Shoeless Joe Jackson Died 62 Years Ago Today

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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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


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Spargil The Chef
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Spargil The Chef
2 years 7 months ago

My good friend, Ralph Emerson once said, “[He] was not a [righteous] [man] nor was [he] an [ugly], but damn did he know how to [play the game of baseball].”

cass
Guest
cass
2 years 7 months ago

I see similarities between Shoeless Joe’s fame and Armando Galarraga’s almost perfect game. Due to the botched call, it became far better known than any actual perfect game in recent years and is, perhaps, more famous today than all but one perfect game in the history of the sport.

CubsOfTheNorth
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CubsOfTheNorth
2 years 7 months ago

Considering how Charles Comiskey treated his players, can anyone really criticize Jackson, or the others, for taking the money?

Jaack
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Jaack
2 years 7 months ago

Yes. While Comiskey was a cheapskate and did underpay his players in comparison to the rest of the league, their salaries still provided for very comfortable living. And even if they were poor, they still had no right to commit fraud.

Jamie
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Jamie
2 years 7 months ago

By accepting a bribe to throw the World Series, they did not defraud Charles Comiskey, they defrauded every fan who bought a ticket to watch what purported to be a legitimate sporting event. This was, in the scheme of things, a small harm, but even a small harm unnecessarily inflicted on others for personal gain should be considered unethical.

Eric R
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Eric R
2 years 7 months ago

“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.”

But aren’t such things often the case? I don’t have post-season splits handy, but David Ortiz’s career numbers:

In wins .333/.429/.660
In losses .228/.318/.407

Should we ban David Ortiz as well?

cass
Guest
cass
2 years 7 months ago

Yes. He’s a steroid cheat. You can clearly tell he shot up roids before the games his team won and didn’t before games his team lost.

(In all seriousness, you make a good point. Especially considering the sample sizes.)

Eric R
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Eric R
2 years 7 months ago

Similar to a stat that Sandy Alderson mentioned recently that circulated around the Mets message boards — when you hit more HRs than your opponent, you win 75% of the time.

Absolutely true. Then there were a dozen comments about how the Mets had better add some HR hitters rather than non-HR hitters.

I checked some other stats, and more TB and reaching base more times in a game were more like 80%. As you’d probably expect. Without the context of what a range of ‘we did more of these than you did’ winning percents, the 75% figure doesn’t really mean anything.

Eric R
Guest
Eric R
2 years 7 months ago

Beltran, career post-season

wins, 117 PA .400/.504/.884/1.388
losses, 102 PA .259/.373/.459/.831

Toss Beltran from the sport!

ARod
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ARod
2 years 7 months ago

To all of you who complained about all my HR’s in one-sided losses…

KISS MY CHEMICALLY ENHANCED ASS!!

tz
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tz
2 years 7 months ago
Billy
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Billy
2 years 7 months ago

I roll my eyes a bit when announcers say “Team A wins X% of the time (where X is a large percentage) when they perform action B (where B is something like hitting home runs that clearly helps you win ballgames), but only Y% of the time (Y being a small percentage) when they don’t. Look how one-dimensional and dependent team A is on doing action B!”

It’s also like stats along the lines of “Good hitter A has hit .390 against Team B for his career” where good hitter A is a young-ish player for the entirety of whose career team B has had an awful pitching staff.

I don’t know the numbers these things need to be compared to usually, but it often stands to reason that what they’re saying may not really be that surprising.

Anyhow, I think they key point Alex hit on was that Jackson confessed. You guys may be talking past each other on his batting avg. in individual games and, as far as my semi-functioning brain can tell, it doesn’t serve as evidence for either side.

MS
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MS
2 years 7 months ago

I would argue WAR is not the most appropriate stat to judge players from the early 1900’s by. Accurate defensive metrics aren’t really available and BSR numbers may not be that accurate either. Specifically for Joe Jackson, using any counting stat — even one as advanced as WAR — is harsh considering he was banned from the game. Joe Jackson did not lose years due to injury or a sudden decline in talent (both of which are somewhat dependent on skill), he was prevented from playing.

If you look at as his wRC+ he ranks 8th best all-time! Same for wOBA (highly correlated with wRC+). He is a career .356/.423/.517 hitter. There is a legitimate argument (which you make) that Joe Jackson didn’t have to go through a decline phase. But that is part of his allure.

He virtually never struck out (3.7% K%) and walked a decent amount (9% B%). And he stole over 200 bases at a 76% clip.

I guess my point is he was pretty great, and I feel he stands out against his contemporaries a little more than you are giving him credit for.

Gabriel
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Gabriel
2 years 7 months ago

In this case, I think the article is pretty fair. I guess where I disagree is the idea that we should forget Joe Jackson for some reason. Why? It’s a good, compelling story. Nobody pretends he’s the third best player in baseball history, even if his average is third best all-time. Most everybody agrees he made a big mistake.

Aren’t the stories one of the things that make us like baseball?

Jon L.
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Jon L.
2 years 7 months ago

Are you sure he had 76% stolen base success? Bref has him sporting an absolutely terrible (by today’s standards) stolen base percentage in some seasons, but has no caught stealing data in other seasons. For instance, from the prime ages of 26-28, he stole a total of 62 bases and was caught 49 times. Presumably for this reason, Bref shows Jackson providing below-average baserunning value for his career (even without the decline phase).

This flies very much in the face of the image of Joe Jackson as an especially fleet-footed outfielder and baserunner. Makes him seem more like a superior dead-ball era version of Matt Holliday.

W
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W
2 years 7 months ago

Jackson’s testimony appears to indicate that he took the money, but did NOT throw the series. Whether he threw the series is still debated. Jackson’s story is still interesting. Your article makes me question very little about the Jackson story, and much more about Fangraph editorial standards.

Wobatus
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Wobatus
2 years 7 months ago

That isn’t trial testimony, it’s grand jury testimony.

wobatus
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wobatus
2 years 7 months ago

He says what he says, but Jackson could have taken the Fifth yet didn’t. He isn’t cross-examined by his own counsel to flesh out the story as that doesn’t happen before a grand jury (he obviously didn’t have a lawyer yet, as he’s marched right from Comiskey’s lawyer to the grand jury). He’s illiterate and clearly being taken advantage of, but comes off as honest. He only gets counsel later, for the trial (paid forby whom it is unclear). There is very little evidence of him not playing well. Cicotte, Williams, Risberg and Gandil clearly played to lose.

But he did take the money. Maybe he’d have more clearly thrown some games if he had been paid what he was promised.

Pretty “funny” the confessions show up 3 years later when the players sue Comiskey.

Spencer Dean
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Spencer Dean
2 years 7 months ago

I want to know the base-out state of his hits/outs and his base running numbers.

TrisSpeakerFanboy
Member
Member
TrisSpeakerFanboy
2 years 7 months ago

Great article Alex. These historical pieces are a great change of pace. Keep em coming!

james wilson
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james wilson
2 years 7 months ago

Gambling payoffs were widespread in baseball, but not throwing games. A side-bet might affect the outcome of the game but commonly it was not expected to. Cobb is said to have made his millions in Coke (he did) but he made the money for his investments in gambling. The Yankee first baseman Chase was considered the master of passing around work to his teammates.

The players experienced the results of owners playing with a stacked deck, and were not shy about going to the well themselves. Resentment ran high. To hold players to a higher standard than owners for “the sake of the game” might run thin after a few years, especially when a man can visualize the end of the road. The Federal League gave players a taste of freedom, but when it folded you got the Black Sox scandal toot suite.

IKnowIknow
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IKnowIknow
2 years 7 months ago

By ignoring facts to make for a better story, a sinister villain was created. CC was cheap, his tactics to save money no doubt got under the skin of his players. He even, allegedly, stole candy from a baby. He did not force the players hand. Joe Jackson made $6000 (sabr) to play for the White Sox in 1919. The aav for a person in Illinois was $3938.14 (IRS). Jackson, or any of the other offenders ‘needing to take the money’, perhaps wondering where their next meal would come from is insulting.
Joe may be the face of this because, at the time of the scandal he was the MVP of the team. The fact that he had not peaked also adds the glamour of, what if…

Jack
Guest
Jack
2 years 7 months ago

I remember reading something about Bill Wambsganss that went something along the lines of this:

Long after retirement, Bill Wambsganss was complaining to a friend that the only thing people remembered about his career was that he made an unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series. His friend replied, if you had not done that, nobody would even remember you.

tyke
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tyke
2 years 7 months ago

i really like what hallofstats.com has done with their formulas. by their calculations, here is how jackson stacks up against the comtemporaries mentioned:

shoeless joe: 130 hall rating (think of it like ops+, where 100 is an average HOFer; 113th all-time [including pitchers])
heilmann: 138, 94th all-time
collins: 254, 14th all-time
ruth: 400, 1st all-time, duh
cobb: 319, 6th all-time
delahanty: 149, 69th all-time
brouthers: 180, 45th all-time
roush: 88, 388th all-time
hartnett: 121, 151st all-time

so, basically, jackson was already a lock for the HOF, and if he had played for another decade could have very well cemented himself as one of the ~20-50 best players ever

Jon L.
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Jon L.
2 years 7 months ago

If he’d played another decade? Jackson was already 33 by the end of the 1920 season. Another decade, and he would have been 43. For comparison’s sake, obvious HOFer Jimmie Foxx accumulated 91.1 WAR through his age 32 season, and 10.1 after. Paul Waner, a good comparison for Joe Jackson who had a very long career, still earned 55.6 WAR by his age 32 season versus just 19.1 WAR after. Jackson was booted from the game immediately following a great season, but the likelihood is that he’d already provided the vast majority of the value he could provide on the baseball diamond.

tyke
Guest
tyke
2 years 7 months ago

i mentioned a decade because alex seemed to allude to the fact that collins played for a decade more and had basically 2x the WAR that joe did. and maybe not necessarily a decade more after 33, but a decade more of playing time total.

Scot
Guest
Scot
2 years 7 months ago

Just curious.

The reason betting on baseball by a participant in MLB is banned is because the outcome of the game could be influenced by the decision of the betting participant. Makes sense.

So are MLB players and personnel banned from participating fantasy leagues? I am not aware this is true. But why not? Some include cash payouts.

Surely any batter who has an opposing pitcher on his fantasy team is willing to strike out in a late inning garbage game to help his fantasy team. And what happens when it is late in the season? Could a pitcher serve up a gopher ball to one of his fantasy “teammates” to help his place in the fantasy league standings? How is this not another form of external influence for personal gain?

Or is the only reason MLB doesn’t worry about fantasy league participation is because the players are paid so much?

Just curious.

travolta19
Member
travolta19
2 years 7 months ago

I seem to remember an article from around 5 years ago that said they could NOT participate in Fantasy Baseball, because of those reasons. Too lazy to look it up, but my understanding is that they cannot play.

Scot
Guest
Scot
2 years 7 months ago

This will be new because I remember Greg Maddox asking a reporter about the performance of a particular player that day. When asked why he wanted to know, “Because he is on my fantasy team.”

Greg Maddox = Pete Rose?

Dan L
Guest
Dan L
2 years 7 months ago

There are already 35 comments, so I doubt anyone will notice this one. But I feel compelled to point out that it’s kind of ridiculous to argue that Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was far and away the best position player on a team that perpetrated one of the most widely publicized scandals in American sporting history (one that occurred, no less, at the height of baseball mania, amidst post-war malaise, and with lingering public anti-trust sentiment), shouldn’t be remembered more than Harry Heilman, a man who spent his whole career on also-ran teams, is kind of ridiculous. As Fangraphs readers, we probably all roll our eyes at artificial storylines and hot takes, but at the end of the day, sports are entertainment; they exist as much for the stories and the mythology as anything else. And when it comes to those things, Shoeless Joe can’t be beat.

Jasper
Guest
Jasper
2 years 7 months ago

Getting into the argument on weather Jackson threw the series. I for years bought the argument based on his hitting stats. About a 12 years ago there was a column in my local paper where the journalist thought that despite the batting that Jackson’s fielding was to be suspect.

I just looked over the box scores and play accounts on BR and looking at just triples shows a very interesting story where it tends to show that Jackson may well have been instrumental to throwing the series. As we know triples are very rare today, in the late 1910’s the were rare but were still hit a much higher levels than today. Triples are generally hit to deep center (especially in older parks with 450+ center fields) or to RF, not many are hit to LF because of the short throw once the LF gets to the ball. In that series there were 6 triples hit by the Reds and 2 were to LF, while it may just be a problem with a SSS, Jackson was considered to be a great fielder but in a series he is supposed to be losing his defense likely helped cause losing games 1-3.

Notes

Game 1 (Reds win)
Triple to lf-cf by Ruether scoring 2, WPA of 17%, #1 play of game
2 other triples hit but o CF and RF
Game 2 (Reds win)
Triple to lf by Kopf scoring 2, WPA of 18%, #1 play of game
Game 3 (Sox win)
No Triples
Game 4 (Reds win)
No Triples
But back to back hits in the 5th to LF score the only runs on the game (both unearned because of a error by Cicotte)
Game 5 (Reds win)
Triple to CF
Game 6 (Sox win in 10)
Triple to RF
Game 7 (Sox win)
No Triples
Game 8 (Reds win)
Triple to CF-RF

Jasper
Guest
Jasper
2 years 7 months ago

EDIT: Losing game 1,2,&4, the Sox won game 3

Hurtlockertwo
Guest
Hurtlockertwo
2 years 7 months ago

Shoeless Joe was totally uneducated and starting working at age 6 or 7 as his family was obviously dirt poor. Doesn’t this mitigate a little the fact that he was weak when a large stack of cash was put in front of him? Baseball didn’t become a person’s main “job” until many years after Joe stopped playing. Players in the 50’s often had offseason jobs to make ends meet. Just a little perspective before we judge him almost a 100 years later.

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