Jackson, "Shoeless" Joe (1887-1951)

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Jackson, "Shoeless" Joe (1887-1951)

"Shoeless" Joe Jackson endures in baseball lore as the game's tragic hero, the naive country boy who became embroiled with big-time gamblers in the infamous "Black Sox" scandal of 1919 and who was subsequently banned for life from the sport, cutting short an otherwise brilliant career.

The illiterate son of a Southern miller, Jackson grew up near Greenville, South Carolina. He acquired his famous nickname while playing baseball with the local mill teams as a teenager. Having bought a new pair of spikes, Jackson found himself with blistered feet. Desperate to play and unable to wear his old shoes due to the soreness, Jackson lumbered out to right field in stocking feet. The crowd picked up on Jackson's lack of footwear, and henceforth he became known as "Shoeless" Joe.

Jackson's stellar play in the mill leagues attracted scouts, and, in 1908, he signed with the Philadelphia Athletics. Frightened by big cities and wary of leaving his family behind, Jackson initially refused to report. In 1909, he made his debut with the Athletics, but endured intense taunting from teammates and fans for his alleged ignorance and naivete. A disheartened Jackson failed to live up to his promise with the Athletics, and manager Connie Mack shipped the young outfielder to the Cleveland Indians. In Cleveland, Jackson developed into a star. In 1911, his first full season, Jackson batted.408; the following year, he batted.395. His stellar defense in the outfield and fearless base running made Jackson a complete ballplayer and ticketed him for the baseball stratosphere.

Strapped for cash, the Indians sent Jackson to Chicago in 1915 in exchange for three undistinguished players and $31,500. Jackson hit an uncharacteristically low.301 for the championship-winning 1917 White Sox, but rebounded with a more typical.351 for the 1919 team, which lost that season's World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.

In September of 1920, in the midst of one of Jackson's greatest seasons, in which he was batting.392 with 121 RBI, a shocking revelation rocked the country: eight White Sox players, including Jackson, had conspired with gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series. Jackson admitted his complicity in the scheme shortly after journalists had uncovered the sordid tale. Emerging from a Chicago courtroom, where he and his teammates were standing trial for defrauding the public, Jackson, according to baseball lore, stumbled upon a teary-eyed youngster whose only words to Jackson were "Say it ain't so, Joe." The grand jury ultimately acquitted all the players, but new baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw "Mountain" Landis subsequently banned them all from the sport for life. Jackson returned to his native South Carolina, where he started a dry-cleaning business and occasionally played in sandlot and outlaw games.

A groundswell of support for Jackson's reinstatement to baseball developed after his death in 1951. Alternately pointing to his naivete and to his.375 batting average in the World Series as evidence that he had not deliberately tanked the series, supporters of Jackson pushed for his reinstatement and his admission to the Hall of Fame. Writers romanticized Jackson's tragic tale; the Chicago outfielder was the subject of W. P. Kinsella's wistful Shoeless Joe, later turned into the major motion picture Field of Dreams (1989). The 1988 movie Eight Men Out also attempted to rescue Jackson and the others from their misdeeds, suggesting that the gambling fix represented the players' only escape from Chicago owner Charles Comiskey's penury. Still, as of the late 1990s, there appeared little chance that baseball's governors would absolve Jackson from his sins.

—Scott Tribble

Further Reading:

Asinof, Eliot. Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1963.

Gropman, Donald. Say It Ain't So, Joe: The Story of Shoeless Joe Jackson. Boston, Little, Brown, 1979.

Kinsella, W. P. Shoeless Joe. New York, Ballantine Books, 1982.

Rader, Benjamin. Baseball: A History of America's Game. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Shatzkin, Mike, editor. The Ballplayers: Baseball's Ultimate Biographical Reference. New York, Arbor House, 1990.

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Jackson, "Shoeless" Joe (1887-1951)