Joseph Jefferson Jackson. Shoeless Joe. American. Ballplayer. Rookie of the year in 1911. World Series champion of 1917. Black Sox member of 1919. Hero. Cheater. Legend. There has been so much said and written about Joe Jackson. There is no middle ground for many baseball fans concerning this man and the scandal which rocked the world. Whether you believe the speculation that Jackson was a part of the Chicago White Sox team that threw the World Series, or his stats which suggest a man doing everything he could to win the Series, he was a man first and foremost.
Forget the stats. Forget the alleged scandal, which was never proven in court. Forget the rumours and suspicions. Let’s talk about the Reserve Clause. This was put in every professional ballplayer’s contract in the Golden Age of baseball, which made him a slave to his club’s manager. The player could not leave a team unless the owner gave permission. With salaries being completely unreasonable, the owners took advantage of the players by reaping all of the profits, while charging the players to rent their uniforms and pay for their cleanings. No player could decide to play on another club because this agreement between the owners meant the player would be blackballed from playing anywhere else in professional baseball for the rest of his life. And nobody was as cheap as Charles Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox in the early part of the century.
Comiskey treated his players, including Jackson, like his personal property and not human beings. His team was making him a very rich man, winning the World Series just a few years before the scandal and dominating the professional game like no other. Babe Ruth himself said he modeled his batting technique after Jackson because of his raw, pure ability to hit the ball. Jackson’s career .356 batting average was good enough for third on the all-time list, behind the leader, Ty Cobb. One could argue that Comiskey should have pampered his players to keep them happy and healthy as Jackson and the other White Sox could have been a dynasty for many future profitable years. But all Comiskey could see was immediate returns. Even during and after the plot to throw the Series, Jackson’s wishes to address his guilt with Comiskey fell short because the Chicago owner could only see how the scandal would impact his finances and not the mark still left on the game itself.
Jackson didn’t have the luxury of thinking about himself. He never did. The Pickens County, South Carolina native worked in a textile mill at the age of six because his family needed the money. There was no time for education with a twelve-hour shift of back-breaking labour to do each day. At thirteen, Jackson was offered a position on the mill’s baseball team as a pitcher, but after he broke a batter’s arm with a pitch he spent the rest of the time in the outfield. His incredible strength and lack of formal academic instruction made him unique but also a target. People either drooled over his physical ability for baseball or mocked him for being a bit slow in the thinking department. Quirks like naming his bat Black Betsy did not help matters.
When playing a game, before his eventual ascension to the professional ranks, Jackson suffered from blisters on his foot from his new pair of cleats. As the quirky side of his personality took over, he played the rest of the game in his stocks, making a fan shout out “You shoeless son of a gun, you!” as he ran the bases. The name stuck.
What do you do with a man like Jackson? His gifts set him on pedestals and into pitfalls. The poor southern boy became a man who never lost his love of the country air. He never liked the big city and was constantly targeted for pranks by his teammates. At 21, he married a 15-year-old girl before signing a Major League contract with the famous Connie Mack and his Philadelphia Athletics. He had no desire to be a famous ballplayer. But his skills made money he couldn’t make in the mill. His only escape for him and his wife was his baseball salary. Eventually he was dealt to the White Sox, where his talents caught the eye of Comiskey.
Jackson’s talent has never been questioned. Even in the 1919 World Series against Cincinnati Reds, people would have prayed for numbers Jackson put up. He batted .382 and made great plays in the outfield during the Series. If he was trying to lose on purpose, you could never have guessed it by looking at his play.
What stands out above all of the great plays and tainted memories is Joe himself. He died of a heart attack in 1951, at age 63, without having any children. Jackson floundered before that time, trying at first to stay in the game, even if it was semi professional or in the independent leagues. When that didn’t work, he tried his hand at being an entrepreneur by opening a dry cleaning business. Again, not the greatest success to match his baseball career. He finally opened a liquor store which he ran until his death.
It was in that liquor store years later that his life came full circle. Ty Cobb entered the store and instantly recognized his former friend (or at least what Cobb considered to be a friend – a whole other story). Jackson made no sign of recognition, forcing Cobb to say, “Don’t you know me, Joe?” Jackson replied, “Sure, I know you, Ty, but I wasn’t sure you wanted to know me. A lot of them don’t.”
This was a man of the earth. He was used as a child to make money. He was used as an adult to make money. His usefulness was subjective according to society’s ideas of right and wrong. He was a titan at the plate, and yet a meek mortal who wanted to confess to a devil who was out for himself. An uneducated man who just liked playing baseball like no other. Jackson was a hero to so many people because of his deeds, not his intentions. Did he intend on being a man worshipped today for his incredible play? Did he intend on being a man who people fight each year for having his banishment from the game lifted so he can take a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame? Judging by Jackson’s own words, he would think this great debate over the famous Shoeless Joe Jackson would be a lot of fuss over nothing. He loved baseball because it was fun and it paid the bills.
Joe was a simple man with simple needs. For a man who had no children, there seems to be a whole lot of people fighting for his legacy to be honoured. Now, read the praise, the prose, the poetry, and the pain that is out there about Joe. When the famous fabled line, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” appears, think of this: maybe Joe is smarter than people thought. He knew baseball was just a game. It is something that crime should not have tried to taint. It is something that you don’t put before your family. It is something beautiful and something simple. It is a part of life, which moves on with or without you. In the days of ARod, Braun, PEDs and media frenzies, let’s not forget the real Joe. Let’s not forget the man who admitted guilt and sacrificed the attention on him because he felt the game was better off without even a hint of his impropriety. That is what a real hero does.