Shoeless Joe Jackson: The Natural
If there was ever The Perfect Swing it was created by Shoeless Joe. It was described as “elegant” and “balletic”–a “natural” swing. And, it produced some of the most amazing numbers in the game.
In 1910, Shoeless Joe Jackson was traded to the American League’s Cleveland franchise. It was the beginning of an astounding eleven year run for one of the greatest players in the history of baseball. Jackson, to this day, holds the record for highest batting average by a Rookie: .408 in 1911. He still holds the Cleveland (and Chicago White Sox) records for single season and career batting average, triples, plus outfield assists for left fielders. And, he achieved the 3rd highest career batting average for Major Leaguers (behind Ty Cobb’s .366 and Rogers Hornsby’s .358) with .356.
Jackson was born in rural Pickens County, South Carolina, on July 16th, 1887, to a sharecropper and his wife. When Jackson was 6 years old, the family finally settled in a textile mill company town called Brandon Mill (just outside of Greenville, S.C.). Jackson, at age 6, became a “linthead” (mill worker) and pulled 12-hour shifts 5 1/2 days a week.
“I copied Jackson’s style because I thought he was the greatest hitter I had ever seen, the greatest natural hitter I ever saw. He’s the guy who made me a hitter.” — Babe Ruth
The family, even with work, was poor. Jackson had no choice but to work–school in his world was a luxury, so he never learned to read and write. He was, functionally, illiterate. But, he did play sandlot baseball on Saturday afternoons. It was apparent that he was blessed with abundant talent. So, at age 13, Jackson was placed by the mill owner on the company team, which gave him a significant pay raise. He had found what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Jackson became over the next few years the best player in the area. He pitched some, but mainly played the outfield and hit. How he could hit! Soon, the Philadelphia Athletics of Connie Mack came calling and signed Jackson to a pro contract.
While playing semi-pro ball, he had acquired some new spikes–which didn’t fit that well. During the game (in Anderson, S.C.), he had removed his spikes due to the painful blisters on his feet, and batted with no shoes. Some of the players and fans started calling him “Shoeless Joe” and the nickname stuck.
Things didn’t work out too well for Joe in Philly. He was taunted unmercifully by his teammates–and fans–because he was illiterate. Also, he didn’t speak a lot and was very self-conscious–he didn’t engage well with his more “sophisticated” teammates. He ended up spending most of his time in the Minors in the Class D League with the Greenville Spinners. Even though he batted a sterling .358 with them, he showed no enthusiasm for leaving his more familiar surroundings. At age 21, he married a local girl, the beautiful and capable Katie Wynn and Jackson’s life began to change for the better.
He was traded to the Cleveland team and his career took off. He learned to compensate for his illiteracy–his wife did the reading, and when he was on the road, he would listen to his teammates order in a restaurant, and then repeat one of their orders for his own. Jackson was guardedly congenial, and he eventually made friends with his teammates. And, they knew he was the best player on the team, even though Jackson was humble to a fault.
In just 20 games with Cleveland in 1910, Jackson batted .387. In 1911, his Rookie record .408 was 2nd in the batting race only to Ty Cobb’s .420. In 1912, Jackson batted .395 and led the League in triples. In 1913, he led the League in Slugging and recorded 197 hits. In 1915, he was traded to the Chicago White Sox where he continued to star. The White Sox won the World Series over the New York Giants in 1917, and Shoeless Joe batted .307 in the post season.
In 1919, Charles Comiskey, owner of the White Sox, had assembled a juggernaut of a team, starring Shoeless Joe, second baseman Eddie Collins, catcher Ray Schalk, and pitchers Urban “Red” Faber and Eddie Cicotte, among others. This team was the prohibitive favorite to sweep the upstart Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. However, there were serious problems brewing on this team, not the least of which was the players’ intense dislike of the owner Charles Comiskey and what they perceived as his unethical treatment of them. Comiskey was not just seen as unethical by some–he was considered “mean-spirited”–not a very well-liked fellow by his employees. It is probably fair to suggest that he went out of his way not to pay his players fairly–and it was believed that he treated them with contempt.
To add to this problem were a couple of players on the roster who were hardly considered ethical themselves–Chick Gandil and Swede Risberg. Gandil was a low-level brawler/boxer who was viewed as a “thug”. Risberg was kindly described as a “con” man. These two conspired to “throw” the Series to the Reds. They hoped to make a “killing” off the scheme. They “roped in” 2 starting pitchers (Eddie Cicotte, who claimed Comiskey had reneged on his promised season bonus to him and Lefty Williams), outfielders Hap Felsch and Fred McMullin, and also claimed to have “in the bag” Buck Weaver and Shoeless Joe Jackson. An important note: all agreed that Red Faber, Ray Schalk and Eddie Collins were never even told about the conspiracy. They were not in on the “fix”.
Buck Weaver was told about the conspiracy but apparently refused to participate in it. He had a “career” Series, and always claimed that he had nothing to do with the “fix”, although, according to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis (appointed with virtually unlimited powers by Major League team owners to “clean up baseball” in the wake of widespread public perception that baseball was crooked) he didn’t do “enough” to report on his “crooked teammates”. Weaver always maintained that he warned his Manager, Kid Gleason, about the conspiracy.
“Jackson’s fall from grace is one of the real tragedies of baseball. I always thought he was more sinned against than sinning.” — Connie Mack
When the Grand Jury convened, Jackson was apparently told one thing by his attorneys–and his comments to the grand jury were “coached” by “his” attorneys (who were reputed to be on Comiskey’s payroll. His wife was not permitted to read the documents he was forced to sign. Jackson always denied that he had anything to do with the “fix”, but reports by sensation-seeking reporters and others supplied a number of accounts of Jackson’s “confessions” of guilt, all of which were later proved to be false. In fact, an examination of the Grand Jury’s stenographic record shows that at no time did Jackson ever confess to any wrong doing. Years later, Lefty Williams and some of the other-named players explained that Jackson was never at any meetings where “throwing” games was discussed. Williams further claimed that he used Jackson’s name to gain credibility with the other involved players. Williams did say that he had tossed an envelope containing $5,000 on the floor of Jackson’s hotel room, but Jackson said he did not pick up the money. Jackson furthermore said he tried to meet with Comiskey to advise him on what was happening, but that Comiskey refused to meet with him.
The famous “Say it ain’t so, Joe” comment, supposedly issued by a young fan outside the courtroom (asking if the “Black Sox” accusations were true) is apparently a fabrication of an unscrupulous reporter.
It is widely believed that Eliot Asinof, the writer, received some incorrect information regarding Joe Jackson’s “participation” in the “Black Sox” scandal, and included it, unawares, in his classic book on the subject, “Eight Men Out”. It should be pointed out that Asinof got most of his information correct about the evolution of the scandal.
The scorecard record of the Series shows that Shoeless Joe had a magnificent post-season, playing flawless defense, making every possible assist and committing no errors. He also batted a lofty .375, and hitting the only home run as part of his 12 hits!
Yet, thanks to Landis’ pronouncement, Jackson was banned from the game along with the others–he never played in the Majors again. Many have wondered if Landis included Weaver and Jackson on the “banned” list because he thought they could have done more to prevent the scandal. Or,was Jackson included to emphasize that no one player, even a star such as Jackson, was beyond punishment. Well, I guess we will never know.
Jackson and his wife moved back to the Greenville area, successfully operating a dry cleaners and a bar-b-que restaurant. Then they opened Joe Jackson’s Liquor Store, which they operated til Jackson’s death in 1951. Some years after they opened the liquor store, Ty Cobb, accompanied by the fabled sportswriter Grantland Rice, stopped in to the store. Cobb purchased a bottle of whiskey and was about to leave when he turned around at the door, surprised that his old friend didn’t seem to recognize him, “Don’t you know me, Joe?” “Sure I know you, Ty,” said Jackson, “but I wasn’t sure you wanted to know me. A lot of them don’t”.
Jackson was one of the best athletes to ever play ball–he was a true “5-tool” player, hitting 26 triples in 1912, a figure subsequently tied by the career triples leader, Sam Crawford, in 1914, still the Major League record. Jackson won 3 triples titles, and Babe Ruth claimed that he modeled his swing after Shoeless Joe. Jackson was unusually strong for his size (6’1″/200 lbs), and wielded his 36″/48 ounce bat like a toothpick. His bat was called “Black Betsy” and was crafted by a fan named Charlie Fergerson (from the Greenville area). He explained that it was cut from the northern side of a hickory tree, and darkened with tobacco juice to produce the dark-stained look that Jackson preferred. He used the bat throughout his career. In 2001, the bat was purchased for a record $577,610!
The Commissioner’s Office has long maintained (since 1999) that Jackson’s Hall of Fame eligibility remains “under review”.
This writer believes that Jackson should be reinstated–be ruled eligible– and voted in to the Hall.
The MLB All-Century Team committee selected Shoeless Joe Jackson as one of the 12 best outfielders ever. ULTIMATE BASEBALL THE GAME shows Jackson to be one of the top 16 outfielders in history, as reflected in their Player Register.