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“The Case of Shoeless Joe Jackson”

July 5, 2007

Joseph Jefferson Wofford Jackson was born in Pickens County, South Carolina, in 1888. His father was a tenant farmer and a sawmill worker in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. When Joe was only three years old, the family moved to Brandon Mill, near Pelzer. He was six years old when he began working beside his father in the mill. Joe never went to school and never learned to read or write. At the age of thirteen, young Joe began working in the cotton mill full time, and started playing baseball in the textile league, earning $2.50 a game.

He continued playing textile baseball until 1908, when he signed a contract with the Carolina Spinners of the South Atlantic League. It was in a game with the Spinners that he acquired his nickname. He had worn a new pair of shoes that produced painful blisters on both feet. He played the next game wearing no shoes. When the barefooted youngster scored, a fan cheering for the opposing team shouted, “You shoeless sonofagun!” Although he played only one game without his shoes, the nickname, Shoeless Joe Jackson, lasted throughout his career.

Connie Mack, owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, purchased Jackson’s contract. Joe played less than two seasons before being traded to Cleveland. In 1911, his first full season, he batted .408. The next two seasons, he was second only to Ty Cobb for the batting title.

In 1915, Jackson was traded to the Chicago White Sox. He led the team to a World Series title in 1917.

After the White Sox unexpectedly lost the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, eight players, including Jackson, were accused of losing games intentionally as part of a gambling scheme to throw the World Series. In September 1920, a grand jury was convened to investigate.

Almost every authority who has examined the records indicates that Shoeless Joe was innocent, though several of his teammates may well have been guilty.

Jackson’s testimony was, “I played my heart out against Cincinnati. I made 13 hits. I led both teams in hitting with .375. I hit the only home run of the Series. I came all the way home from first on a single and scored the winning run in that 5-4 game. I handled 30 balls in the outfield and never made an error or allowed a man to take an extra base. I threw out five baserunners during the series.”

The extent of Jackson’s participation remains controversial. Jackson maintained that he was innocent.

In his book Eight Men Out, Eliot Asinof writes that because Jackson was illiterate, he had little awareness of the seriousness of the conspiracy. He went along only because his family was being threatened. Most damaging, Jackson took $5000 from the gamblers. After the series was over, he tried to give the money back.

In 1921, in a jury trial, he and the other seven so-called “black sox” were acquitted of all charges related to the scandal.

Resulting damage to the sport’s reputation led the owners to appoint Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the first Commissioner of Baseball. The day after the players were acquitted, Landis issued his own verdict. Joe Jackson and his seven teammates were barred from professional baseball for life.

In 1922, Jackson returned to Savannah where he had played minor league baseball and operated a successful dry cleaning business. Joe continued to play for semipro and industrial league teams throughout the South until the early 1930’s.

In 1933, the Jacksons moved back to Greenville, South Carolina. Joe and his wife opened a liquor store. One story about Shoeless Joe took place at his business. Ty Cobb and sportswriter Grantland Rice entered the store to buy a bottle.

After Cobb completed his purchase, he asked Jackson, “Don’t you know me, Joe?”

Jackson replied, “Sure, I know you, Ty. I wasn’t sure you wanted to know me.”

A proverb says, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” Deserved or not, Joe lost his good name.

Jackson is still regarded as one of the best natural hitters of all time. His approach to batting had a great influence on younger players, especially on Babe Ruth. His lifetime batting average of .356 is the third highest in baseball history. He excelled in the outfield. He had a powerful throwing arm. His glove was referred to as “the place where triples go to die.”

Shoeless Joe Jackson is among the finest athletes the Palmetto State has ever produced. Sadly, he is best known for being a member of a team that cheated, though it is almost certain that he, himself, was innocent. Many believe that Joe belongs in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Near the end of his life, Joe said, ”I can say that my conscience is clear, and that I’ll stand on my record in that World Series. I’m not what you call a good Christian, but I believe in the Good Book, particularly where it says ‘what you sow, so shall you reap.’ I have asked the Lord for guidance before, and I am sure He gave it to me. I’m willing to let the Lord be my judge.”

Shoeless Joe Jackson died in 1951. His last words are reported to have been, “ I’m about to face the greatest umpire of all, and He knows I am innocent.”

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, July 2007

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