Banned for life by Kennesaw Mountain Landis for his role in the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal
Led his League In
Two Times Each
One Time Each
On Base Percentage
Ninety-one years after his last major league game, nearly sixty-one years since his death, Joe Jackson remains in the public eye. Ask a young fan who Tris Speaker or Nap Lajoie were, and the odds are strong they won’t have a clue. Ask that same kid who “Shoeless Joe” was, they’ll mention “Field of Dreams”, or “Eight Men Out”, or perhaps even that he played for the White Sox, and was banned from the major leagues for life.
In an era when pop stars are elected and anyone can be a TV hero if they’ll eat the right combination of repulsive tidbits, Joe Jackson still inspires debate among multiple generations. He has achieved the remarkable- life beyond death. Joseph Jefferson Jackson will never be heard from again, but the myth of “Shoeless Joe” will outlive every one of us.
How did this happen? Is he worthy of all the fuss? Now that we’re here… what should be done about his exclusion from baseball, and its Hall of Fame?
“I ain’t afraid to tell the world it don’t take school stuff to help a fella play ball.” -Joe Jackson
Born in Brandon Mills, South Carolina in 1887, Joe was the first of eight children in the household of George and Martha Jackson. This was a different time, and a different place… this was rural South Carolina, twenty-two years after the Civil War. Money was scarce, life was hard… many children worked to help support their families… Joe Jackson was no exception. Joining his father for work in a textile mill more often than not, Joe received very little formal education as a child. While this was probably a necessity for the Jackson family, it proved to be tragic in Jackson’s adult life. An illiterate man from the rural south, Jackson was out of place in the northern cities of the American League. While he was incredibly talented on a baseball field, he was just as unsophisticated away from the yard. A very public man with very little knowledge outside of his own little world, Jackson would one day become an easy mark for men with thick wallets and thin character.
Signed originally by the Philadelphia Athletics, Jackson spent most of his first two pro seasons in the minor leagues, though he did appear in a total of ten games for the A’s. Following the 1909 season, Jackson was traded to the Cleveland Naps (later the Indians). After one more year in the minors, Jackson cracked the Naps’ lineup in 1911, he was twenty-one years old.
“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
As a rookie, Jackson would post the best batting average of his career, batting an astonishing .408 in 147 games. The next year he hit .395, following that with a .373 mark in 1913. Obviously a unique talent, Jackson had taken the game by storm.
In August of the 1915 season, Cleveland traded Jackson to the Chicago White Sox…it was here that Jackson would achieve his greatest victory, and it was here that his major league playing career would prematurely end in public disgrace.
Lost to history is the fact that Jackson’s White Sox defeated the New York Giants in the 1917 World Series. For a brief time the Sox sat atop the baseball world with a team full of stars, and legitimate hope for multiple championships. At the close of the 1917 season, Jackson appeared to be truly blessed. While millions of young men worldwide were being caught in the web of World War I, Joe Jackson was a baseball superstar, the best player on the best team. He had no way of knowing it, but his life in baseball had reached its peak, Jackson was 28-years-old.
Like so many others, Jackson played very little baseball in 1918, due to military obligations, which brings us to 1919, the year that changed everything…
“God knows I gave my best in baseball at all times and no man on Earth can truthfully judge me otherwise.” -Joe Jackson
At this point in MLB history, the finances of the game were almost completely the opposite of what they are today. The team owners controlled everything, there was no players’ union, there were no guaranteed contracts, and there was nowhere to turn if a player didn’t like what his owner was offering. “Take it or leave it” was the law of the day for the players, which left many of them unhappy when they realized how much cash the owners were making from their labor. This left many players open to temptation, Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb were accused of throwing games for money, and there were widespread rumors that the 1914 Philadelphia A’s had thrown the Series to the Boston Braves. It may seem hard to imagine in today’s world, but the World Series was thrown in 1919 on a promise that any player involved would receive $10,000.
A group of gamblers that stretched from Boston and New York to St Louis and Chicago conspired with Sox first baseman Chick Gandil and pitcher Eddie Cicotte to have the Sox intentionally lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Gandil and Cicotte invited fellow players Fred McMullin, Buck Weaver, Swede Risberg, Lefty Williams, Happy Felsch and Joe Jackson to join the scheme. Most of the players agreed, Weaver always maintained that he did not, as did Jackson.
Jackson was indeed approached to join in the conspiracy, he admitted he had been offered $10,000, and had declined. He claimed he had been approached a second time, and had been offered $20,000, which he had also declined. Jackson knew what was going on, but had rejected attempts to recruit him into the mix. He did not inform team or league officials of the scheme, instead, he asked to be benched for the Series, so that no one would ever accuse him of participating if word leaked out.
Jackson’s request was refused, he played in the Series, and by all accounts, he gave his best effort to win. In that Series, which was a best-of-nine, eight games were played- Jackson batted .375, with one home run, 5 runs scored and 6 batted in.
Beyond the statistics, the search for evidence of Jackson’s involvement in the fix gets messy. Both Jackson and teammate Lefty Williams testified that on the night following the 5th game of the Series, Williams came to Jackson’s hotel room and offered Jackson an envelope containing $5,000 in cash. Jackson refused the money, which touched off an argument between the two- Williams claimed to have thrown the envelope down and left it there with Jackson. Neither man ever claimed that Jackson had agreed to accept the money, but both men stated under oath that Williams had left it in Jackson’s room.
Jackson claimed that sometime during the next day or two he had taken the envelope with the $5,000 in it and attempted to meet with team owner Charlie Comiskey, to inform him of the fix. Jackson claimed that Mr Comiskey’s secretary told him he could not meet with Mr Comiskey, as he was busy. Jackson claimed to have waited there for an hour, and was then told again that Mr Comiskey was busy, so he went home.
None of the players or gamblers involved ever stated that Jackson was present at any meetings between the two groups. None ever claimed that Jackson had ever spoken directly to any of the gamblers involved in the fix. Jackson claimed to have attempted to inform Mr Comiskey of the fix, and that he was refused a meeting.
“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
As we all know, Jackson, and the other seven players were all banned from major league baseball for life, prematurely ending their careers. Jackson returned to the south, where he played ball for several seasons, before retiring. Joe and his wife Katie owned and operated a liquor store in Greenville, SC until Joe’s death in 1951.
For obvious reasons, Joe Jackson did not achieve any of the “milestone” statistics associated with election to the Hall of Fame. He did not play long enough in the majors to reach 3000 hits, and he played in an era when no player had yet approached 500 home runs. One cannot statistically compare Jackson to players like Cobb, Speaker and Honus Wagner because Jackson was sent home at age 30.
What we can say is that Jackson still to this day has the third highest lifetime batting average, hitting .3558, which trails only Cobb and Rogers Hornsby. Knowing that, and knowing Babe Ruth thought so highly of him that he actually copied his swing… .I think it’s safe to say Mr Jackson would have walked into the Hall with ease had things gone differently in 1919.
Just like Pete Rose, Joe Jackson is currently not eligible for election to the Hall of Fame because he was declared permanently ineligible to play again in the majors. For Jackson to get in, the first step would have to be reinstatement to the game by Commissioner Selig. If reinstated, Jackson would then have to be elected to the Hall, which seems unlikely, considering Jackson was eligible for Hall consideration for decades and never got in… that rule was changed following Rose’s banishment, up to that time, ineligible players could still be elected to the Hall.
There is debate as to whether Jackson should have been banned in the first place, there is also debate as to whether or not Jackson should be reinstated and allowed a chance at Hall election now, but there is no debate that “Shoeless Joe” Jackson was one of the finest hitters in the history of Major League Baseball. Each of us will have to decide for ourselves whether Jackson should be remembered as a member of the group that nearly destroyed baseball as we know it, or whether he was just an unsophisticated ball player who got in over his head before he realized what was happening.
Either is possible, and maybe he was some of both. Should Jackson be left right where he is, or should baseball move on in this case and let Jackson’s heirs celebrate him as a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame?