As a resident of the great state of South Carolina, the state is not known for its baseball lure. Football is king in the Southern states these days. That does not however mean that at one point in time things were different. In the Reconstruction South, following the American Civil War, baseball was king. It was a game that derived from Rounders, an English game with very similar rules. In a small town, about 30 minutes or so from where I reside, in Greenville, South Carolina, a man was born that was going to change the way the game was seen forever. He was born just 7 months and 100 miles from one of his oldest friends, Ty Cobb. He was considered one of the most naturally talent players to ever pick up a ball. His name was Joseph Jefferson Jackson and he would become sports most famous anti-hero.
The Early Days and Earning his Nickname
Joe Jackson was born outside of Greenville in a tiny town called Pelzer. Like most persons in the still reconstructing South, Jackson did not grow up rich. His father was a sharecropper and Joe began working with his father around age 6. Jackson was a hard worker, but unfortunately he lacked an education that could have gotten him away from Pelzer. Jackson could not read or write and instances of this would come up throughout his life. It is often said that rather than have someone read a menu for him when he was at a restaurant, he would just wait until someone else ordered and then order what they had as well.
Jackson never had time to play games when he was young as he was always working. In 1900, at 13 years old, his mother approached him with an offer to play for a local baseball team. This was not professional in any way because organized baseball had not officially come about yet. He instead played for the team at a local mill in town. He made extra money when he played too; an extra $2.50 to play on the weekends which was massive money back then for an intramural league. Jackson’s earliest known talent was pitching until he allegedly threw a fastball so hard that he broke an opponent’s arm. From then on, he was moved to outfield. His fielding was not the remarkable part of his playing ability but instead his batting was what made him so famous. Jackson was compared to another player who had played on the same team as he and made it to the big leagues.
As a youth, Joe was also given a nickname which is where the legend truly began. The story though was unknown for a long time but Jackson revealed it in 1949. Jackson was trying a new pair of cleats during a game and his feet had blisters and were hurting him. He decided to play the remainder of the game with his shoes off. From the stands a fan was heard saying “You shoeless sun of a gun, you.” The nickname stuck with him for the rest of his life. In 1908, he caught the attention of various baseball leagues throughout the country, but wished to stay home. He signed with the Greenville Spinners (now the Greenville Drive) where he played for less than one season before being called up by the Philadelphia Athletics.
Philadelphia Athletics and Early Professional Career
Jackson played for $75.00 a month while he was in Greenville. When he was called up, his salary was $900.00 a month, the modern equivalent to $26,124.85 a month. Jackson batted as astounding .358 in 1909 with the Athletics and they instead of rewarding him gave him up in a trade with the Cleveland Naps in 1910. Jackson spent much of his time in New Orleans with the minor league Pelicans before being called up. Jackson stayed in the Major Leagues for the rest of his career.
Jackson was behind one man in every major category during his time in Major League Baseball. Ty Cobb, who was given the benefit as the greatest hitter of his time prior to Babe Ruth or even Ted Williams was considered to be better than Jackson. However, Jackson was one of the best rookies ever. He set the rookie batting average record with .409 and his .468 on-base percentage led the league. Jackson played 5 seasons with the Cleveland Naps. In that time, he scored 495 runs, had 980 hits, and 26 home runs. His career batting average to that point was .368 and he was the league MVP four years in a row. No other player has done that since. In 1915, he was again traded . This time to the Chicago White Sox. A notorious organization with an owner whose actions would later cause much distress throughout the sport.
The White Sox, 1915-1918
Like modern sports teams, the Chicago White Sox where filled with some of the best players not just in the game but of their generation. Eddie Cicotte, Happy Felsch , and Lefty Williams, where just a few. The White Sox were famous for their tenacity on the field, and their parties off of it. The White Sox had already had a successful history prior as they won the World Series in 1906 and the Pennant in 1901. However, their most infamous rival was North Chicago which had the Cubs who had won much more than the White Sox. Furthermore, the ownership of the White Sox was called into question. Comisky had influence and wealth, like most owners, but he also had a workmen’s attitude as well as he was a construction worker while trying to play baseball for the St. Louis Browns and various other organizations. Comisky’s influence was evident on the team though as he was not the most polite to them and often short-changed them for their successes. A lot of this was financial related but also Comisky was “very careful” with his money. As a result of this, he was not very well liked by his players.
Jackson was not worried about finances however and it seemed just wanted play ball. Jackson did astonishingly well with the White Sox despite again, not enjoying the “big city life.” Some said that he ate, slept and drank baseball as it was his only skill. He had various side jobs while playing but baseball was always his first love. Jackson played a part in leading the White Sox tot the World Series in 1917. He batted a team high .307 as they cruised to victory over the supreme New York Giants. This would be the last World Series that the White Sox would play in until 1959 and the last World Series that they would win until 2005. Baseball’s interest across America waned however with many players being drafted into fighting during World War I. Jackson helped the war effort so that he did not have to go overseas. He worked at a shipyard instead and as a result missed most of 1918. His participation with that team was not crucial though as it did not even get close to retaining a title. However, what would happen next would be baseball’s greatest tragedy.
1919: The Black Sox and Baseball’s Abandonment
Before we go any further, the 1919 Chicago White Sox where one of the best teams to ever take the field. Every batter in the starting lineup was within 25 points of batting .300, which is unheard of even on the 1927 Yankees. They even had a player named Eddie Murphy who was a solid .486 pinch hitter. The secret to the White Sox success was that they had a pitching core that was stronger than anything the game had seen. Eddie Cicotte finished the season with a 1.82 ERA and didn’t even have the most strikeouts on the team.
The White Sox won the seasons by a mile, 3 ½ games ahead of the Cleveland Indians and the best record in the game. Shoeless Joe’s campaign would have won him MVP honors in the league today as he hit .351 and was still in 4th place due to not having as many home runs or RBI’s as the category leaders. He also had 181 hits that season. The White Sox scored more runs than any team that year too. Clearly winning the league due to their record, with no playoff system being create back then, the White Sox appeared in the World Series as an overwhelming favorite. However, the team they would be facing was not too shabby either. These Red had blown away the New York Giants by 9 games and actually had the best record in the league. To make matters worse, they had lost only 19 of their 70 games at home that season. The Reds though did not have individual talent like the White Sox, it was more of a universal effort that they played well on. Cincinnati was the home of organized baseball as it had the first team created in 1882. The matchup was going to be tremendous, the bad boys of Chicago versus the foundation of the game. Well, let's just say it lived up a lot more than most where expecting.
To backtrack bit, Charles Comisky’s leadership was being called into question. Although some of these are speculations, these are some of the items that the White Sox cited as being motivating for them to perform what they called “The Fix.” Eddie Cicotte, the head of the rotation was owed a bonus if he wo 30 games that season. That bonus included an additional $10,000. He won 29 games and was sat down for the final two weeks of the season in order to ensure that Comisky would not have to pay the bonus. This was the last straw for some players who felt that Cicotte rightfully deserved his money for helping the White Sox win. Arnold Gandil, the White Sox first baseman came up with an idea where everyone would win, in theory, except for the White Sox. Gandil proposed that the White Sox blow the series on purpose in order to win roughly $80,000 which would be split amongst the various participants. Even Arnold Rothstein, the nation’s most notorious gambler, was involved in setting up “The Fix.” Varying accounts display that Joe Jackson was involved while others display that he took no part in the events that transpired. Here is the unusual part of the tale. Jackson hit a whopping .375 and had 12 base hits which stood as a World Series record until it was broken in 1964 by Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson who had 13. He did not commit an error the entire series, but as a cause against him, it was noted that an unusual amount of triples where hit in his direction during the series. Jackson is said to have confessed to participating in the scheme but like the other seven participants was acquitted of all charges. The penalty that was laid down was far more severe however. He received a lifetime ban and could never play, coach or go near a ballpark permanently.
As for Jackson’s involvement, it was never confirmed as he knew of the scheme but was never noted as having taken any bribe. He supposedly wanted to tell Comisky and never had the chance due to Comisky’s “important” schedule. Other players confirmed that he was not at any of the meetings to discuss what had occurred.
Jackson’s Post-Baseball Career and Life After
Jackson finished his career with 1,772 hits and a .356 batting average. This may not be enough to proclaim him as a first-ballot Hall of Famer but many feel that for his legacy on the game he deserves at least a chance at being considered. Although removed from Professional/Organized baseball. Jackson managed and even played on a number of semi-professional teams in both Georgia and South Carolina. In 1922, he moved to Savannah, Georgia and started a dry-cleaning business with his wife. In 1933, he returned back to Greenville, SC where he spent the rest of his life running a liquor store which bears his name. Jackson is said to have been recognized by many former players who noted that he played in other leagues, however the most notable account is when Ty Cobb allegedly was in Jackson’s liquor store and asked him if he even recognized him. Jackson said yes, but “I wasn’t sure if you recognized me.” Jackson had various health issues after playing, most notably heart trouble. Jackson died in 1951 at the age of 64.
His legacy has been challenged since then as in recent years with the 100 years since the scandal happening, various members of the museum of Joe Jackson as well as other notable representatives of the family have petitioned professional baseball to allow him to at least be on the ballot. These claims have been denied as Jackson long dead will probably never be enshrined in the Hall of Fame despite his tremendous playing abilities and affect on the game.
His peak popularity in pop culture returned in 1988 with the film Eight Men Out which focused on the direct perspectives of those involved in “The Fix.” However, in 1989, the film that portrayed “Shoeless” Joe as more of anti-hero than an outright villain was Field of Dreams. Jackson is also enshrined in his hometown of Greenville in multiple areas. He has a park named after him and also his status stands outside of the Greenville Drive Single-A franchise which is an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Jackson is also buried in Greenville and his grave is visited by both relatives and fans alike. Jackson actually grew up across from where Flour Field in Greenville stands and in 2008, money was raised for a museum to be placed at the site of his original home.
Jackson never had any children but his great-great-grand-nephew is the closest to playing professionally since his banishment. Joseph Ray Jackson played in the Texas Rangers Organization. Jackson’s impact on the game is something that needs to be addressed more. Very similar to a Pete Rose who is also banished for gambling an will never be enshrined in Cooperstown. He was said to have inspired Babe Ruth’s swing and was one of the best outfielders that the game ever produced. So let him in already dammit.