By Glen Sparks
The great–and disgraced–“Shoeless Joe” Jackson died on this day in 1951. One of the best players ever, Jackson batted .356 over a 13-year career. Commissioner “Kennesaw Mountain” Landis kicked he and seven other Chicago White Sox players out of baseball after they allegedly threw the 1919 World Series for $5,000 apiece.
Jackson’s story—the part about how his career ended, at least– is sports tragedy. The early part is pure Americana, Southern style. Joseph Jefferson Jackson was born on July 16, 1887, in rural Pickens County, South Carolina. He began working as a millhand at age six or seven and almost died following a bout with the measles when he was 10. A few years later, young Joe began playing baseball on a mill team.
(Why “Shoeless” Joe? Well, the story goes back to the mill days. Joe put on some new, uncomfortable, cleats. His feet ached. So, he took of his shoes. He stood barefoot in the outfield. He stood barefoot as walked into the batter’s box. Not surprisingly, the other players noticed.)
Jackson signed with the Philadelphia A’s in 1908. He didn’t play much in his first two seasons. The A’s traded Jackson to the Cleveland Naps in 1910. Jackson hit .408 in 1911, .395 in 1912 and .373 in 1913. The outfielder established himself as one of the game’s great players. He could still barely read.
The White Sox traded for Jackson in August 1915. Shoeless Joe batted .341 in 1916 and helped Chicago to a World Series championship the following year. Jackson blended in with other great White Sox players from this era, including Buck Weaver, Eddie Collins, Eddie Cicotte and “Lefty” Williams.
Chicago’s 1919 squad went 88-52 and captured the American League pennant. The White Sox met the Cincinnati Reds in the fall classic. There had been rumors of a fix long before Cincinnati’s “Dutch” Ruether threw the first pitch on Oct. 1 at Redland Field. Many White Sox players loathed owner Charles Comiskey. He was a cheapskate, the ballplayers swore. If they could get a few extra bucks out of a bigshot gambler like Arnold Rothstein, so be it. Rothstein, a New York City mobster, bankrolled the scandal.
Cincinnati took a 2-0 lead in the Series, but Chicago tied things up after four games. The Reds won the best-of-nine match-up five games to three. Alfred “Greasy” Neale led Cincinnati. The outfielder batted .357 (10-for-28) with three runs scored and four RBIs. Pitcher Horace “Hod” Eller won both his starts. The right-hander hurled two complete games, gave up four runs and struck out 15.
Jackson batted .375 in the Series (12-for-32) and knocked the lone home run. He hit .351 in the regular season. A Chicago grand jury acquitted Jackson and the others in 1921. Even so, the all-powerful Landis banned them all. Said Landis: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ballgame; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.” (Eddie Collins, never implicated in the scandal, batted .226 in the World Series. The future Hall of Fame hit .319 in the regular season.)
Jackson retired to his native South Carolina and proclaimed himself innocent. Was he? Well, we’ll probably never know for sure. Reportedly, he refused the money. We know that Jackson’s .375 batting average led all hitters, White Sox and Reds. He not only hit the only Series home run, he also handled 30 chances and didn’t commit an error. Jackson threw out five baserunners.
Some experts point out that Jackson hit just .286 in Chicago’s five losses. Well, OK. But, .286 is still respectable batting. (National and American league hitters averaged .263 in the 1919 season.) And, he split his six RBIs between wins and losses. That home run? Jackson ripped it in a 10-5 loss in Game 8.
It probably didn’t help Jackson’s cause that he had White Sox team attorney Alfred Austrian representing him. Austrian, among other things, talked Jackson into signing a waiver of immunity from prosecution. Supposedly, Jackson never confessed to throwing the Series, as Eliot Asinof claimed in the 1963 book Eight Men Out.
(You may know that the most famous story connected with the Black Sox scandal never happened. The story goes that a kid, with tears in his eyes, afraid that his favorite team had thrown the World Series for money, races up the Chicago courthouse steps, tugs at the pants of the great—now sullied—Jackson and pleads to his fallen hero, “Say it isn’t so, Joe.”
Jackson, not a really articulate guy, solemnly says, “It is so, kid.” He then takes one more step toward the clicking cameras, the eager reporters and his doomed, and sealed, fate.
The story is a good one; it certainly captures the poignancy of the moment. Jackson, though, later said that no one–not a crying kid, not a hotshot news man—spoke to him as the grand jury testimony concluded. Apparently, he left through a back entrance and hitched a ride home with a court deputy.)
Baseball expert Bill James has rated Jackson as the 33rd greatest player of all-time. He is, nevertheless, banned from any Hall of Fame honors (If he could get in, he’d be in). Joseph Jefferson “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, dead now for 66 years, remains—like all the Black Sox players—on baseball’s ineligible list.