“Shoeless” Joe Jackson, who played from 1908 to ’20, still holds the third highest lifetime batting average of all major-league players; Babe Ruth said he based his stance on Jackson’s. The left fielder’s exclusion from the Hall of Fame, over accusations that he and other Chicago White Sox players took money from underworld gambler Arnold Rothstein to throw the 1919 World Series, has spurred many an impassioned defense by historians and novelists. Among the most famous is W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe, which seven years later was moistened into the film Field of Dreams. John Sayles’ docudrama approach, based on the Eliot Asinof novel Eight Men Out, portrays Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) as a big baseball light with a dim mental bulb — oppressed by skinflint owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James) and manipulated by pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), who certainly was in on the take.
Sweeney, who had played the game at Tulane, prepared for the role by spending spring training with the minor-league Kenosha Twins; John Cusack, who plays another of the accused, Buck Weaver, got tutored in third basemanship by Cubs hot-corner man Ron Santo. Charlie Sheen, fresh off the Oscar-winning Platoon, played Happy Felsch, while Sayles, the three-decade conscience of indie film (from Return of the Secaucus 7 in 1980 to 2011’s Amigo), appears in a cameo as sportswriter Ring Lardner. He brings a gritty authenticity to a film that locates the mixed motives and roiling ambiguities in baseball’s most notorious scandal.
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