Some ardent fans of baseball believe Shoeless Joe Jackson died of a broken heart. I can’t judge whether or not that’s true, but I can understand how such an opinion might come about. It is often argued that the kind-hearted, generous baseball legend deserves a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Shoeless Joe remains on Major League Baseball’s ineligible list for that honor.
As most baseball lovers know, one of the greatest players of all time became caught up in the whirlpool of the most infamous crime in professional sports. Instead of being recognized for his lifetime batting average of .356, third on the all-time list in the Major Leagues, Shoeless Joe Jackson’s name comes up in association with the Black Sox Scandal of 1919.
Joseph Jackson was born in Pickens County, South Carolina on July 16, 1887, the first of eight children born to George and Martha Jackson. When Joe was five years old, the family moved to the neigboring community of Brandon Mill. At age six, he worked at the local cotton mill as a linthead, or clean-up boy. During the years most kids attend school, Joe had been working twelve-hour days in the mill. Hence, he had no formal education and never learned how to read or write.
The one thing young Joe really enjoyed and excelled at, was sandlot baseball. A local scout for the Boston Braves team noticed his talent and hired the boy to play ball on Saturdays for the Brandon Mill team. Jackson gave his $2.50 earnings to his parents in order to help support the family.
The minor league Greenville Spinners contracted Jackson to play for the team for $75 a month. Then, in 1908, at age 21, he “X’ed” an agreement to play in the majors with the Philadelphia Athletics. He lasted five games with the A’s, surrendered to homesickness and returned to Greenville. That same year Jackson married his childhood sweetheart, Katherine Winn.
After about a year-and-a-half Jackson was traded to the Cleveland Naps. He played the season’s last 20 games and racked up a .387 batting average in 75 appearances on deck. The next year, 1911, was Jackson’s official rookie year. He hit an amazing .408 average. He is still the only rookie in the Majors to ever hit more than a .400. The next year, Jackson averaged .395 and also led the American League in triples. This earned him an endorsement with the makers of the “Louisville Slugger” bat, Hillerich and Bradsby. In 1913 he led the Naps team with 197 hits for a .551 batting percentage.
Joe Jackson was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 1915 for two outfielders, one pitcher, and $31,500. Two years later, he starred in the team’s season that led to the White Sox’s World Series Championship over the New York Giants. That year, Jackson’s batting average was a respectable .307. By 1919, Shoeless Joe Jackson was well on his way to becoming a baseball legend because of his stellar talent and performance. 1919 was also the year of heartbreak and scandal, it was when his name became associated with what became known as the “Black Sox” conspiracy.
It began for Jackson on the last road trip of the 1919 regular season. While taking a stroll, teammate Chick Gandil approached Jackson and told him that seven players planned to throw the World Series. Gandil offered Jackson $10,000 to help them do so. Jackson refused. A couple of nights later, back in Chicago, Gandil raised the amount to $20,000, he said that the Series would be thrown regardless of Jackson’s decision. Again, Jackson said no. To seal the fix, Gandil dropped in Jackson’s name with the mobsters.
On the day of the opening game of the World Series, Shoeless Joe ran into mobster “Sleepy Bill” Burns in the hotel lobby. Burns believed Jackson was in on the fix, so Burns chatted about some of the details of what was to come down. At this time, Jackson understood the conspiracy was on and that his name was being bandied about as one of the fixers. Jackson feared that he would be implicated in a serious crime, so he went to team owner Charles Comiskey. Nobody knows exactly what Jackson told Comiskey but the owner turned down Jackson’s fervent requests to be benched for the Series.
Shoeless Joe ended up playing in the World Series. Official records show that he played to win. His performance was nearly perfect. He had scored five runs and drove in six. In fact, his Series average was an amazing .375 and he set a new World Series record with his twelve hits. Playing defense, 30 balls came to Jackson, he committed no errors with any of them.
The story continues after the last game of the World Series. Teammate Lefty Williams visited Jackson in Jackson’s hotel room with an envelope filled with $5,000 in cash. Jackson refused the money, but Williams threw it onto the floor and departed. The next day, Jackson brought the envelope to Comiskey’s office, but Comiskey’s secretary didn’t allow Jackson in for a visit. The secretary said he understood the reason Jackson had come over, but the player should simply accept the $5,000 and go home. Jackson said that he wrote to Comiskey about the money but the team owner never said there was a problem with it.
Grand Jury deliberations began in 1920. Allegedly, the illiterate Joe Jackson was advised by Comiskey’s lawyer, Alfred Austrian, and Comiskey, himself about how to testify. Comiskey was fearful that if the truth that Jackson had spoken with the team owner about the fix and the $5,000 in the envelope before the investigations, that Comiskey would have to testify that he knew about a fix.
Comisky believed, correctly, that if Jackson’s real story came out, it would damage the owner’s reputation. Comiskey also feared that he would risk being banned, altogether, from baseball. Jackson believed, wrongly, that Austrian was also his legal representative, so Jackson followed Austrian’s instructions, to the letter, during the Grand Jury inquiry. This resulted in Jackson being indicted.
When the eight White Sox players’ trial commenced in June of 1921, court officers discovered many documents in the case file were missing. Among the missing papers were records of the players’ grand jury testimony. The trial dragged on for several weeks, but the jury went into deliberation for only a few hours. Their verdict? Not guilty of all charges.
Afterwards the freshly appointed baseball commissioner, Judge Landis, was not as lenient. Landis banned all of the accused players from professional baseball, permanently. Shoeless Joe was banned from the game because he allegedly failed to report to the team about the plan to fix the Series. The 33-year-old player’s professional career was over.
Shoeless Joe Jackson and his wife returned home to the South and opened up a dry-cleaning shop. He continued to accept offers to play in exhibition games and in semi-professional activities. His popularity with the fans never faded. Jackson’s health eventually declined to the point that he stopped playing the game when he was 45-years-old in 1933.
Baseball fans still refer to the phrase, “Say it ain’t so, Joe”, when the subject of Shoeless Joe Jackson comes up. The story is likely a fabrication by a sensationalist sports page writer, but it is a traditional baseball tale. It’s usually told something like this:
As Shoeless Joe Jackson left the court building with the sheriff after his grand jury testimony, hundreds of youngsters were crowded around to see their hero player. Supposedly one little boy came out of the crowd and grabbed Jackson’s sleeve and asked, “It ain’t true, is it? Say it ain’t so, Joe”. Jackson looked the boy in the eye and answered, “Yes kid, I’m afraid it is.” The sheriff and Jackson left the scene and the crowd was silent. Finally, the little kid sighed, “Well, I’d never have thought it.”
How did he get the moniker “Shoeless”? Legend has it, that during his first season with the Greenville Spinners, the 19-year-old, Jackson was sidelined with severe blisters on his feet because of problems with a new pair of shoes. The next day, the manager took him off the sidelines and ordered Jackson to play, despite the blisters. He tried on the old shoes, but they hurt his feet too. So, he played in his stockinged feet, only. In the seventh inning, Jackson smacked a triple baser. One of the fans near third base noticed the stocking clad feet and yelled out, “You shoeless son of a gun, you!” Even though that was the only game Jackson played sans shoes, the name stuck anyway.