Monday, September 02, 2013

I'm Forever Blowing Ballgames ...

Ring Lardner (John Sayles): [serenading White Sox after Game 5, to the tune of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles"] I'm forever blowing ballgames, pretty ballgames in the air. I come from Chi, I hardly try, just go to bat and fade and die. Fortune's coming my way, that's why I don't care. I'm forever blowing ballgames, and the gamblers treat us fair.

"Eight Men Out," the movie about the Black Sox Scandal that premiered 25 years ago today, is one of my all–time favorite sports movies.

In the 21st century, it is almost a cliche to regard professional athletes as overpaid prima donnas — and, to be sure, many of today's professional athletes are precisely that.

But it wasn't always that way. It certainly wasn't that way in 1919 when the Chicago White Sox — who are still believed by many knowledgeable baseball folk to be one of the best squads of all time — deliberately threw the World Series on the promise of a big payoff from gamblers.

Both the movie and the book upon which it was based indicated that the key to the conspiracy was the allegiance of star pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), who resisted initial attempts to convince him to throw the Series.
Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd): Eddie's gettin' too old for this. I know what it's like. You walk out there with your arm hangin'.

Billy Maharg (Richard Edson): You couldn't pitch when you was young, Burnsie.

Bill Burns: Eddie's the key. If we don't get him, we can forget about it.

In Cicotte's 1919 contract, White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey, who comes across as a greedy cheapskate in the book and the movie, had promised a bonus to Cicotte if he won 30 games that year; then, when it appeared that Cicotte might actually win 30 games, Comiskey allegedly ordered manager Kid Gleason (John Mahoney) to bench him in the final weeks of the season, ostensibly to rest him for the World Series.

(That was a claim that was a little hard to swallow, considering that the White Sox took the American League pennant by only 3½ games over runnerup Cleveland.

(The Indians had a 10–game winning streak in September. Meanwhile, the Sox limped across the finish line, losing seven of their last nine games.

(I've never heard anyone mention it, but that end–of–season skid by the Sox provided them with plausible cover for their collapse in the Series.)

Cicotte finished with 29 wins.

But he missed five starts, and it is certainly reasonable to think he would have won at least one of them — maybe more. That is apparently what Cicotte thought, too.

Anyway, when that happened, Cicotte agreed to participate in the conspiracy. He was 35 years old. He knew his career would be ending soon, and he had a wife and two daughters (a third child was born that year) to support.

And the $10,000 that was being offered to him was nearly twice his contract salary.

Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker): You go back to Boston and turn 70 grand at the drop of a hat? I find that hard to believe.

Sport Sullivan (Kevin Tighe): You say you can find seven men on the best club that ever took the field willin' to throw the World Series? I find that hard to believe.

Chick Gandil: You never played for Charlie Comiskey.

When Cicotte agreed to throw the Series, it opened the floodgates. The #2 pitcher in the rotation, Lefty Williams (James Read), got in on the conspiracy, along with a few other key players. There were eight in all including outfielder Hap Felsch (Charlie Sheen) and infielder Fred McMullin (Perry Lang), a utility player who did not play enough to affect the outcomes of games but was permitted to join the conspiracy after he heard other players talking about it and threatened to blow the whistle on them if he was not included.

Comiskey didn't exactly help himself with the rest of the team, either. He had promised them bonuses if they won the pennant, but when they did (with a winning percentage of .629), their "bonuses" turned out to be bottles of celebratory champagne (which, reportedly, were flat).

Consequently, many of the players were bitter. It was fertile ground for gamblers wanting to fix the Fall Classic.

Based on eyewitness accounts, most of the players who agreed to throw the World Series were obviously guilty. Cicotte lost two games, and Williams lost three (a World Series record), which was enough for Cincinnati to take the best–of–nine series.

But even today, nearly a century later, doubts remain about whether two players — Shoeless Joe Jackson (played by D.B. Sweeney) and Buck Weaver (John Cusack) — did anything to alter the outcome.

Jackson's batting average in the series was .375, he committed no errors (an important point on a team that made 12 errors in eight games), and he hit the series' only home run. Weaver hit .324 and also made no fielding errors.

(Cusack's Weaver may have been the most tragic figure in the story. Jackson was illiterate. His testimony before the grand jury clearly suggested he knew of the conspiracy but left the question of his actual participation open to interpretation. Shoeless Joe, it is worth pointing out, never received any payment.

(The evidence against Weaver was practically non–existent.)

Ring Lardner (John Sayles): Sports writers of the world, unite; you have nothing to lose but your bar privileges.

The infamous Black Sox scandal might never have seen the light of day, though, if not for the efforts of two intrepid Chicago sports writers, Ring Lardner (played by the movie's director, John Sayles) and especially Lardner's mentor, Hugh Fullerton (played by writer Studs Terkel), to expose what had happened.

Fullerton was a popular and prestigious sports writer whose suspicions were aroused before the start of the Series when he heard persistent talk that Cincinnati was a lock to win. When the Reds actually did win, Fullerton wrote a series of articles that forced major league baseball to investigate — and, ultimately, ban the eight ballplayers who had been involved (in some cases, as I say, allegedly so) from baseball for life.

Presumably for dramatic purposes, Sayles made some alterations to the story, particularly the part involving Fullerton and Lardner. In the movie, the two agreed, before the start of the first game, to keep score individually and make notes about plays that appeared "fishy." In reality, though, Fullerton did that with Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson.

Before the Series began, Gleason heard rumors of a fix as well, but he kept insisting that the players would come around. Perhaps they would have if Williams' wife had not been threatened before the eighth game. Williams was scheduled to pitch Game 8, and, like Cicotte, he had grown disenchanted with the scheme and seemed ready to pitch his usual game — until a hired killer threatened her.

The book on the scandal by Eliot Asinof was published 25 years before the movie was made, but the timing of the movie's release could hardly have been much better. Almost a year after the movie premiered, Pete Rose was banned from baseball for gambling on games.

What were the odds?