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Distant Replay: ‘Eight Men Out’ has look of classic about baseball and gambling

In this photo, circa 1919, provided by the Chicago History Museum is Chicago White Sox player Shoeless Joe Jackson. | (AP Photo/Chicago History Museum)

As a lifelong Sox fan, I’ll admit I always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the decades-long fascination with the 1969 Cubs.

They broke the hearts of Cubbie Nation! They had an eight-and-half-game lead in September but couldn’t hold off the Mets. Remember the black cat scampering onto the field at Shea Stadium, right past Ron Santo in the on-deck circle? They were cursed, I tell ya. Cursed!

Granted, the ’69 Cubbies were a memorable team, with four future Hall of Famers on the roster. And yes, they were in first place for 155 days before wilting in the stretch.

But the Cubs wound up EIGHT games behind the Mets, who won 100 games in the regular season, swept the Braves in the National League Championship Series and held the Orioles to a total of nine runs while taking the World Series 4-1.

The Mets were the best team in baseball that year. They were no fluke.

You want to talk about curses and heartbreak? You want to talk about a Chicago team that should have won it all but fell short?

How about the 1919 White Sox, the only pro sports team to ever DELIBERATELY lose a championship?

In “The Godfather II,” Lee Strasberg’s Hyman Roth tells Michael Corleone, “I’ve loved baseball … ever since Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series in 1919,” and Michael chuckles.

Ouch. I can’t even watch my favorite movie of all time without a reminder of the 1919 White Sox.

Painful as it might be for some White Sox fans to witness, the story of the “Black Sox” is the subject of one of the best movies about baseball (and gambling) ever made: Writer/director John Sayles’ 1988 “Eight Men Out.”

Working with a deep roster of talented actors, including more than a half-dozen cast members who delivered authentic performances on and off the field, Sayles spins a classic tale filled with heroes and villains — and a few men who were caught somewhere in between and were haunted for the rest of their lives by their indecision.

One of the things I love about this movie is Sayles’ attention to period-piece detail. The uniforms, the gloves, the catcher’s equipment, the fans dressed up as if they were attending church — all just right.

True to the time, the players stand in the box wearing just their caps. (Believe it or not, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Major League Baseball enforced use of the batting helmet for all players.)

One scene in “Eight Men Out” shows Charlie Sheen’s Happy Felsch making an inning-ending basket catch — and tossing his glove behind him as he jogged in. Yep, until 1954, position players would leave their gloves on the field, just like we did as kids in pick-up games when we were sharing gloves with the other team.

The game sequences pitting the heavily favored White Sox against the Cincinnati Redlegs, filmed at the old Bush Stadium in Indianapolis, ring true. (Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine District, said to be the most intact urban historic neighborhood in the country, stood in for 1919 Chicago in the non-baseball scenes.)

Writer/director Sayles actually exercises more poetic license in the off-field sequences, for example, the borderline corny sequences when John Cusack’s Buck Weaver bonds with a couple of starry-eyed neighborhood kids and imparts life-lesson wisdom to them, and the scene in which Joe Jackson exits the courthouse and a teary-eyed kid says, “Joe, Joe! Say it ain’t so, Joe.” (Years after the fact, Jackson told Sport magazine no such incident ever took place.)

Fitting for a movie about the White Sox, “Eight Men Out” is bursting with Chicago-area connections, from Evanston’s John Cusack playing Buck Weaver to longtime Oak Park resident John Mahoney playing Sox manager Kid Gleason to the one and only Studs Terkel doing colorful work as Chicago Herald-Examiner sportswriter Hugh Fullerton.

“Eight Men Out” doesn’t hesitate in painting Sox owner Charles Comiskey as a villain, citing his tightness with a buck as motivation for a number of players to agree to throw the World Series in exchange for big payoffs.

In a key scene, David Straitharn’s Eddie Cicotte, who was making $6,000 a year, meets with Comiskey (Clifton James) to request the $10,000 bonus he was to receive if he won 30 games. Although Cicotte fell just short, winning 29 games, he argues he WOULD have won at least 30 had Comiskey not ordered Gleason to bench him for two weeks.

Comiskey is unmoved. “Twenty-nine is not thirty, Eddie,” he says. “You will get only the money you deserve.”

And with that, a pitcher who will start three games in the nine-game World Series is willing to listen to overtures from the connected vultures hovering about, looking to assemble enough guys willing to tank and take the whole team down.

The outstanding cast includes Michael Rooker as Chick Gandil, a nasty cuss with a shady background who recruits seven of his teammates, including Cicotte, Charlie Sheen’s Happy Felsch, Cusack’s Buck Weaver and Sweeney’s Shoeless Joe Jackson, to take a dive.

In “Eight Men Out,” Weaver refuses to go along and plays his heart out, hitting .324 —but he neglects to report on his teammates. Jackson, who was illiterate and arguably incapable of truly understanding the consequences of giving even the appearance of going along with the guys, leads both teams with a .375 average.

Yet both players were banned from baseball after the 1920 season. Both players spent the rest of their lives maintaining they did nothing wrong. To this day, efforts continue to clear the names of Buck Weaver and Joe Jackson.

The penultimate scene in “Eight Men Out” is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, with Sayles showing the players celebrating after being found not guilty of conspiracy in a court of law.

They’re unaware their fate has been sealed elsewhere. As the celebration plays out, we hear voice-over of the separate ruling handed down by newly appointed baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a game, no player [who knows of such things] and doesn’t promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball again.”

We then cut to grainy footage of a semi-pro game in New Jersey in 1925, with a guy in the stands claiming that fellow in the outfield is none other than Joe Jackson.

“It’s HIM,” insists the fan. (It is.)

Cut to an unrecognized Buck Weaver, sitting nearby in the stands, who says, “I saw [Jackson] play. He was the best. Run, hit throw. He was the best.”

“So what do you think?” says the fan “Is that him?”

“Nah,” replies Buck. “Those guys are all gone now.”

Heart. Breaking.