The actions of Comiskey allowed for the corruption of the players by notorious gamblers, including America’s most notorious gambler of the 1910s and 1920s, Arnold Rothstein.  The World Series fix and the court case against the players that followed led to establishment of baseball’s first commissioner, Kennesaw “Mountain” Landis.  Though found not guilty of conspiracy by a jury of their peers, Commissioner Landis permanently banned the players from baseball while the owners and gamblers remained untarnished by the scandal.  Reconstructed from newspapers, court documents, personal accounts, and interviews of former players involved in the fix, including center fielder Oscar “Happy” Felsch, the book connected sports and the money underworld.  “Here is the underbelly of baseball vividly dissected,” said former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent.[3]  Twenty-five years after the book’s initial release, Asinof’s story finally made it to the big screen.  

Screenplay writer and director John Sayles spent a good part of his career before Eight Men Out writing about the plight of the blue-collar worker.  Born in Schenectady, New York on September 28, 1950, Sayles gave up a career in the corporate world to work a string of blue-collar jobs including a factory worker in Boston.  He sold some of his stories to various magazines.  These stories became the foundation for his published novel in 1975, Pride of the Bimbos.  Sayles wrote screenplays during the 1970s and 1980s, including Piranha (1978), The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), and Matewan (1987).  While working at a sausage factory in 1977, he wrote an unauthorized screenplay for Eight Men Out in response to a request from a film agency.  “Without even inquiring as to availability of the rights, I adapted Eight Men Out.  As it turned out, the head of the movie agency, had been Eliot Asinof’s literary agent over twenty years earlier, and handled the sale of the book to its publisher.  He read the script, called, and said I’d done a good job but there was a curse on the project, and if I came out to LA they’d “see what they could do with me.”[4] 

Asinof initially resented Sayles purchase of the movie rights to the book.  The author, according to Sayles, amassed a small fortune over the years optioning the film out to producers who failed to make the movie.  Asinof read Sayles screenplay and accepted it because the story stayed faithful to the original idea of the book.  “Eliot said that when he first started researching it (the book), as far as he was concerned, these guys were bums; they sold out,” Sayles told George Vecsey in a New York Times interview upon the film’s release.  “But as Eliot started to learn more, he couldn’t keep this simplistic view anymore.  He felt things were more understandable; some of them were bums, others were not.  This was a complicated world.  Other people were guilty and implicated.  He began to understand how one could do it, knowing where the guys came from.”[5]  Orion pictures turned downed the production of the film twice and lawsuits by family members of the players prevented the film from going to production.  After eleven years of obstacles, Orion Pictures finally signed off and production of the film began. 

The story by Asinof described a wide variety of characters involved in the plot to throw the World Series.  Sayles tackled the wide variety of characters by introducing each character three times in the first twenty minutes of the film.  “You always want to give the audience a way in to a movie, and when it has a complex plot it’s good to have a couple people to pick from to guide them along.  Television series get to do this much more organically, but there’s a tradition in sports and war movies of getting to know and care.”[6]  Sayles chose three of the ballplayers for the audience to be more emotionally sympathetic.  Besides getting to know these ballplayers, Sayles introduced the wives of Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) and Buck Weaver (John Cusack).  Sayles gave the role of John Heydler, the National League President during the 1919 World Series, to Asinof.   

Sayles often stuck with the original book in regards to characters.  Charles Comiskey (Clifton James) played the complex and frugal owner of the White Sox.  Asinof and Sayles portrayed Comiskey in both the book and the film as a man who cared more about his appearance than the welfare of his players.  Asinof and Sayles blamed the ballplayers willingness to go along with the World Series fix because of Comiskey’s cheapness and frugality towards his players.  Comiskey drastically underpaid his players and went so far to bench pitcher Eddie Cicotte when it became obvious that the pitcher would reach thirty wins, a feat accompanied with a $10,000 dollar bonus at the end of the season.  In the film, Cicotte ended up with twenty-nine wins instead of the required thirty.  As Asinof wrote in the book, “there had also been talk that Comiskey had promised all the players a bonus if they won the 1917 pennant.  They won it – and the world’s championship.  The bonus was a case of champagne at the victory celebration.”[7]  In the film, Sayles took Comiskey’s cheapness further – the champagne was flat.

Sayles changed some of the characters in the film and their roles in the story to match with his casting decisions.  Two of the most glaring examples were Hugh Fullerton (Studs Terkel) and Ringgold Wilmer Lardner (John Sayles).  The director cast himself as Chicago columnist Ring Lardner.  In the book, Lardner played a role as a sportswriter who found offense to what was happening with the White Sox during the World Series.  Asinof wrote that during a train trip with the players, Lardner sung a dong in the presence of the players that showed them as servants to their gambling masters.  Sayles added the scene in the film.  The role Lardner played when it comes to working with Hugh Fullerton, a leading national sportswriter that worked for the Chicago Herald, is quite different in the film from the book.  Sayles gave the role of Hugh Fullerton to Studs Terkel.  Terkel was a Chicago journalist, author, and labor historian.  In 1919 however, Hugh Fullerton was forty-six.  Terkel, at the time of the filming of Eight Men Out, was seventy-five.  To anyone that read the book, the age difference between the two men was quite alarming.  Fullerton and Lardner spent a majority of the time in the movie working together trying to figure out the story of the fix.  When the jury finds the ballplayers not guilty of conspiracy, Fullerton whispers to Lardner “Gamblers 8, baseball 0.”  Asinof does not have Lardner working closely with Fullerton throughout the book.  Fullerton worked closely with legendary pitcher and former Reds manager Christy Mathewson during the series.

Sayles picked a historic minor league stadium to simulate the atmosphere of the 1919 World Series.  Old Bush Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana served as the location for the filming of the baseball sequences in Eight Men Out.  Bush Stadium opened in 1931 under the name of Perry Stadium and became the home to the minor league AAA Indianapolis Indians.  From 1946 to 1954, the stadium served as the home for the legendary Negro League baseball team, the Indianapolis Clowns.  During the 1960s, the city of Indianapolis purchased the rights to the stadium and renamed it Bush stadium after the Indians’ long time president, Owen Bush.  During the decade, the minor league football team, the Indianapolis Capitols, played their home games at the stadium.[8] 

With a $6.5 million dollar budget for production costs, Sayles and his crew transformed Bush Stadium into the colors of Chicago’s Comiskey Park and Cincinnati’s Redland Field during the World Series scenes.  Sayles positioned three operating cameras throughout the stadium for filming.  Sayles placed a camera on the field and one in the stands.  The majority of the game sequences happen on the field with a few wide shots of the crowd.  Sayles needed to fill the stands of Bush stadium to help simulate the game day experience and so he used a little creative filming to help show a full stadium.  “We had these big cardboard cutouts of fans, but when the part came to pan into the seats, we needed 1,000 extras,” said Sayles.  The cardboard cutouts of fans show up clearly during a game sequence where the White Sox host the St. Louis Browns.  Joe Jackson hit a triple to right field and responded to a heckler in the stands in a game.  “Hey professor, read any good books lately!  Hey Joe, can you spell cat,” the heckler shouts at Joe.  “Hey mister,” Joe responds, “can you spell shit!”  Charlie Sheen, fresh off his success from the movie Wall Street, offered to lend a helping hand in recruiting extras.  “Charlie (Sheen) gallantly volunteered to be a part of a ‘Win lunch with Charlie Sheen’ promotion, so we could get people to come,” said Sayles.  “The day of the promotion it rained, but we eventually got the shot off.”  

The book worked as the better historical document when comparing the film and the book.  Asinof told the history of gambling in baseball and weaved the current events of the day in and out of the narrative.  Sayles represented the ballplayers as pillars of the community better than the book.  The relationship that Buck Weaver had with the children of Chicago represented a true depiction of the status that ballplayers had with their communities and fans in the early twentieth century.  For example, many players of the Brooklyn Dodgers lived in the same neighborhood as the fans that went to see them play at the ballpark.  For fans of the White Sox, especially in the case of Buck Weaver, Sayles did a good job of portraying him as “just another guy” in the neighborhood who happened to be a star ballplayer.  Asinof’s book recollection of why the White Sox scandal even made it to trial parallels better with history.  The trial of the ballplayers happened toward the end of the 1920 season and it cost the team a chance to get back to the World Series for the second straight year.  The movie gave no indication of this change in time and it seemed as though the trial happened very soon after the 1919 World Series.   







[7] Asinof, p. 22.


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