“Individual achievement”. So intones Al Capone (played by Robert De Niro), addressing his partners in crime as they dine in tuxedos and upon fine china. In the scene, from the Brian De Palma film The Untouchables, Capone is talking baseball. Individual achievement, he lets his fellows know, is fine, but a ballplayer is nothing without his team. To emphasize his point, he hefts a baseball bat, slapping it against his palm. Then, to really drive the message home, he bashes in the skull of a lesser gangster who he suspects of crossing him.
This, in the parlance of our time, is a teachable moment—both for the gangsters and for us as an audience. The duly unnerved criminals have just learned the price for putting themselves beyond the good of their organization, and we, watching the Louisville Slugger’s on-screen improvisations, are likewise reminded that sports are a helpful way of organizing and enforcing our daily behaviors.
The pedagogy of baseball, and not just in the classroom of Al Capone, is in fact full of lessons that emphasize the team over the individual. Whether it’s through praise for the perpetually and predictably self-effacing ballplayer, or the insistence of uniform dress for every member of the team (managers included), baseball models the importance of cooperation and group unity for criminals and the working class alike.
Perhaps more importantly, we are shown the consequences of violating that ethos, which need not necessarily involve the application of a blunt, wooden instrument. Criticism and censure await those athletes who draw attention to themselves and their abilities, either on the field (as immature hotdogs) or off (as spoiled, rich crybabies or barely-civilized criminals). These lessons are so ingrained in our consciousness that the fans are the ones who most often hurl the first epithets.
That’s because baseball’s emphasis on teamwork extends beyond the boundaries of the game itself, informing a prevailing social norm in a way that reveals just how instructive sports can be in developing a sense of national values. Quite simply, sports are ready-made metaphors, capable of illuminating or reinforcing societal norms for mobsters, filmmakers, and the rest of the spectating public.
As is often the case, such values are sheared up through negative reinforcement—that is, by the public criticism and shaming of those who would dare to transgress the boundaries of publicly held standards of comportment. Baseball, for its part, has a storied history of these athletic untouchables, players who violate the sanctity of the game and whose punishments help the rest of us to reassert the sport’s purity, and our own unspoken sense of what’s “right” with America.
Such is the case of the 1919 Chicago White Sox. If Al Capone did have baseball on his mind before he interrupted that dinner, he most likely would have been familiar with the infamous “Black Sox”, as they came to be known. Soon after he arrived in Chicago to begin his prohibition-fueled criminal racket, the Sox ended a dominant season of baseball by losing the World Series to overwhelming underdogs, the Cincinnati Reds. Shocked by the outcome, Sox fans and the rest of the sporting world refused to accept that the Reds were a better team. A fix was rumored to have been in the works.
In short order, these suspicions were confirmed. Some players had, in fact, conspired to lose the games in exchange for bribe money. Still, it was unclear just who had known about the set-up and even if those knew deliberately tried to lose. Eight Men Out tells the story of the 1919 Series and resulting controversy, attempting to see its way through the rumor and speculation that dog the team and that series even to this day.
Based on Eliot Asinof’s book by the same title, writer/director John Sayles relates some clear facts: that the players were approached by representatives of one Arnold Rothstein (played by Michael Lerner in the film), a Chicago underworld boss (before Capone made it big) who took advantage of the heavy odds against the Reds to place “sure” bets that would see large returns. In exchange, those in on the fix were promised $10,000—no small amount of money, those days.
Yet, unlike in The Untouchables, the real bad guys of this film are not the gangsters. They’re naturally ruthless and amoral, but are understood as simply part of the scenery in Chicago at the time. Nor are they the ballplayers the ones to blame. Though it’s clear that several members of the team agreed to take money to throw games, they met only sporadically to arrange the actual fixes.
Some took money and delivered on-field results anyway, seeming to have a change of heart. Others only suspected a fix was in, though they never knew for certain. Likewise, it seems that it was never clear just how many games in the series the players tried to lose. The lack of concrete planning, coupled with the wildly inconsistent efforts of the players themselves, is what drives the persistent intrigue surrounding the series, both in the film and in our modern imagination.
What is clear, however, is the film’s main antagonist, White Sox owner Charles “Commie” Comiskey (Clifton James). In the opening moments of the film, Comiskey rewards his team, who has just won the league pennant, by replacing their promised bonus pay with a table of flat champagne. He similarly welches on a bonus owed to pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), whose contract promises $10,000 for a 30-win season. Comiskey, however, has Cicotte pulled from the lineup when he gets close to the magic number. The pitcher only manages 29 wins, and is denied payment as a result. Disgruntled, Eddie leaves Comiskey’s office and heads straight for the lead conspirator, first baseman “Chick” Gandil, who is able to deliver the same amount of money that Comiskey would deny.
In these scenes and others, Eight Men Out makes it easy to see why the players would take a dive. Rather than looking to get rich quick, they’re instead portrayed as mistreated and rightly disgruntled employees, looking to take revenge on their egomaniacal, fatcat boss.
In this light, then, the film offers a new understanding of the importance of teamwork in baseball. If the 20th Anniversary DVD of Eight Men Out offers little beyond the original film (a few self-indulgent commentary reels aside), it remains a valuable look at what really drives the fortunes of the game and its players—namely, the interest of the owners.
Still, for the most part our focus as fans remains fixed on the players, on their triumphs and transgressions. We see this in several scenes in which third baseman “Buck” Weaver (played by a young John Cusack)—who refused to take part in the fix—plays catch with a few star-struck local boys in knickerbockers. We see it too in the film’s portrayal of the shy, illiterate, but great “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeny) who, by all accounts, was the best player on the team, if not in the league.
Both Weaver and Jackson, however, suffer the same ignominious fate. Acquitted, along with the rest of their teammates, by a Chicago jury (their confessions went missing, only to resurface years later in the possession of Comiskey’s lawyer); the group is nevertheless banned from baseball for life as a result of their association with the scandal. The film ends, forlornly, with a glimpse of Jackson playing under an assumed name as a minor leaguer in Hoboken. He clearly outshines the “bushers” around him, but seems to take no joy in the distance between his own individual talents and the rest of the team.
In this, then, the film reminds us of how important team fellowship can be, though in ways that hold implications for more than just the game of baseball. In a time when professional sports unions are routinely demonized for protecting players who have come to be seen as prima donna millionaires, Eight Men Out is a good reminder of just where players would be without such protection, as well as an important document of the ways in which they were exploited before a new brand of meaningful teamwork came along.
It’s a lesson that bears repeating. Today, the rise of player salaries that outrage so many are rarely put into context with the profit generated by the owners, billionaires behind the curtain, whose own profits dwarf those of the players yet engender far less public outcry. Where’s the teamwork in that? Al Capone himself might be disappointed. While the Sox may have used unconscionable methods to restore their dignity, a players’ union would have made this dark episode unnecessary, offering to players a resource of supporters whose interests lie in the wellbeing of one another, not in financial profit.
The true value of teamwork then, lies not in subservience to public expectation or ownership profit, but in the collective effort to ensure a mutual livelihood. In the case of sports, as in any other profession, that’s what true unity, true teamwork, should be about.
The 1919 Black Sox - photo (partial) from Wikipedia.com
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