I’m working on a larger story about Shoeless Joe Jackson, but before we get into his life, let’s talk about the city of Greenville, S.C. It’s a charming town with a fine minor-league ballpark and plenty of good shops and restaurants. But if you’re a baseball history fan, there is another big reason to visit. The city was home to Joe Jackson, and even though he’s been dead for 70 years, there are plenty of sites with a connection to the ballplayer. Spend a day there, and you can visit where he lived, where he worked, and where he’s buried.
Your first stop should be the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and Baseball Library, which is located in the house where Jackson spent his final years. As a consequence, it’s not huge, but it’s extremely effective at telling the story of Jackson’s life. You’ll probably notice this if you visit smaller baseball museums. The Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is massive — almost too massive. The story of baseball has so many branches that it’s impossible to be comprehensive. Trying to take it all in in one day can leave your head spinning.
A small museum, on the other hand, can be laser focused on telling one story — Joe Jackson’s life, in this case — and do a excellent job of it. Jackson’s life is one that needs telling, too, because of the many misconceptions that exist about him. Eight Men Out — both the movie and the book — helped to bring one of baseball’s greatest scandals into the mainstream, but it did so by adding dramatic elements to the narrative that just aren’t true. I talked a little about this when I wrote about Charlie Comiskey, and it holds true to Jackson as well. The movie, in particular, portrayed Jackson as an ignorant rube, barely able to function in society without his wife, Katie, to guide him. Add in the nickname of “Shoeless” and you get the idea that Jackson was an athletically gifted but intellectually vacant hillbilly. That’s just not true. Jackson was illiterate, thanks to a poor upbringing that saw him working in textile mills when he should have been in school. But he was a smart man who made a good life for himself after baseball. He also hated his nickname and deliberately dressed to the nines throughout his life to show that he was a sophisticated person.
That stereotype is one of the first myths about Jackson that is busted by the museum and executive director Dan Wallach. Wallach, an entrepreneur whose background includes bartender, record label executive and podcaster, is a baseball authority who amassed a personal Joe Jackson memorabilia collection before he took on his current role with the museum. Some of those artifacts are on display, such as an impressive collection of Jackson baseball cards.
The walls of the house are filled with newspaper clippings and photos, from Jackson’s earliest days on company teams in South Carolina to his final years with the White Sox. Wallach, who leads tours through the house, brings it all to life. The textile industry that used to dominate Greenville is long gone, but he does a good job of describing the long-gone era and makes it clear that it would take an extraordinary degree of talent to break out of that life and find a career in the major leagues.
The Joe Jackson Museum does what many baseball historians are attempting to do — remove 100 years’ worth of mistruths, exaggerations and dramatic license and get to the facts of Jackson and the 1919 Black Sox scandal. In doing so, it doesn’t place Jackson on a pedestal and portray him as the virtuous, innocent man who was railroaded by baseball politics. While Jackson had a marvelous World Series performance, he knew of the scandal and took money from gamblers. Instead, the museum and Wallach make the convincing case that Jackson’s punishment has far exceeded his crime. The lifetime ban that was imposed upon him in 1920 should have ended with his death in 1951, but it’s still being held against him in Cooperstown. As a result, not only can one of baseball’s greatest hitters not get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he can’t even be considered unless the Hall has a change of heart about his eligibility.
Jackson’s legacy in Greenville is found elsewhere — such as right across the street from the Museum. Fluor Field is the home of the Greenville Drive, the High-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A statue of Jackson can be found in front of the park. It was originally erected in 2002 elsewhere in Greenville and moved to its present location in 2018. If you’re lucky enough to make your travel plans on a day when the Drive are in town, it’s a fun experience and a very nice ballpark. As befitting a Red Sox minor-league team, there is even a scaled down version of the Green Monster in left field.
The building that was home of Joe Jackson’s Liquor Store is still standing at 1262 Pendleton St. It’s now a boutique clothing store, though there is a plaque on the outside of the building that notes its place in history. Finally, Joe and Katie Jackson are buried at Woodlawn Memorial Park. If you go there, keep a look out for the flush grave marker that’s surrounded by baseballs and shoes.
As for the career and life of Joe Jackson, that’s another story — coming soon to RIP Baseball.