Joe Jackson was born July 16, 1887, in Pickens County, South Carolina. He died sixty-four years later, on December 5, 1951, exactly sixty-two years ago. He is remembered for two things: his nickname, “Shoeless Joe,” and his lifetime ban for participating in the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” conspiracy to throw the World Series. He is permanently ineligible for the Hall of Fame, but if anything, that has only added to his legend: the apocryphal phrase “Say it ain’t so, Joe” is more famous than all but a handful of Hall of Famers. The 1988 movie Eight Men Out and the 1989 movie Field of Dreams tried to rehabilitate his memory.
It is time for baseball to lay to rest the ghost of Joe Jackson.
The popular conception of Joe Jackson was framed by Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book “Eight Men Out” and John Sayles’s 1988 movie of the same name. As Asinof’s obituary notes, the book was “exhaustively reported and slightly fictionalized”; the movie, being a movie, was undoubtedly more so. But here’s what we know.
Joe Jackson was a poor illiterate Southern boy who started playing professional baseball as a teenager, and married a 15-year old girl when he was a 19-year-old minor leaguer. He only played nine full seasons and saw brief cameos in four others, receiving cups of coffee in 1908-10 and missing most of the major league season in 1918 as he played ball for a team at a Delaware shipyard. His final season was one of his best years, hitting .382/.444/.589 in 1920 a year after the 1919 World Series.
There were immediate allegations that the players had accepted money to lose the Series, and a trial following the 1920 season. There is no doubt that Jackson was among the takers. During that trial, Jackson gave the following testimony:
Q: Did anybody pay you any money to help throw that series in favor of Cincinnati? A: They did.
Q: How much did they pay? A: They promised me $20,000, and paid me five.
Q: Who promised you the twenty thousand? A: “Chick” Gandil.
Q: Who is Chick Gandil? A: He was their first baseman on the White Sox Club.
Q: Who paid you the $5,000? A: Lefty Williams brought it in my room and threw it down.
Q: Who is Lefty Williams? A: The pitcher on the White Sox Club.
In 1956, Gandil confirmed it, giving his own account to Sports Illustrated:
The players involved were most of the top guys on the club. There was Joe Jackson, the left fielder; Buck Weaver, third base; Oscar Felsch, the center fielder; Swede Risberg, our shortstop; Eddie Cicotte, our leading pitcher; Fred McMullin, a utility infielder; Claude Williams, who was basically perhaps even a better pitcher than Cicotte; and, finally, myself, the first baseman…
I have often been described as one of the ringleaders of the Black Sox scandal. There’s no doubt about it. I was.
In 1949, Jackson gave his byline to an article in Sport Magazine maintaining his innocence by pointing out his .375 batting average during the World Series. However, as Dan McLaughlin, the Baseball Crank, points out, “Jackson batted .545 in their three victories but .286 in the five losses, .267 in the first four defeats.”
Jackson’s premature retirement secured for him the third-highest batting average in history: his .356 is behind only Ty Cobb‘s .366 and Rogers Hornsby‘s .358, and 11 points higher than fourth-place Tris Speaker. But his career was vastly shorter than theirs, as they accumulated 13082 and 11992 PA, respectively, and he only came to the plate 5693 times. (Lefty O’Doul has a career average of .349, but in only 3658 PA.)
The Chicago White Sox were the favorites to win the best-of-nine 1919 World Series, but they lost, five games to three. Perhaps bad karma was partly to blame for the team’s subsequent 88-year championship drought, as the White Sox went from 1917 to 2005 without a ring — an even longer dry spell than that of the more celebrated Red Sox (though not as bad as the crosstown Cubs).
Asinof died forty-five years after writing his most famous work, and after his death his notes were sold to the Chicago History Museum. This reignited the controversy, as a pair of attorneys and baseball fans wrote in Chicago Lawyer Magazine that Asinof’s notes were threadbare in places, suggesting that more of the book had been fictionalized than was previously guessed. Indeed, Asinof apparently admitted as much:
According to Asinof, on the advice of counsel, and apparently seeing a movie deal in the future, “[t]wo fictitious characters were inserted [into “8MO”] that existed nowhere but from my typewriter, designed to prevent screenwriters from stealing the story and claiming their material was from the public domain.”
Jackson was acquitted at the 1920 trial — but that was partly because many of the grand jury records went missing during the trial, including his and his teammates’ confessions, which finally turned up “four years later in the hands of [White Sox owner Charles] Comiskey’s lawyer, George Hudnall, who never explained their reappearance.”
Joe Jackson was clearly guilty of taking a bribe, he clearly confessed, and his court acquittal likely owed to illegal tampering. But his fate was sealed when baseball owners turned to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to clean up their game. Landis combined a stiff-necked moral rectitude with a serious blind spot when it came to baseball. As Andrew Zimbalist writes, on an earlier occasion when a lawyer “attempted to present evidence about exploitation in baseball’s labor market, Landis asserted, ‘As a result of thirty years of observation, I am shocked because you call playing baseball labor.'”
Landis famously said that he would ban players for association with gambling “regardless of the verdict of juries,” and that perfectly described his feelings on the matter: his job was not to ensure a fair trial, it was to ensure that justice was served to protect baseball itself.
Joe Jackson was guilty, and yet he may still have been a victim, because he faced the single man most likely to overpunish him. It is hard to know now whether the integrity of the game could have survived if Joe Jackson (or Buck Weaver or Happy Felsch or any of the others) had been permitted to return, contrite, after a year or two away from the game.
Landis saw no shades of gray on that issue. He was determined to wield an iron fist to rid the game of gamblers, and his inflexibility has continued to be felt in the game, as when Happy Chandler unfairly suspended Leo Durocher for a year for being friends with gamblers, when baseball permanently banned Pete Rose for gambling, when baseball permanently banned George Steinbrenner for hiring a gambler to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. (He was, of course, later reinstated.) The ghost of Landis could even be seen when Major League Baseball decided to investigate Alex Rodriguez for playing poker in Miami.
Joe Jackson was a brilliant hitter, one of the finest that baseball has ever seen. But it’s still a bit unfortunate that he’s so much better remembered than his contemporaries. His career partly overlapped with that of Harry Heilmann, the great Tiger outfielder of the 1910’s and 1920’s. Heilmann retired with a .342 batting average, tied with Babe Ruth for 7th-most in history, and until the book Moneyball helped bring sabermetrics to a wider audience, batting average was perhaps the single best-regarded offensive stats by many baseball fans. Heilmann is a Hall of Famer, and he stopped playing in 1932, 12 years after Jackson was forced to retire. But his name recognition pales in comparison to Joe’s.
You could say the same of Eddie Collins, who is almost certainly the second-greatest second baseman ever, behind only Rogers Hornsby. He debuted two years before Jackson and played a decade beyond Jackson. He was Jackson’s teammate on the White Sox from 1915 to 1920, but escaped the ban because he was not involved in the fix. Nonetheless, while most serious baseball fans have heard of Collins, few realize just how good he was: for one thing, by Wins above Replacement, his career was almost exactly twice as valuable as Jackson’s, in a little over twice the plate appearances. (It is not a sure thing that Jackson could have doubled his own numbers if given the chance; after all, he never had a decline phase.) By WAR, he is the 11th-most valuable position player of all time. Did you know that?
The Black Sox scandal was one of the darkest moments in baseball history, and while Landis’s heavy-handed tactics may deserve little praise, baseball is nonetheless fortunate to have survived it. After all, in the early part of the 20th century, baseball’s popularity was not much greater than that of boxing, a sport that was utterly destroyed by gambling. Joe Jackson was a casualty, if not completely a victim. He should be remembered as a devastating hitter, but he should be remembered in the context of his contemporaries rather than apart from them.
In Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella watched Joe Jackson walk into his life in an Iowa cornfield, alone. He should not be remembered that way. It is time to put to rest the tortured memory of Joe Jackson, and remember him as he was: a great hitter who is now gone, like Ed Delahanty or Dan Brouthers or Edd Roush or Gabby Hartnett or Harry Heilmann. He doesn’t deserve to be forgotten just because he took five thousand dollars from a gambler to throw the World Series. But he doesn’t necessarily deserve to be better remembered than his contemporaries, either.
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