A Star Reborn but Not Reprieved : 70 Years Later, Shoeless Joe Jackson’s Nightmare Has Become Field of Dreams
Shoeless Joe Jackson comes back to us now, seven decades later, seemingly trapped in a never-ending nightmare--still the haunted, broken figure from baseball’s past.
As baseball’s best players go on display in Anaheim today at the All-Star game, spectators might wonder how many of the million-dollar athletes will one day wind up enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But through the mist of time, Shoeless Joe returns, to show us that being an all-star isn’t necessarily enough. He shows us, for example, that you can hit a career .356, the third best average in major-league history, and still not make it.
There was no All-Star game when Shoeless Joe Jackson played in the majors from 1908 to 1920. If there had been, he would have been picked every year.
Two movies, “Eight Men Out” and “Field of Dreams,” and the gambling allegations currently faced by Pete Rose, have awakened interest in Jackson, the brilliant hitter implicated in what is still one of America’s worst sports gambling scandals, the so-called Black Sox episode of 1919.
Jackson, called by Babe Ruth “the greatest natural hitter I ever saw,” was by all accounts a genuine hillbilly, from a tiny South Carolina mill town, who could neither read nor write. He also had an almost child-like sensitivity to his country bumpkin heritage.
Players on his first major league team, the Philadelphia Athletics, delighted in his hillbilly ways (Jackson is said to have traveled with a supply of prime backwoods South Carolina whiskey, or “crystal clear corn” as a writer of the day described it.) He was also the unhappy target of numerous practical jokes. As a young major leaguer, he became so homesick he left Philadelphia three times and returned home to Greenville.
Textile mill-sponsored baseball teams were at the core of the sports culture of turn-of-the-century mill towns of the south. Shoeless Joe, in 1908, was playing for Greenville, S.C., of the Carolina League when Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics heard about him.
It was while playing for Greenville that Jackson picked the nickname that stuck. His feet were blistered one day by a new pair of baseball shoes, so Jackson took them off for one at-bat near the end of the game. In his stocking feet, he hit a triple.
Mack purchased Jackson’s contract from the Greenville for $325 and sent him a train ticket to Philadelphia.
But he didn’t want to go. He told everyone that he wanted to play for Greenville. Friends pleaded. Unhappily, he finally left--the unhappy major leaguer. He played in five games in 1908, went three for 23, and went home.
The same happened in 1909. He went five for 17 in five games, couldn’t bear the homesickness and the practical jokes, and went home again.
At the end of the 1909 season, Mack gave up. He sold Jackson to Cleveland. In 1910, Cleveland got 20 games out of him before he went home. This time, he was hitting .387 when he left.
The 1911 season established Jackson as one of baseball’s great hitters, nearly as great as another Southerner, Ty Cobb.
Cobb and Jackson hit .400 throughout the summer of 1911. They entered September both well over .400, with Jackson’s average slightly higher. In early September, Cobb and the Detroit Tigers visited Cleveland.
During batting practice of the series’ first game, Cobb, always the psychologist, approached Jackson. Witnesses swore the conversation went like this:
Cobb: “Kid, it’s too bad you didn’t come up in the other league.”
Jackson: “Why? I’m doin’ all right in this one, ain’t I?”
Cobb: “Yeah, but if you’d come up in the National League, you could have led the league in hitting.”
At that, Cobb turned on his heel and walked off.
Cobb finished the 1911 season at .420. Jackson hit .408.
In another season, during another Cobb-Jackson fight for the batting championship, Jackson again approached Cobb behind the batting cage, as he often did. Jackson began to speak to Cobb, who suddenly looked at him as if he were a stranger, and walked away.
Cobb enjoyed telling the story all his life, explaining that Jackson was furious at being “high-hatted” by another Southerner.
“That one of his old Southern buddies should have publicly scorned him got him so angry he lost all interest in the batting fight. He went the whole series without a hit,” Cobb said. “After the last game of the series, I was real friendly and shook his hand.
“After he saw what I’d done, that made him even more angry and he went a week without a hit.”
A left-handed hitter, Jackson was about six feet tall and 200 pounds. Decades later, old-timers recalled he had a curious mannerism at the plate. Before the first pitch, he’d carefully draw a line in the dirt along his side of home plate, then drew another line at a right angle to it, to the outside of his right foot.
He was convinced warm bats produced more hits than cold ones, and took great care to make sure his bats were warm overnight. He carefully wrapped them in towels before leaving ballparks.
In nine full major league seasons, in an era when bat control, baserunning and bunting were blossiming, he hit only 54 home runs, but had 307 doubles and 168 triples. He was also considered a premier left fielder.
He was, by accounts of the day, a truly natural hitter. No student of pitchers, this guy.
Cobb himself once told Joe Williams, New York World Telegram sports columnist, that for Jackson, striking a baseball with a bat was the simplest exercise in the world.
“I may be wrong, but I always believed he gave little thought to the pitchers he faced or the business of hitting,” Cobb told Williams.
“Most pitchers have certain weaknesses, but I don’t believe Jackson ever looked for them . . . he just seemed to stand up there and wait for the ball . . . then he walloped it.
“He hit all kinds of pitching and to all fields. He had a smooth, graceful swing and it was practically impossible to fool him.”
Jackson played four full seasons with Cleveland, until 1915, when, needing money, Cleveland sold him to Charles Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox for $31,500.
The addition of Jackson made the White Sox a dominant team in the era immediately preceding the ascendance of the Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig New York Yankee teams.
Eddie Cicotte was considered by many the best right-handed pitcher in the American League--even better even than Walter Johnson. From 1917 through 1920, Cicotte won 90 games. In two of those seasons, his earned-run average was less than 2.00.
Claude (Lefty) Williams was another dominant pitcher. Second baseman Eddie Collins hit .319 that year, on his way to the Hall of Fame. Right fielder Nemo Leibold hit .302. The lowest batting average in the starting lineup was .256.
With Jackson hitting .351, the White Sox won the American League pennant by 3 1/2 games and were 5-1 favorites to beat Cincinnati in the World Series.
They didn’t, and almost from Game 1--won by Cincinnati, 9-1--some suspected the White Sox were taking a dive.
As noted New York gambler Jack Doyle told New York columnist Bob Considine years later: “Even the dogs in the streets knew it was rotten.”
Everyone in baseball denied it, at first. Then the rumors grew stronger, that the White Sox had gone in the tank. An Associated Press reporter, Hugh Fullerton, was the first to report that the Series had been fixed.
It was an era when some owners were growing wealthy in baseball. Jackson, at $12,000, was the highest paid player in the 1919 Series. Gamblers, it came out later, were offering the players sums of money that exceeded their salaries.
White Sox owner Charles Comiskey publicly denied the charge and offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could prove otherwise. But he also secretly paid a team of private detectives $11,000 to tail the players and ferret out the truth.
Then Comiskey held up the White Sox’s Series checks.
It was almost a year before eight players--Jackson, Cicotte, Oscar Felsch, Chick Gandil, Fred McMullin, Charles (Swede) Risberg, Buck Weaver and Lefty Williams--were fingered. Comiskey notified each by telegram that they were indefinitely suspended.
In July, 1921, a trial began in Cook County Supreme Court in Chicago. Prosecutor Edward Prindeville asked the jury for five-year jail terms and $2,000 fines for each.
It is baseball legend that following the proceedings one day, a dirty-faced newsboy on the courthouse steps tugged at Jackson’s sleeve as he left and said: “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”
(Jackson, years later, said the incident never happened; that it was invented by a Chicago Daily News writer, Charley Owens.)
America was outraged. Angry mobs gathered outside the courtroom each day. Buck Herzog, a National League player who had nothing to do with the Black Sox and who attended a court session one day, was attacked and slashed with a knife by a fan who thought he was one of the Black Sox.
Americans had turned from World War I to baseball with great passion, and many felt betrayed as rumor became fact.
To condense a long, complicated procedure, the jury acquitted all the players. Baseball Commissioner Judge Landis, however, didn’t. The next day, he slapped all eight players with lifetime bans.
Cicotte and Gandil, it was reported at the time, were the ringleaders among the players. Cicotte, unknown to his indicted teammates, had admitted accepting $10,000.
Ex-boxing champion Abe Attell was thought to be the fixer, or at least the front man for more powerful gambling figures, such as Arnold Rothstein of New York. Rothstein, it was reported, won $60,000 betting on Cincinnati. Rothstein said he won nothing and knew nothing.
Attell was indicted, along with the players, but was also found not guilty later.
Jackson’s involvement has always been a source of controversy. He at first denied any involvement, but later, before the trial began, apparently phoned Cook County Chief Justice Charles McDonald and confessed, then signed a confession.
He feared for his life and is said to have told McDonald that he was afraid “Swede Risberg will have me bumped off.”
Jackson allegedly told McDonald he accepted $5,000, but later had a change of heart and tried to give the money back.
He allegedly signed a confession, however, disappeared and said during the trial that he couldn’t remember the conversation with the judge.
For those who came to believe the White Sox-Reds Series had been fixed, evidence seemed to be ample. There was Cicotte’s odd, wild throw to first base in Game 1 on a critical, yet seemingly routine double-play ball.
There was Williams, known for his control, walking batters in key situations.
Jackson’s performance, however, supported the notion he backed out of any arrangement. He hit .375 for the Series, handled 17 errorless chances in the field, and hit the Series’ only home run.
In 1933, Jackson made a public attempt to clear his name. Letters were written on his behalf, including one to Landis, who never answered it.
In 1921, after the lifetime bans came down, everyone agreed that Jackson showed horrendous judgment at even meeting with the fixers, which he did admit to.
Joseph Jefferson Jackson, at 34, went home to South Carolina.
He lived the rest of his life in Greenville, a half-mile from the house where he was born. For years, he and his wife, Katie, ran a successful liquor store. He was active in a South Carolina semipro league.
In his 1954 autobiography, “The Tumult and the Shouting,” sportswriter Grantland Rice described a 1947 drive through South Carolina with Ty Cobb. Upon reaching Greenville, Cobb told Rice he wanted to see Jackson and asked a policeman where his store was.
Cobb entered the store to find Jackson arranging a shelf.
“How’s business?” Cobb asked.
“Just fine, sir,” Jackson said.
“Don’t you know who I am, you old buzzard?” Cobb said.
” . . . yes, I know you,” Jackson said. “I just didn’t think anyone I used to know up there wanted to recognize me again.”
Shoeless Joe Jackson died on Dec. 5, 1951, of a heart attack. He was 64.
He lies in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Greenville, S.C.