Eight Men Out (1988)

Film and Plot Synopsis

Eight Men Out begins in 1919. Gambler Arnold Rothstein bribes disgruntled members of the Chicago White Sox to throw the World Series against Cincinnati. since the White Sox were the better team, losses in their early games raised a few eyebrows. Some of the blown plays are so obvious, even a blind person can clearly see they are on the take. Since many of the players don’t like what they’ve done, some decide to actually try to win the series. In the end, they lose the series. However, when two of them confess two years later, it leads to a trial. Although the court eventually finds them all not guilty, the newly appointed independent baseball Commissioner, Judge Landis, bans all eight players for life.

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‘Eight Men Out’ Movie Summary

The summary below contains spoilers.
Eight Men Out (1988)In Eight Men Out, the scene is Chicago, early autumn in 1919. It is nearly one year after the armistice that ended the Great War. Prohibition will soon take effect, thus ushering in the Jazz Age. The major league baseball season is coming to a close, and the Chicago White Sox – the most dominant team in the game – are on the field in their home park, thrilling their fans. They are about to clinch the pennant that will guarantee them a place in the 1919 World Series.

Also in the stands are gamblers Sleepy Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd) and Billy Maharg (Richard Edson). They converse about members of the White Sox who they think would be willing to throw the World Series in exchange for money, a scheme that seems very possible since Charles Comiskey (Clifton James), the skinflint owner of the White Sox, horribly underpays his ballplayers, and the White Sox are expected to be the huge favorite to win the World Series. The two Bills believe that Eddie Cicotte, the star pitcher of the team, is the key player they want in on the fix because pitchers have the most control over the outcome of a game.

The White Sox win the pennant in style. After the game in the clubhouse, the players expect to receive a cash bonus for their accomplishment. Instead, Comiskey’s secretary provides them with flat champagne. Meanwhile, Comiskey and his fellow capitalist pigs and members of the press are gorging themselves on an opulent spread, including champagne with bubbles.

That same night, the team celebrates their victory at a local nightclub. We see first baseman Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker) sitting with a couple of Mollies and gambler and Irish stereotype Sport Sullivan (Kevin Tighe). Gandil laments about the plight of the proletariat in baseball. Sullivan tells the Mollies to scram and then assures Gandil that he could orchestrate a conspiracy to fix the World Series, but doesn’t believe Gandil could recruit enough teammates to make it happen.

Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd) and Bill Maharg (Richard Edson) are in the same joint overseeing this conversation and wondering if Sullivan has the same intentions they have.

 While in the men’s room, Chick Gandil and teammates Swede Risberg (Don Harvey) and Fred McMullin (Perry Lane) agree to be part of the conspiracy with Sullivan to throw the World Series. After leaving the men’s room, the two Bills approach Gandil with their own proposal, apparently unaware that Sullivan already beat them to it. Risberg persuades Gandil to accept Burns’ offer as well because it is a well-known fact that members of a criminal conspiracy never rat on each other and mobsters are known for their capacity to forgive.

Gandil and Risberg make it their mission to recruit additional ballplayers to join the conspiracy. After some wrangling, Gandil and Risberg persuade four other teammates to join: starting pitchers Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn) and Lefty Williams (James Read), centerfielder and team idiot Hap Felsch (Charlie Sheen), and left-fielder and the team’s star player, Shoeless Joe Jackson (played by shoed D.B. Sweeney). Third baseman and team leader Buck Weaver (John Cusack) becomes aware of the conspiracy but is so outraged that he decides to keep silent.

At the same time, the gamblers work to get financing for their scheme. At a New York race track the two Bills talk about their plan to former boxing Featherweight champion of the world, Abe Attell (Michael Mantell), who is known to be a toady of the powerful mobster Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner). But Abe gives them the brush-off due to his bourgeoisie prejudice. Nevertheless, Abe tries to persuade his boss Rothstein to finance the scheme to throw the World Series, but Rothstein tells Abe that he will not do business with baseball players because they are the types of people that teased him when he was a child. Abe later meets with the two Bills and falsely tells them that Rothstein is interested.

Meanwhile, Rothstein, without Abe’s knowledge, arranges a meeting with Sport Sullivan at Rothstein’s impeccably furnished home. Sullivan tells Rothstein that he can get eight men in on the fix including Eddie Cicotte. Rothstein tells him to do nothing until he receives further orders. Sullivan leaves, obviously awestruck by Rothstein, and silently curses his ancestors for not being Jewish.

While at a train station, an associate of Rothstein gives Sullivan $80,000 in cash telling him that the fix is in and Cicotte is to hit the leadoff batter as the cue. Sullivan later tells his toady and fellow stereotype Jimmy to take some of the cash and place bets elsewhere, and never mind paying the players, because what are they going to do, cross us?

As the first game of the Series approaches, Cicotte makes it clear to the ring-leaders that he will not go through with the fix unless he gets paid first. Gandil tells him to check under the pillow in his hotel room. There, Cicotte discovers $10,000 in cash.

The first game of the Series is about to begin. Jackson, evidently feeling guilty about what he knows, tells Gleason that he doesn’t want to play and asks to be benched. Gleason orders Jackson to play, and, for God’s sakes, put on your spikes.

Game One begins. Arnold Rothstein enters a conference room in New York where the game is being transmitted by ticker tape for the audience; imagine the precursor for the Las Vegas casino sportsbook, but with better dressed degenerate gamblers. Cicotte hits the first batter as expected, and Rothstein leaves the room with the knowledge that he, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, played “with the faith of fifty million people – with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.” The Reds win Game One easily.

Meanwhile, sportswriters Ring Lardner (John Sayles) and Hugh Fullerton (Studs Terkel) are now suspicious that rumors about the World Series being fixed are true. Lardner meets with Cicotte at his hotel room and confronts him directly, but Cicotte denies that there is a fix. Meanwhile, McMullin enters Joe Jackson’s hotel room and places cash on the dresser. Jackson accepts the money but remains ambivalent.

In Game Two of the World Series, Lefty Williams starts the game on the mound and delivers on his promise, and the Reds win easily. However, the players are not receiving the money that they were promised from the gamblers. 

Game 3 of the World Series is back in Chicago. Chick Gandil does his best to throw the game, thus affirming the suspicions of Ring Lardner and Hugh Fullerton, but the plot is spoiled by starting left-handed pitcher Dickie Kerr (played by right-handed actor Jace Alexander) who leads the White Sox to victory by shutting out the Reds.

The two Bills are displeased because they bet and lost the money that was owed to the players. After the game, Buck Weaver tells his wife (Barbara Garrick) of the fix but says he wanted no part of it. Although she supports her husband she cannot help but think of the lost opportunity to own one of those new fancy, French electric ranges she saw in a catalogue.

Cicotte and Williams start on the mound in Games 4 and 5 respectively, and the White Sox fail to score a single run. The Reds are now one game away from winning the World Series.

However, the players in on the fix are not being paid, the gamblers are nowhere to be seen, and so some of the conspirators decide to give their best effort. Non-conspirator Dickie Kerr starts on the mound in Game 6, and once again the left-hander pitches a gem with his right arm in leading the White Sox to victory. Cicotte is set to pitch in Game 7, but manager Kid Gleason (John Mahoney) – who now believes Cicotte is in on the fix – tells Cicotte he will be benched for the game. Cicotte pleads his case and tells Gleason that “he cannot lose,” and so Gleason reluctantly lets him start. Cicotte pitches brilliantly and the Sox win.

Arnold Rothstein, celebrating his anticipated winnings on his bet with a shave, is informed by an associate that Cicotte failed to live up to his bargain. He summons his associate Monk (Stephen Mendillo) to meet with Sport Sullivan to set things straight. Sullivan, by the orders of Monk and Rothstein, dispatch a hitman who promptly tells Lefty Williams that his wife will be murdered if Williams does not lose the 8th game.

In Game 8, Williams does not make it out of the first inning, and the Reds win in a rout 10 to 5, thus winning the Series and upsetting the highly favored White Sox. By now, Fullerton has five of the players circled on his list of suspects, omitting Jackson and Weaver, who both played well in the Series, and McMullin, who hardly played at all.

Within the next year, sportswriters Lardner and Fullerton are investigating their suspicions about the fix. Cheapskate Charles Comiskey offers a $1,000 reward for information on gambling. The players become aware of the investigation by published newspaper accounts.

Comiskey makes arrangements through his personal attorney to protect his investment by “cleaning up” the game of baseball. Comiskey gathers the support from other owners of major league baseball teams and seeks the help of a federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis (John Anderson). Landis agrees on the condition that he be appointed Commissioner of Baseball for life with absolute power over the game so that he may rid the sport of “the long-nosed and thick-lipped gambling elements.” Meanwhile, Arnold Rothstein, Sport Sullivan, and Abe Attell flee the country.

Cicotte is called to testify before a grand jury and agrees to waive immunity. He tells the grand jurors that he and his teammates were crooked. The illiterate Jackson does the same too, after prosecutors refuse to read his rights and deceitfully assure him that they just want to get rid of the gamblers and not the ballplayers. Jackson reluctantly and cumbersomely signs an “X” mark and testifies. Jackson leaves the courthouse and is accosted by a street urchin to “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Jackson walks away without a response. Lardner now suspects Jackson was involved in the fix.

Ultimately, Gandil, Risberg, McMullin, Felsch, Jackson, Cicotte, Williams, and Weaver are indicted for criminal conspiracy. Their trial date approaches. Lawyers for Comiskey and Rothstein meet and agree that it would be in their clients’ best interests if the players’ confessions to the grand jury could somehow disappear.

During the trial while Billy Maharg is testifying, it is revealed that some of the players confessed to the grand jury. The judge (Dick Cusack, John Cusack’s father), asks that transcripts of the confessions be brought forward. The prosecution informs the judge that they were “stolen.”

After the trial, the ballplayers are acquitted of all charges, with the foreman announcing the verdict with glee. The gallery erupts with applause; Lardner comments to Fullerton that the verdict was a bigger fix than the Series. However, Comiskey expresses his contempt with the proceedings, fears for his business interests, and vows to make the acquitted players pay. 

A shot of the acquitted players celebrating at a lavish party is juxtaposed with the new Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Judge Landis, stating his edict to the press, including Lardner and Fullerton: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.” Landis’ ruling results in a lifetime ban from the game of professional baseball of all eight players, including Weaver.

The final scene takes place in a baseball park in New Jersey in 1925, where a group of young baseball fans are remarking about a centerfielder named Brown that is dominating the game. One fan believes Brown is actually Shoeless Joe Jackson, but he is challenged by two other fans. Buck Weaver is in the stands as well, and tells them he saw Jackson play, and he was the best player he had ever seen. But when he is asked whether Brown is actually Joe Jackson, Weaver says, “Nah, those fellows are all gone now.” After Brown née Jackson hits a triple – which prompts Weaver to smile – the camera stays focused on Weaver while he listens to the chatter in the stands. A young boy asks, “Who’s Joe Jackson?” Another fan responds, “He was one of the guys that threw the Series in ’19. One of those bums from Chicago, kid. One of the Black Sox.”

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Orion Pictures released Eight Men Out to theaters on September 2, 1988. John Sayles directed the film starring John Cusack, Clifton James, and Michael Lerner.

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