One of the most revealing Shoeless Joe Jackson stories comes from Grantland Rice’s autobiography. The legendary sportswriter tells of a 1947 stop he and baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb made in West Greenville. Cobb wanted to visit Jackson at his liquor store.
Cobb: “How’s business.”
Jackson: “Just fine, sir.”
Cobb: “Don’t you know who I am, you old buzzard?”
Jackson: “Sure, I know you, Ty, but I wasn’t sure you wanted to know me. A lot of them don’t.”
It’s a poignant tale, the rags-to-riches-to-ragged life of Shoeless Joe. The illiterate Pickens County native who never attended school earned his nickname as a slugger who once played a game for the Greenville Spinners in Anderson in stocking feet because his new spikes were too tight. That was in 1908, the same year he married 15-year-old Katie Wynn, his wife of 43 years.
But while the 6-foot-1, 178-pound Jackson hit .356 for his Major League Baseball career – still third on the all-time list behind only Cobb and Rogers Hornsby – he is most famous for infamy. Jackson was one of eight Chicago White Sox players banned from baseball for throwing a World Series exactly 100 years ago this month.
The Shoeless Joe sympathy society runs thick from a “Field of Dreams” cornfield movie backdrop in Iowa to South Carolina ballparks.
Charleston’s Riley Park includes “Shoeless Joe’s Hill.”
The Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and Library is adjacent to Fluor Field in Greenville.
Nice touches, as long as you also understand that Joseph Jefferson Jackson remains one of the worst scoundrels in both baseball and South Carolina sports history.
Steroid users of the 1990s are choirboys by comparison. They are guilty of trying too hard.
Career hits leader Pete Rose’s alleged betting isn’t half the baseball crime. He wanted his teams to win.
To call Jackson a bum is unfair to bums. He's a loser who hoped to lose.
Never mind that Jackson hit .375 with 12 hits and a home run as the White Sox lost in nine games to the Cincinnati Reds. A century later, facts more ferocious than a Gerrit Cole fastball implicate Shoeless Joe as a “Black Sox” scandal participant as guilty as any teammate that played poorly on purpose.
While baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned the eight White Sox players for life, they were acquitted by a jury.
Game-fixing was a thing in baseball 100 years ago. Bill James, the most influential person in the sports analytics boom, reports that 38 players were banned or tied to “various scandals” from 1917 to 1927.
Jackson’s “Black Betsy” bat is the inspiration behind the “Wonderboy” showcased in the great Bernard Malamud novel “The Natural” (film version starring Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs).
Babe Ruth really did seek to duplicate Jackson’s sweet left-handed swing.
True, true, all true.
But while some of the Black Sox Scandal is murky, three Jackson facts are as clear this week as in 1919:
- He knew about the conspiracy in which the "Eight Men Out" agreed to split $20,000 from gamblers.
- He accepted $5,000 in dirty money.
- Though he says he tried, he didn't give the money back.
Consider that $5,000 was 83 percent of Jackson’s entire 1919 baseball salary of $6,000. That’s a lot, even when the average U.S. income for 1919 was $3,724.05, per IRS data.
Then we come to those shining World Series stats: .375, zero errors in the outfield over nine games.
“I went out and played my heart out against Cincinnati,” Jackson told the late Furman Bisher, a longtime Atlanta sportswriter who profiled Shoeless Joe for Sport magazine in 1949.
Maybe he played hard. But isn’t a conspirator who allows his fellow conspirators to look bad while he appears innocent the worst kind of criminal fixer?
Or maybe Jackson didn’t try as hard as it appeared.
Not really that dumb
The late Jerome Holtzman, once MLB’s official historian, studied the 1919 World Series. He said Jackson came to bat five times with a total of 10 runners on base over the first five games of the series and failed to get a hit.
The lone home run came with the White Sox behind, 5-0.
Other research shows eight of those 12 World Series hits came during the four games the White Sox tried to win while Jackson went 4-for-16 over the first four losses.
And Shoeless Joe wasn’t as dumb as he let on.
He managed big-city life in Cleveland and Chicago.
He later ran businesses in Savannah and Greenville.
He was 32 years old in October of 1919.
“All the big sportswriters seemed to enjoy writing about me as an ignorant cotton-mill boy with nothing but lint where my brains ought to be,” Jackson told Bisher in 1949. “That was all right with me. I was able to fool a lot of pitchers and managers and club owners I wouldn’t have been able to fool if they’d thought I was smarter.”
The late Hall of Famer Ted Williams said long ago that a lifetime ban on Jackson should have ended when Jackson's life ended at 64 in 1951. He insisted Jackson should be eligible for the Hall of Fame.
Absolutely. He doesn’t still belong on the MLB ineligible list. Let voters decide.
But a hero?