Wednesday, May 11, 2016

America's Game: Joe Jackson, Sox Not Shoes

America's Game: Shoeless Joe Jackson, Sox Puppet

Born into an impoverished family, Joseph Jefferson Jackson seemed doomed to illiterate destitution; instead of going to school at six years old, Joe began working in a local textile mill. At age 13, he was the star pitcher on the company baseball team.  Here, his rise to Baseball Legend began. A wicked fastball broke a catcher's arm and quickly got him moved to the outfield, but seeing he was sharp at the plate as at the mound, the 1907 minor league Greenville Spinners extended an invitation to join their ball club.  Learning the $75.00 monthly salary was more than twice his current paycheck, Joe eagerly agreed.  He was less excited about his new spiked shoes, though, as they left him with painful blisters.  One day, he limped up to the plate, kicked off the cleats, and belted a triple; as he slid into third base, an opposing fan yelled "You Shoeless Scum, you!"  and the moniker "Shoeless Joe" stuck.

1908 was a milestone year for Jackson; he married Katie Wynn and Philadelphia Athletics owner Connie Mack bought his contract. However, instead of traveling to Philadelphia, the homesick newlywed disembarked from the Philadelphia-bound train at Richmond and returned to Greenville on the first available train.  In 1909, Mack sent Jackson to Savannah, where he batted a league-leading .358. In 1910, he was recalled to Philadelphia. Jackson struggled with relentless hazing from veteran teammates but declined Mack's offer to hire a tutor for the still illiterate player. Unable to get along with his teammates, Mack traded Jackson to the Cleveland Naps (later Indians) in 1910.

"Shoeless Joe" Jackson, 1911 Cleveland Naps
By Heritage Auctions [Public domain],
 via Wikimedia Commons

Cleveland suited the player much better.  Here Jackson hit an astonishing .407 during his first full season in the big leagues, second only to legendary outfield Ty Cobb. The new Major Leaguer developed a taste for fine food and extravagant clothes; ironically, he loved expensive shoes. His laid-back, friendly personality endeared him to fans, his superstitious collection of hairpins that resided in his back pocket amused them, and his training regimens enthralled them. He built his upper body by holding his favorite bat, “Black Betsey,” in one hand until his arm muscles quivered and he was forced to change sides while his vision exercises included staring at a lit candle, one eye at a time, until his vision began to blur.

Jackson’s legend grew with his prowess. The Washington Senators' star pitcher Walter Johnson called him the greatest natural ballplayer he had ever seen, Cobb acknowledged Jackson’s ability, and Babe Ruth increased his powerhouse status by copying Jackson’s feet-together batting stance and power stride.  Halfway through the 1915 season, Jackson was on the move again, courtesy of a trade to Chicago White Sox.  After leading the team to victory in the 1917 World Series, Jackson and the 1919 White Sox steamrolled through the competition.

 Joe Jackson (center)  at 1917 World Series
By Bain News Service [Public domain],
 via Wikimedia Commons

However, the team was the most proficient, but they were also likely the most miserable.  Club owner, Charles Comiskey notoriously underpaid successful players.  Jackson’s .351 batting average placed him third overall in the Americal League for the season; contemporaries Cobb led the league and Ruth was a distant 8th.  However,  Jackson's $6000 salary was a distant third to Ruth's $10,000 and Cobb's $20,000. Disgruntled and angry, eight team members, including Jackson, agreed to throw the 1919 World Series in exchange for a shared $100,000.

"Fix these faces in your memory." 
By Heritage Auctions [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
However, not everything went as planned. At the start of Game 6, the series stood Cincinnati Reds 4, Chicago White Sox 1.  When the gamblers did not pay the promised post-loss installments,  the players broke off the deal and hustled to get back in the game.  The Sox won games six and seven before losing the Series and title in Game 8.  After rumblings of fixes during the 1920 season, a grand jury was convened and found evidence of the "Black Sox" scandal.  Jackson and his teammates were indicted and brought to trial in 1921, but all eight players involved were acquitted. However, the newly appointed first league commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, sought to make examples of the group, banning all of them from baseball permanently.

Joe and Katie Jackson eventually retired to Greenville, South Carolina. There, Joe Jackson operated many businesses, including a pool parlor and a liquor store, until his death in 1951.  One famous story is that Ty Cobb once entered the liquor store, and Jackson pretended not to recognize Cobb.  Stunned at the behavior, Cobb finally asked Jackson, "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."

Jackson consistently pleaded his case to be reinstated: he claimed he was not part of the original group approached by the high-stakes gamblers and that he tried to tip Comiskey off when he found out about the plan.  Jackson also pointed out that his .375 Series batting average was higher than his regular season one, and he had no fielding errors, even in the losing games. However, nearly one hundred years after the trial ended, Shoeless Joe Jackson remains banned from Cooperstown.

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