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The Legend of ‘Shoeless’ Jackson

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In 1887, Joe Jackson was born into a family of mill workers in Pickens County, South Carolina, and his family moved to a textile mill village outside of Greenville, SC when he was 5. When he was 6 years old, he went to work sweeping cotton lint off the floors of Brandon Mill. He never got a chance to have much formal education, and was essentially illiterate his whole life, a fact that would have some bearing on the events that would bring his baseball career to a halt in 1920. At age 13, Jackson started playing for the Brandon Mill baseball team.

Many different legends have circulated over the years about how ‘Shoeless’ Joe got his nickname. In 1949, Jackson told Sport Magazine the real story. “When I was playing for Greenville back in 1908, we only had 12 men on the roster,” Jackson recalled. “I played in a new pair of shoes one day, and they wore big blisters on my feet. The next day we came up short of players, a couple of men hurt and one missing. Tommy Stouch was the manager, and he told me I’d just have to play, blisters or not. I tried it with my old shoes on and just couldn’t make it. So I threw away the shoes and went to the outfield in my stockinged feet. I hadn’t put out much until along about the seventh inning, I hit a long triple and I turned it on. As I pulled into third, some big guy stood up and hollered, ‘You shoeless sonofagun, you!’ They picked it up and started calling me ‘Shoeless Joe’ all around the league, and it stuck. I never played the outfield barefoot, and that was the only day I ever played in my stockinged feet, but it stuck with me.”

‘Shoeless’ Joe’s major league debut was in 1908 for the Philadelphia
Athletics. In 1910, he was traded to the Cleveland Naps, and in 1915,
he was traded to the Chicago White Sox. Two years later, in 1917, the
White Sox won the World Series.

To this day, Jackson holds the third-highest career batting average in
the history of baseball – his average is .356. Jackson, who batted left
and threw right, was such a formidable hitter that even the legendary
Babe Ruth claimed that he modeled his hitting technique after
Jackson’s. “I copied his style because I thought he was the greatest
natural hitter I ever saw,” Babe Ruth said. “He’s the guy who made me a
hitter.” Red Sox pitcher Ernie Shore marveled, “He could break bones
with his shots. Blindfold me, and I could still tell you when Joe hit
the ball. It had a special crack.”

The bat that ‘Roy Hobbs’ uses in The Natural, which he calls
‘Wonderboy,’ was probably inspired by Shoeless Joe Jackson’s favorite
bat, ‘Black Betsy,’ a crooked, hand-whittled dark brown hickory-wood
bat that in 2001 sold on eBay for $577,610.

In 1919, Jackson batted .351 during the regular season and a
spectacular .375 with perfect fielding in the World Series.
Unfortunately for Jackson, the heavily favored White Sox lost the
series to the Cincinnati Reds. This brought on the infamous ‘Black Sox
Scandal,’ which alleged that eight members of the Chicago White Sox had
conspired to throw the Series. Even though Jackson’s performance had
been flawless throughout the series, he wound up being tarred with the
same brush as his teammates.

Jackson and seven other Chicago White Sox players were banned from
baseball at the end of the 1920 season by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain
Landis. A Chicago jury acquitted them of wrongdoing the following year,
but despite that acquittal, Jackson was not reinstated and never played
another game of major league baseball. The White Sox didn’t win another
World Series until 2005.

Jackson maintained his innocence throughout his life, insisting that
although he took $5,000 in bribe money –  which he later tried to
return – he played his best throughout the series. “I tried to win all
the games,” he said in his ‘signed confession.’ Even that confession
would lead to controversy among baseball historians, since Jackson was
functionally illiterate and had such difficulty writing that he usually
had his wife sign his autographs.

“I went out and played my heart out against Cincinnati,” Jackson
insisted in 1949. “I set a record that stills stands for the most hits
in a Series. I made 13 hits, but after all the trouble came out, they
took one away from me. 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.”

Legend has it that on his deathbed, Joe Jackson’s last words were, “I’m
about to face the greatest umpire of all, and He knows I am innocent.”

D.B. Sweeney, who played ‘Shoeless’ Joe in 1988’s Eight Men Out,
couldn’t understand why the legendary player was never granted
redemption. “The more I learned about Shoeless Joe, the more I felt he
was maligned. I realized he got 12 hits, batted .375, didn’t make any
errors. What more could he have done – hit .600?”

After seeing Field of Dreams, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) became
interested in Jackson’s case. He requested a review of Jackson’s record
by Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, with an eye to reinstating Jackson
to baseball, which would make him eligible for the Hall of Fame. Bud
Selig replied, “It is a very tragic story, and I certainly will try to
be objective, as well as fair, in reviewing the entire file.”

Yet to this day, ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson’s name remains on Major League
Baseball’s ineligible list. Unless his name is removed from that list,
he can never be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Sources:
Furman Bisher, “This Is the Truth!,” Sport, 10/49
Ira Berkow, “The Signed Confession of Shoeless Joe,” New York Times, 6/24/89
George Vecsey, “The Shoes of Shoeless Joe,” New York Times, 8/31/88
“Put Your Foot Down on Shoeless Joe: Petition Asks Hall of Fame Admittance,” Washington Post, 7/22/89
“Selig to Review Shoeless Joe File,” Los Angeles Times, 5/29/99

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