These days, we're all jaded and amused when it comes to scandals in baseball, but 25 years ago this week (on September 2, 1988) came a movie that reminded us of a time when we were actually shocked over events that tarnished the reputation of the national pastime. With a cast led by rising stars John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, and D.B. Sweeney, "Eight Men Out" recounted the story of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, in which gamblers paid several players on the Chicago White Sox to throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.
Writer/director John Sayles, adapting Eliot Asinof's book of the same title, portrayed the Black Sox players as exploited workers out to punish their skinflint owner and claim bonuses that had been denied them. And while they did so in a way that was illegal and unsportsmanlike, they were meted out an awfully harsh punishment (being banned from the game for life), while the gangsters who had suborned them and the team owners made out like bandits.
Public sympathy for "Shoeless Joe" Jackson and his teammates has built ever since the release of this movie, generally regarded as one of the finest baseball films ever made. Still, there's a lot you probably don't know about "Eight Men Out," including which of its stars had real potential as ballplayers, the tricks Sayles used to recreate the 1919 World Series on a budget, the truth about the "Say it ain't so, Joe" incident, and the inspirational story of Black Betsy. Read on for the behind-the-scenes story of Sayles' pitch.
1. Eliot Asinof, who chronicled the Black Sox story in his 1963 book "Eight Men Out," was born in 1919, the year of the scandal. He'd been a minor league first baseman himself. An injury during practice ended his ballplaying career, so he turned to writing about baseball, eventually writing the novel "Man in Spikes." It was about how owners exploited players and treated them as little more than indentured servants throughout the years of the reserve clause -- a subject he'd explore again in "Eight Men Out."
2. In Hollywood, he'd had some minor success writing Western scripts for TV and movies in the 1950s until he wrote a scene that called for John Wayne to punch a horse in the nose. Outraged Warner Bros. mogul Jack Warner had him blacklisted for that, sending him packing to New York. Asinof went on to write "Eight Men Out" in 1960 as a script for a TV movie. Then-baseball commissioner Ford Frick persuaded the program's sponsor, the DuPont company, to drop the project, arguing that it would stain the game's reputation. With additional research, including an interview with surviving Black Sox center fielder Oscar "Hap" Felsch, Asinof turned his teleplay into a non-fiction book.
3. Sayles had struggled to make a movie out of Asinof's book for 11 years before he actually got to do so. Before he even owned the rights, he wrote the "Eight Men Out" screenplay as a calling card when he was auditioning for a Hollywood agent. He storyboarded all the baseball sequences and finally got to use those storyboards 11 years later. For years, he dreamed of casting then-hot rising actors as the players, but he kept having to revise his dream cast as they aged out of plausibility. As he told Bob Costas in a 2013 interview, "My original dream team had Martin Sheen at third base, and I ended up with Charlie in center field."
4. Charlie Sheen, who played Felsch, was one of several actors Sayles cast for their baseball prowess. He'd been a star shortstop and relief pitcher at Santa Monica High School and claimed he'd been offered a baseball scholarship by the University of Kansas, only to turn it down to go into acting instead. He was already a rising star when he was cast, thanks to his lead roles in "Platoon" and "Wall Street." As he told the Chicago Tribune during the shoot, "I'm not in this for cash or my career or my performance. I wanted to take part in this film because I love baseball."
5. John Cusack, cast as third baseman George "Buck" Weaver, had been an avid baseball player and baseball card collector as a child in the Chicago suburbs. Today, he counts himself as a fan of both the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs.
6. D.B. Sweeney had played minor league baseball with the Kenosha Twins before a knee injury from a motorcycle accident ended his career. He took up acting just to kill time, but he was soon appearing on Broadway and then in movies, including starring opposite Sheen in 1987's crime thriller "No Man's Land."
7. Sweeney prepared for his role as "Shoeless Joe" Jackson by going out on the road with a minor league team, at his own expense. "I lost money on that movie," Sweeney told the Allentown, Pa. Morning Call. "I got paid union scale for 10 weeks of work and I spent seven months paying my expenses on the road."
8. Right-handed Sweeney had to learn to bat left-handed, the way Jackson did. Sweeney has said the filmmakers had considered doing what Gary Cooper did as Lou Gehrig in "Pride of the Yankees" -- have him wear a mirror-image uniform, shoot him running the bases clockwise, then simply reverse the negative -- but they couldn't afford to do so.
9. Sayles, who frequently acts in his own films, initially wanted to cast himself as one of the players, but by the time he made the film, he felt he was too old. Instead, he cast himself as legendary sportswriter Ring Lardner Sr., to whom he bore a remarkable resemblance.
10. Cast as fellow Chicago sportswriter Hugh Fullerton was Studs Terkel, the legendary Chicago journalst, author, and labor historian. Terkel was 75 at the time, 29 years older than Fullerton was in 1919.
11. Sayles said Asinof was resentful at first that Sayles had bought the movie rights to his book, as he'd made a small fortune optioning it out over the years to producers who never got the film made. But then, Sayles said, Asinof read the screenplay and found it faithful to the book. Sayles cast Asinof as one of the team owners, so the writer was on the set. Cusack told Bob Costas in 2013 that he remembers drinking at the bar with Asinof and Terkel during downtime on the set. "He was in heaven," the actor said of Asinof.
12. For the sake of verisimilitude, many actors chewed and spit tobacco. But they couldn't take it after a while. Bill Irwin, who co-starred as player Eddie Collins, recalled that even the most Method-y actors eventually switched to apricots.
13. Former White Sox outfielder Ken Berry served as a coach to help the actors look like believable ballplayers. Sayles cast him in a walk-on role as a heckler.
14. The baseball scenes were filmed at the old Bush Stadium in Indianapolis, which was made over to look like both Chicago's Comiskey Park and Cincinnati's Redland Field. A decade after the shoot, the minor league ballpark was converted into a dirt speedway. In 2012, it was demolished for conversion into an apartment complex.
15. Hoping to fill the stands with cheering fans, Sayles couldn't coax enough Indianapolis residents to serve as extras in period costumes, at least not for the $20 stipend he'd budgeted. So he turned a crowd of hundreds into thousands by filling the stands with cardboard cutouts.
16. Sayles would rearrange the shooting schedule for the games at a moment's notice, depending on the weather. If clouds came in, he might move from shooting a scene in one game to shooting a scene in another game from a different day.
17. Lardner's son, two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. ("Woman of the Year," "M*A*S*H"), visited the Indianapolis set. Writing in American Film magazine, he said he approved of Sayles' script as largely accurate according to what he'd learned from his father.
18. Michael Lerner played Arnold Rothstein, the New York gangster who bankrolled the conspiracy. Rothstein was the inspiration for the Meyer Wolfsheim character in "The Great Gatsby." These days, he's a recurring character (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) on the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire."
19. The film recreates the famous moment outside the courthouse where a boy supposedly pleaded to Jackson, "Say it ain't so, Joe." In truth, the boy probably never said that. Newspapers from the time have the unnamed urchin asking Jackson, "It ain't true, is it?" "Yes, kid, I'm afraid it is," Jackson reportedly answered. "Well, I'd never have thought it," the kid is said to have replied.
20. "Eight Men Out" cost an estimated $6.5 million to make. It earned back just $5.7 million at the North American box office.
21. Shoeless Joe and his exiled teammates showed up the next year as characters in "Field of Dreams." Unlike Sweeney, Ray Liotta played Jackson as a right-handed batter.
22. Sheen went on to play ex-con-turned-pitcher Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn the next year in "Major League" and again in "Major League II."
23. In Ken Burns' landmark 1994 documentary mini-series "Baseball," Sayles and Terkel appeared as interview subjects, sharing their expertise about the 1919 scandal. "Eight Men Out" stars Cusack, Sweeney, and Christopher Lloyd all read dramatic voiceovers of the reminiscences of real-life baseball figures.
24. Sayles cast Asinof in another cameo in his 2002 movie "Sunshine State." Asinof died at 88 in 2008.
25. During production of "Eight Men Out," the filmmakers sent the Louisville Slugger factory images of the bats the White Sox had used, including a bat of Jackson's so stained with tobacco juice it was dubbed "Black Betsy." After the shoot, Sweeney had two Black Betsys left over, and he sent one to the modern-day White Sox. The team cited the bat as an inspiration that had helped drive them to their 2005 World Series victory. The players on that team autographed the bat and sent it back to Sweeney.