Say What You Will About Shoeless Joe, But These Things Ain’t So
News arrived this week that Major League Baseball has once again turned down an appeal to reinstate Shoeless Joe Jackson. This continues a tradition going back to 1951 when Happy Chandler failed to respond to a resolution by the South Carolina Legislature. Apparently it is the policy of baseball commissioners to never reverse mandates made by a former commissioner–news that does not bode well for a certain hit king and his fans.
While reading the reports of the Jackson non-decision, it struck me that Joe Jackson may be the most misunderstood great player in baseball history. For more than 100 years, Jackson and his image have been twisted, stretched and molded to fit whatever needs are desired at the time–blending the line between fantasy, mythology and reality. This is unfortunate for Joe Jackson and his memory; his story was great enough without the perpetuated lies and inaccuracies.
First and foremost, forget Hollywood. Joe Jackson was not a sparkly-eyed, right-handed hitting, left-handed throwing Ray Liotta, speaking in a New Jersey accent about his love of the game and how being kicked out of baseball was like “having a part of me amputated,” and how he would have played for food money. Jackson was, of course, a southerner who sported a decidedly hillbilly look with big ears and a bad haircut. And as for playing for mere food money, that’s a quaint cliche, spread exhaustively by those with other more mundane jobs, but that thought hasn’t really been considered by the country’s elite baseball players since 1869.
Joe Jackson was not the simpleton many have made him out to be. Writers of his time, playing up any angle for effect, got much print and mirth out of Jackson’s illiteracy and supposed ignorance. A poem entitled “Joe Jackson” which appeared in Baseball Magazine in the mid-1910s is typical, stating in part: “Of higher mathematics I guess he doesn’t think./ In fact, Phi Beta Kappa to Joe may mean a drink.” Pretty hilarious stuff to be sure, but in reality he was no more of a simple-minded rube than any other young kid from a small town who showed up to play ball in the big cities at the time–albeit one who was illiterate. There is ample evidence that rumors of Jackson’s lack of basic intelligence were greatly exaggerated. Joe became a shrewd businessman with time and ran a very successful dry-cleaning business in Savannah after leaving baseball. It eventually grew to involve several locations around town and provided him and his wife with a very good income (not an easy task during the Depression). They later moved to his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina where he ran a successful liquor store for the duration.
Joe Jackson was not inclined, as claimed in numerous stories perpetuated by writers like Grantland Rice, to roam hotel lobbies and the like sans footwear. His nickname–and it is one of the all-time greatest–came from one solitary minor league game in which blisters from new shoes made him do without for that day. But that was the only time he ever played shoeless and he certainly was partial to footwear on a regular basis throughout his life.
Although the story of the small boy–his little heart broken by the gravity of the gambling scandal– who pleaded with Joe, “Say it ain’t so,” is unquestionably priceless and has become entrenched in baseball lore and even part of everyday vernacular, in reality it bears about as much actual truth as the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree or Al Gore inventing the internet. At the time journalists played free and loose with facts and never let the lack of truth hinder a good story. The legend of “say it ain’t so” was first told by Charley Owens of the Chicago Daily News and was said to have occurred when Jackson was leaving the courthouse after his appearance before the grand jury on September 28, 1920. It was quickly picked up and spread in all its gloria-perpetua. But Jackson himself stated in future interviews that it never happened. And no one else who was supposedly there ever confirmed it. But it was a great tale, nonetheless.
One myth that baseball owners and writers desperately wanted to spread was that Jackson and his cohorts were the only ones who had ever even considered committing the dastardly crime of gambling on baseball games. In truth, baseball at the time was lousy with gamblers–the players, owners and writers knew it. And it did indeed threatened the very fabric of the game. The truly amazing part of the World Series scandal of 1919 was not that it happened, but rather that it didn’t occur earlier. Writers of the day took great pains to paint baseball in warm, fuzzy tones as the bastion of good will, fair play and all that is great about America. While baseball is certainly a great game, the rest of the stuff written was largely only of use for spreading on farm fields. Owners schmoozed, wined and dined writers and often even controlled their employment and it was understood that part of the writer’s job was to build up “The Image” and ensure that the titans made money and the public had unfailing trust in the game they were watching. Something needed to be done about the gambling problem without admitting that baseball had a gambling problem and the Black Sox made convenient, if not unfortunate, scapegoats to ensure that no one would ever again question the integrity of the game.
Possibly the biggest myth about Joe Jackson was that he became a broken, embittered, sad figure who whiled away his remaining years in obscurity after his very public shaming at the hands of the baseball establishment. This is told poignantly in Ken Burns’ Baseball. While the Burns series is very entertaining, it occasionally seems more interested in entertainment than in stating factual accounts. Burns’ section on the Black Sox scandal speaks with authority and espouses as definite fact accounts which are still highly debated by researchers. It contains the following summation from the sanctimonious soapbox of Jackson’s contemporary, baseball writer Hugh Fullerton (whose efforts helped break open the scandal), speaking of Jackson: “There came a day when a crook spread money before this ignorant idol, and he fell. For a few dollars he sold his honor.”
Burns then concludes with Daniel Okrent telling the sad story of Jackson meeting Cobb years later at his store in Greenville. Jackson acted like he didn’t know Cobb and when Cobb finally asked him why, Jackson supposedly stated, very morosely, “I just didn’t think anyone I used to know up there wanted to recognize me again.” Once again, the truth is noticeably stretched to provide an entertaining moment.
In Ty Cobb’s 1961 autobiography (the one written with the aid of the questionably-reputable Al Stump) he gives this account, which he says happened in 1946: “I was motoring through Greenville, South Carolina with Grantland Rice. We’d been to the Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta, and were headed north. I told Grant, ‘I’ve got an old friend in this town. Let’s look him up.'”
Cobb asked a policeman and was directed to Jackson’s store. After Jackson waited on Rice and Cobb without apparent recognition, finally Cobb said, “Don’t you know me, you old so-and-so?”
“Joe spun around and grinned all over his face. ‘Sure! But I didn’t think you knew me after all these years. I didn’t want to embarrass you or nuthin’.’ I shook his hand. ‘Joe, I’ll tell you how well I remember you,’ I said. ‘Whenever I got the idea I was good hitter, I’d stop and take a good look at you. Then I knew I could stand some improvement. I don’t think I ever saw a more perfect swing than yours.’ Old Joe, who died 4 years later, seemed pleased at my remark.”
It’s a nice, if somewhat self-serving, story but when read closely, it has a vastly different tone than the pitiful tale told by Okrent in which Jackson seems ashamed to even be recognized by a former member of the baseball establishment.
And while in Cobb’s version Grantland Rice accompanied him, Rice wrote in his “The Sportlight” syndicated column on June 7, 1947 this account of the story: “Cobb, who had a deep admiration for Jackson’s hitting and his outfield play, told me of the saddest story I ever heard about a man who had once known baseball greatness. ‘I was passing through Greenville, South Carolina and asked where Joe worked,’ said Ty . . .” Rice proceeds to give Cobb’s version and concludes with, “So there was the finish of one who might be called baseball’s greatest artist.”
This makes it sound as if Rice was not with Cobb since he stated that Cobb told him the story. Rice and Cobb were both known to stretch and even manufacture the truth when it came to Cobb-stories over the years. Several of Jackson’s friends later told writers of the day they were introduced to the great Ty Cobb by Joe Jackson in his store or on the streets of Greenville, so it’s apparent that Cobb did visit Jackson, but the content of their conversation and the embarrassment of Jackson seems unlikely to be as told by Cobb and Rice and Burns.
There are many accounts from friends, relatives and former residents of Greenville that Joe Jackson was not a sad, broken, embarrassed man. Quite the opposite. His store was a known hangout to socialize and he had many friends and relatives who enjoyed his time. The people of Greenville who knew and loved Jackson in his post-baseball days remember a smiling, happy man, always ready to hand out advice or to help kids, frequently giving them baseball tips and buying them ice cream. He was very popular with the folks of his hometown and they never doubted his claims of innocence.
And Joe didn’t really miss out on much baseball. He continued to play the game regularly until the early 1930s, initially barnstorming for cash in northern areas soon after his dismissal from organized ball, but later playing throughout the south. He often put in full seasons of more than 100 games for semipro teams in places like Bastrop, Louisiana, Americus, Georgia and Waycross, Georgia. He invariably was the one of the best hitters ever seen on these fields and frequently led his teams to championships. After he stopped playing, there are numerous reports of his coaching area kids in Greenville and he remained active on semipro circuits as a manager and even as a league president for a time.
The basic question of Joe Jackson’s guilt in the Black Sox scandal and the extent of his dishonest play will never be known. Did he do it or didn’t he? Was he just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was he a knowing participant in the fix or just a guy who learned of the deceit of others but was rebuffed by management when he tried to report it? The larger question, for Joe Jackson and his supporters, is: was Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ decry of a “lifetime” ban actually an eternal ban. The lifetime ban for the man with the .356 career major league batting average should have run out with Jackson’s death in 1951. But it seems that for baseball, lifetime means a lot longer than just a man’s time of life.
Doug Wilson is the author of biographies on Mark Fidrych, Brooks Robinson and Carlton Fisk. Visit him at Doug Wilson’s Baseball Bookshelf.