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Shoeless Joe Remains a Scapegoat

With the recent announcement of a new class of inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the skeletons in the closet come front and center once again.

Pete Rose and  and “Shoeless Joe” are becoming baseball’s odd couple – both ineligible for the Hall of Fame because of a lifetime ban, two of just 15 ever issued by the commissioner of baseball. No person ever permanently banned has ever been reinstated.

Most sports fans know a lot about Pete Rose: however, their knowledge about Jackson is sketchy, sometimes inaccurate. So for the record – the facts.

Joseph Jefferson Wofford Jackson was born to a poor family on July 16, 1889 in Greenville, South Carolina. School was never a part of his life for at the age of six he was already working in the cotton mills as a cleanup boy.

By the time he was 13 he was laboring a dozen hours a day along with his father and brother. His sole escape from the back-breaking work, the din and dust of the mill, took place out in the grassy fields playing baseball. He was a natural right from the start, good enough to be noticed and recruited to play for the mill team organized by the company.

One hot summer day Jackson played the outfield wearing a new pair of shoes. They pinched his feet, so he took them off and played in his stocking feet. A sportswriter who saw what he did dubbed him “Shoeless Joe.” The name stuck even though that was the only time Jackson is reported to have played ‘shoeless.’
He despised the name for he felt it reinforced his country-bumpkin origins, the fact that he could not read nor write.

Perhaps that was why when he played for the Chicago White Sox after stints with the Philadelphia Athletics and Cleveland Indians, he wore alligator and patent leather shoes – the more expensive the better. It was if he was announcing to the world: “I am not a Shoeless Joe. I do wear shoes. And they cost a lot of money!”

He was the greatest ball player ever from South Carolina, one of the top players of all time. His lifetime batting average was .356, topped only by Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby.

Four times he batted over .370. Babe Ruth copied his swing claiming Jackson was the greatest hitter he ever saw. Ruth, Cobb, and Casey Stengel all placed him on their all-time, all star team. He was such a remarkable fielder that his glove was called “the place where triples go to die.”

In the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown one can find Jackson’s shoes. His life size photograph is there. But he is not there even though others with far less credentials and far more soiled reputations are. Shoeless Joe had to leave the game in disgrace, one of the members of the “Black Sox” accused of throwing the 1919 World Series.

He was asked under oath at trial:
“Did you do anything to throw those games?”
“No sir,” was his response.
“Any game in the series?”
“Not a one,” Jackson answered. “I didn’t have an error or make no misplay.”

In fact, Shoeless Joe was under-stating his accomplishments which included the only series home run, the highest batting average, the collecting of a record dozen hits, while committing no errors.

It took the jury a single ballot to acquit all eight accused players of the charges against them. But the very next day baseball’s first commissioner – Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis – issued a verdict of his own. He banned all eight players from baseball for life.

Landis was brought into organized baseball in the fall of 1920 with a lifetime contract and a mandate to clean up the game using whatever methods he saw fit. He had the reputation of being a vindictive judge, a hanging judge – and he was all of that.

Every baseball commissioner since Landis has refused to act on Shoeless Joe’s behalf.
Commissioner Faye Vincent said: “I can’t uncipher or decipher what took place back then. I have no intention of taking formal action.”
Commissioner Bart Giammatti said: “I do not wish to play God with history. The Jackson case is best left to historical debate and analysis. I am not for re-instatement.”
All Commissioners have kept to the “company line.”

Public pressure keeps increasing year by year. But the ban still remains. It is a story that won’t go away, like a riddle inside a jigsaw puzzle inside an enigma. It is a story about a great baseball injustice – – – a talented player caught at a crossroad in American history who became a victim, a scapegoat so that the sport of baseball could offer up a cleaner image.

BOOKENDS: The Story of Baseball in 100 Photographs (Time Inc. Books, $30.00, 224 pages) is an overreaching effort as  its title proclaims. It is impossible to tell the story of the national pastime in 100 pictures and a bit more than 200 pages. Many of the images are moving, even iconic, even though many are familiar.The usual subjects are here from Mickey Mantle on the front cover to Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Bryce Harper, etc. If you are into baseball photo books this might be the one for you.

About Harvey Frommer

One of the most prolific and respected sports journalists and oral historians in the United States, author of the autobiographies of legends Nolan Ryan, Tony Dorsett, and Red Holzman, Dr. Harvey Frommer is an expert on the Boston Red Sox having written three books on the team including the classic REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK.

A professor now for more than two decades in the MALS program at Dartmouth College, Frommer was dubbed “Dartmouth’s Mr. Baseball” by their alumni magazine. He’s also the founder of www.HarveyFrommerSports.com. Mint, signed, discounted Frommer books are available from his site.

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