Grave Story: Shoeless Joe Jackson (1887-1951)

It’s time to talk about one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. And while much of Shoeless Joe Jackson’s life is still the subject of debate and misconception, I think baseball fans can at least agree on that much. Jackson played for the Philadelphia Athletics (1908-09), Cleveland Naps/Indians (1910-15) and Chicago White Sox (1915-20).

Editor’s Note: You can write a whole book about Joe Jackson’s life — and people have! So this entry is by no means a comprehensive look at the man. I’ll try to hit the high points and find some things you may not have known in about 4,000 words, give or take. Additionally, there has been much written about the misconceptions of the Black Sox scandal. If you want to dig into that, the definitive guide is “Eight Myths Out,” compiled by Black Sox expert Jacob Pomrenke and SABR.

Another Editor’s Note: I wrote about the lasting mark that Joe Jackson left in his home of Greenville, S.C., including the wonderful Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum. You can read that article here.

Joseph Walker Jackson was born on July 16, 1887, in Pickens County, S.C. He never had a formal education and, consequently, never learned to read and only knew enough about writing to sign his name. Jackson grew up poor, and as soon as he was about 6 years old, he began working in the area’s textile mills to help support his large family. When his family moved to Greenville, he became a child laborer at the Brandon Mill, which still exists — though it’s now a luxury apartment complex instead of a factory.

Joe Jackson was not stupid, though. Eight Men Out (the book and the movie) has a good many inaccuracies, but the movie in particular portrayed Jackson as a physically gifted hick who could barely function in society and was somewhat of a pariah among his teammates. Jackson made it through life just fine, and had multiple successful business ventures in his life, during and after baseball.

Joe & Kate Jackson’s grave in Woodlawn Memorial Park, Greenville, S.C. It states he was born in 1888, but most baseball sources list Jackson’s birth year as 1887.

Back at the turn of the 20th Century, there wasn’t much of an opportunity for child laborers to break out of their lot in life. You could see it in coal mines in Appalachia, stockyards in Chicago or the textile mills in the Carolinas. Jackson, though, was a gifted athlete, and the Brandon Mill had weekly baseball games to keep the employees content. The teenaged Jackson soon became a feared slugger on the men’s team.

Tom Stouch, who played briefly for Louisville of the National League in 1898, was the player-manager for the Greenville Spinners when he made the discovery of a lifetime. He was watching a couple of mill teams play ball and saw a young player hit a long home run. That was his introduction to Joe Jackson. “I was profoundly impressed with the fellow because of the way be stood up to the plate,” Stouch later recalled, “and when he went to the outfield and I saw him throw and take in one or two fly balls with ease, I decided to sign him then and there. Well, Jackson accepted my very small offer of $75 per month salary, with profuse thanks, and I at once sent him in as a regular outfielder.”

In his brief time with the Spinners in 1908, Jackson batted .346 with 120 hits in 87 games. This is there the nickname of “Shoeless” came about – he tried to play a game in a new pair of spikes and got awful blisters. So he played the next game against the Anderson Electricians in stockings, but nobody noticed until he hit a triple. When he reached third base, someone in the crowd called him a “shoeless so-and-so” (with other words likely used instead of so-and-so). The story of the shoeless ballplayer made it into the area newspapers, and a legend was born. It eventually expanded into the tall tale of a young boy who hated to wear shoes and who played on the local sandlots barefooted all the time. Jackson hated the nickname, but he was Shoeless Joe for the rest of his life.

Source: The Courier, August 27, 1912.

The one thing that Jackson couldn’t do on a ballfield was pitch. In a game in June of 1908 where Greenville had three of their pitchers knocked out of the game against Anderson, Stouch apparently gave up. He put the team’s 10-year-old mascot in center field and sent Jackson to the mound. He hit five batters, while throwing hard enough to break second baseman Lee Meyer’s arm with a pitch. Eventually the Anderson manager ordered his players to strike out just to end the game without further casualties. After that, Jackson was moved back to the outfield, where his fast throws were a little more accurate and a lot less dangerous.

Greenville sold Jackson to the Philadelphia Athletics, and he made his major-league debut on August 25, 1908, against Cleveland. Stories of the gifted youngster attracted plenty of interest for an Athletics team that didn’t have much going for it. Jackson was 1-for-4 in his first game with an RBI single, and he hit the ball hard in his other at-bats. After the game, A’s manager Connie Mack was congratulated heartily on his new find, and he did his best to try and diffuse the enthusiasm. “We must not expect too much from Jackson now. Remember, he is only a boy and this is his first year out. Naturally, with such a limited experience had in a small minor league, the youngster has a whole lot to learn… yet if nothing happens to Jackson he should develop rapidly into one of the greatest players the game has yet produced.”

In two seasons in the Philadelphia organization, Jackson appeared in a total of 10 games, with a .150 batting average. What happened? Jackson was homesick. He would go up to Philadelphia, play in a few games and then retreat home. The tall buildings and noisy streets unnerved the 20-year-old, and he supposedly told Mack he’d rather star in the bush leagues than struggle in the big leagues. He also was newly married to his wife, Kate, and he didn’t want to be away from her.

In a 1912 interview with journalist William Whiston, Jackson acknowledged some youthful indiscretions that also contributed to his erratic performance. “I remember one afternoon I was scheduled to play center field for Philadelphia, and on my way to the grounds I took a notion that I’d like to see a show, so I hopped off the car without a word to anyone and spent the afternoon watching a burlesque performance,” Jackson said. By his own admission, he was on his way to becoming another Rube Waddell or Bugs Raymond – a player with tremendous talent but a debilitating lack of self-control.

It got so bad that Mack blacklisted Jackson in September of 1908 – meaning Joe Jackson was temporarily banned from baseball before he was permanently banned from baseball. Despite the blacklisting, Jackson praised Mack for his attempts to get Jackson to behave and said he wouldn’t have made it as a professional ballplayer if not for the A’s boss.

In July of 1910, with Jackson starring in New Orleans, Mack unloaded him to the Cleveland Naps as part of a deal that saw outfielder Bris Lord go to Philadelphia and Morrie Rath go to Cleveland. Either Naps manager Deacon McGuire got him in line or Jackson matured on his own, but he was a different man for Cleveland. He began playing in mid-September, and in 20 games, he slashed .387/.448/.587, with 29 hits and 11 RBIs. He never returned to the minor leagues.

During Jackson’s abbreviated attempts to play in Philadelphia, there was a sense in the baseball world that he could be great, if he gave himself the chance. Within a few games of his debut, there was talk that he would be the greatest baseball player since that other Southerner, Ty Cobb, entered the league. According to umpire/columnist Billy Evans, the other ballplayers didn’t see it that way. He reported that, during the 1911 season, some opposing players tried to rattle him with comments like “Well, Joe, I see you haven’t gone home yet” or “A couple more days without any hits and it will be back to the sunny South for Joe.”

Jackson, though, would not be rattled. He merely hit .408 (second only to Cobb in the AL), led all of baseball with a .468 on-base percentage and slugged at a .590 clip. He drove in 83 runs, scored 126 times and stole a career-high 41 bases. Evans noted that if a player tried to cut him down with an insult, Jackson would give just as good as he got. If a pitcher bragged that he knew just the pitch to retire him, Jackson would deposit that pitch somewhere deep into the outfield for an extra-base hit. “If there’s any kind of a ball this Jackson can’t hit, I couldn’t find it out,” said none other than Cy Young.

“Jackson, by his wonderful work in 1911, has lived down the stigma most players attached to him – a yellow streak,” Evans wrote. “All now admit he is one of the game’s greatest stars.”

Jackson finished fourth in the MVP vote and would have been a unanimous Rookie of the Year winner had the award been invented. He followed it up with a 1912 campaign that was every bit as good, slashing .395/.458/.579. He had 226 hits to lead all of baseball and topped the AL in triples with 26. In 1913, he led the AL with 197 hits, 39 doubles and a .551 slugging percentage and finished second in the MVP vote behind Walter Johnson. His one weakness was his fielding. His work in right field was an adventure, to put it mildly, but he had a cannon of an arm and twice in his career had more than 30 outfield assists in a season.

In all his time with Cleveland, Jackson had a .375 batting average, but he never won a batting title. No matter how well Jackson hit, Ty Cobb led the league every year of Jackson’s career, except for 1916. That year, Tris Speaker (.386) managed to top both Cobb (.370) and Jackson (.341).

During this time, Cleveland had the good fortune of having two of baseball’s best hitters in the lineup – Jackson and Nap Lajoie. They didn’t have much else in the way of standout hitting or pitching, but the combined work of Jackson and Lajoie kept the team in the middle of the AL standings. That lasted until 1914, when the 39-year-old Lajoie fell to earth and hit just .258. Jackson was excellent once again and hit .338, but he couldn’t carry the entire team on his shoulders. The Naps fell to last place with 102 losses. They weren’t faring much better in 1915 when Naps owner Charles Somers sold Jackson to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for cash (reported to be anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000) and three players to be named later (pitcher Ed Klepfer, outfielder Braggo Roth and outfielder Larry Chappell).

The catalyst behind the deal was said to be… Joe Tinker? The former Cubs shortstop was managing the Chicago Federal League team and tried to get Jackson to break his Cleveland contract. Jackson, eager to leave Cleveland, supposedly met with Tinker but didn’t agree to anything. But the fact that they even met incensed Somers, and he put his star player on the market. Sox magnate Charles Comiskey came in with the winning bid, but AL President Ban Johnson admitted that the trade would probably never have taken place if not for Jackson’s meeting with Tinker.

For the remainder of the 1915 season, Jackson batted .272 for the Sox, which by his standards was a deep slump. The “real” Shoeless Joe returned in 1916, as he hit .341 and led baseball with 21 triples and 293 total bases. He successfully moved to left field, where his fielding improved. The White Sox finished 2 games behind Boston for the AL pennant, and while that was going on, Jackson was challenging Cobb and Speaker for the batting title.

“All the White Sox are pulling for Joe to lead the American League this year,” said Sox second baseman Eddie Collins. “He has been a wonderful hitter for several years, but he never got the credit due him. He has hit hard enough several years to lead every league but the one Cobb was in.”

After failing to win a batting title in 1916, Jackson’s average fell to .301 in 1917, which was his lowest mark ever for a full year. He spent most of the season hitting in the mid-.200s; it took a 5-hit performance in a doubleheader against the Yankees on September 29 to push his average above .300 for good. The White Sox, on the other hand, won 100 games to win the AL pennant. Along with Jackson and his 5 home runs and 82 RBIs, outfielder Happy Felsch batted .308 with 6 homers and 99 RBIs, leading the team in all three categories. The pitching staff was marvelous, led by 28-game winner Ed Cicotte. The White Sox defeated the New York Giants in six games in the World Series, and Jackson had 7 hits for a .304 batting average. Most of the damage came in Game Two, when he was 3-for-3 with the only 2 RBIs he had in the Series. He also stole two bases. When the Sox won Game Six, Jackson finally had an advantage on Cobb. The Detroit star had all the batting titles, but Jackson was a world champion.

After a couple of sub-par seasons, there were rumors that the New York Yankees were trying to acquire Jackson – and AL President Johnson supported the proposal, because the American League needed a good team in New York City. The start of Jackson’s 1918 season certainly looked like a redemption for the star. Through his first 18 games, he had 20 RBIs and 23 hits for a .354 batting average. Then his season came to an untimely end after a game on May 11. It wasn’t an injury that ended his year – it was World War I. Jackson got a job at a shipbuilding plant in Wilmington, Del. The move left him subject to criticism that he was a “slacker,” or a draft-dodger who took a job in the war industry stateside to avoid being sent overseas into battle. However, Jackson was said to be the sole support of his wife and his aged mother, and if that’s the case, then he wouldn’t have been eligible to be sent overseas. Still, his actions angered White Sox owner Comiskey and White Sox fandom in general. That December, with the war over, Comiskey announced he had forgiven Jackson, who per reports, “has also been guaranteed police protection at the Windy City park against possible attacks by unthinking fandom.”

The 1919 season is the most analyzed of Jackson’s career, and also one of his best. The first seven games of the White Sox 1919 season were played on the road, and Jackson had at least two hits in six of them. The only time he was held to a single hit, it was a solo home run against Detroit. By the time the White Sox made it to Chicago, Jackson was hitting .533. In the team’s first home game, about 500 fans carried Joe Jackson flags and unfurled a big sign that read, “Jackson Rooters.” They also presented him with a watch. Needless to say, his hitting erased any trace of ill will that the fans had toward him.

The 31-year-old Jackson enjoyed a career renaissance in 1919, with a .351/.422/.506 slash line. He had 31 doubles, 14 triples and 7 home runs while driving in 96 runs. He even hit the walk-off single on September 25 that defeated the St. Louis Browns 6-5 and clinched the AL pennant for the Sox. Jackson was the best hitter in the entire 1919 World Series, with a .375 average, and he hit the Series’ only home run. He drove in 6 runs, which was more than one-third of the team’s total RBIs. The Reds, of course, were the upset winners of the Series, winning five games and losing three.

The White Sox world crashed down on September 28, 1920, with a story on the front page of every newspaper the following day. A grand jury indicted eight Sox players (Jackson, Cicotte, Felsch, Buck Weaver, Chick Gandil, Fred McMullin, Lefty Williams and Swede Risberg) for conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series, and Cicotte and Jackson confessed their roles in the fix. Comiskey suspended seven of the players immediately – first baseman Gandil had already retired.

The papers that reported on the Black Sox scandal noted rumors that the fix was in for the 1920 season as well. There was heavy betting on Cleveland to win the AL pennant, and the White Sox players who participated in the World Series fix didn’t dare get in the way of that, or else their previous scheme would have been made public. Cicotte and Williams both pitched noticeably worse in 1920. Jackson, on the other hand, had one of his greatest seasons. He slashed .382/.444/.589 and set career highs with 12 home runs and 121 RBIs. His 20 triples were best in the AL. (Felsch and Weaver also had stellar offensive seasons, for what it’s worth.)

Jackson explained his reasons for confessing by telling the press, “I heard that Cicotte had confessed and decided those birds couldn’t put anything over on me. I wanted to be on the ground floor when the squawking came.”

Both Cicotte and Jackson’s own testimony portrayed the outfielder as an active participant in the fix. Cicotte said that in the second game he pitched, Jackson threw a ball over catcher Ray Schalk’s head to let a run score. Jackson’s testimony was printed in several versions, but the gist was that he struck out or hit soft ground balls to keep runs from scoring. “I fielded hit ground balls like a boob,” he added. “It was awfully hard to play that kind of a game. I helped the Reds to score quite a few runs… I am a criminal to have conspired to throw Comiskey down, but it’s all over now, and I am ready to take my punishment.”

Jackson acknowledged that he originally asked for $20,000 to participate in the fix and received $5,000 of it from Lefty Williams. Jackson left the courthouse that day with police around him because one of the other players threatened to kill him for testifying.

Jackson, at age 50 and 70 pounds heavier than his playing weight, still had a remarkable swing. Source: The Greenville News, May 9, 1937.

“They’ve hung it on me,” he said. “They ruined me when I went to the shipyards, but I don’t care what happens now. I guess I’m through with baseball. I wasn’t wise enough like Chick to beat them to it… Now Risberg threatens to bump me off. That’s why I had all the bailiffs with me when I left the grand jury room. I’m not under arrest yet, but I’m not going to get far from my protectors until this blows over.” (He later testified that he and the bailiffs went out and got drunk after he left the court.)

Was his testimony accurate, though? As noted, Jackson was the best hitter on either team in the World Series, and he committed no errors. He struck out just twice and had 12 hits in 32 at-bats, so if he was closing his eyes and swinging, as his testimony alleges, he was extremely lucky. Yes, there are instances where he made an out with runners on base and times when runners advanced on one of his throws, but the exact setup that Cicotte described, where Jackson overthrew Schalk, never happened.

Ultimately, Cicotte, Jackson and Williams testified that they made their confessions only because they were promised immunity – which was yanked away after they confessed. To add to the confusion, the only lawyer on the scene besides prosecutor Hartley Replogle was Alfred Austrian, who was representing Comiskey and the White Sox, not the ballplayers. Jackson was at a greater disadvantage than his Black Sox teammates because he couldn’t read any of the papers and documents that were being whirled around him.

“Austrian asked me if I knew I would be indicted,” he testified in July of 1921. “I told him I didn’t know about it. Austrian then asked if I had a lawyer. I told him I did not. Austrian then shouted, ‘You better get out, you need a lawyer damn bad.’

“I was then taken over where the grand jury was in session. On the way over with Replogle, he told me Cicotte was a free man. I was told the gamblers and not the ball players were the ones the law wanted. They told me to tell my story and I would be free… I signed some papers. I didn’t know what it was. I was so excited I would have signed my death warrant.”

The ballplayers were acquitted of conspiracy charges in August of 1921 and were immediately suspended from baseball by Commissioner Kenesaw Landis. It made no difference to Jackson, though. “The jury could not have returned a fairer verdict. But I don’t want to go back to organized baseball, I am through with it,” he said after his acquittal.

In his 13 years in the majors, Jackson had a slash line of .356/.423/.517. His batting average is third-best in AL/NL history and fourth in professional baseball history, behind Ty Cobb (.366), Negro Leagues legend Oscar Charleston (.364) and Rogers Hornsby (.359). Jackson had 1,772 hits in his career, including .307 doubles, 168 triples and 54 home runs. He drove in 792 runs and scored 873 times. He stole 202 bases, walked 519 times and struck out just 233 times. In 1919, he had 599 plate appearances with 10 strikeouts. Baseball Reference lists his Wins Above Replacement at 62.2, which puts him on par with Hall of Famers and near-HOFers like Mark McGwire, Dennis Eckersley, Mickey Welch and Todd Helton. Jackson’s career performance is worthy of the Hall of Fame, but the lifetime ban is still enforced today, and Jackson remains ineligible for consideration.

Source: The Greenville News, July 25, 1948.

Jackson was 33 years old when the trial was over. The campaign to reinstate him from the suspended list began almost immediately. Sometimes Jackson himself was calling for it, and sometimes it was Jackson’s supporters. Regardless of his testimony to the grand jury, Jackson denied doing anything crooked in the 1919 Series to the end of his life. Every plea fell on deaf ears. “If Commissioner Landis sees fit to reinstate me, I will greatly appreciate it,” he said in a 1922 speech in New York. “But if he does not, then I don’t care what he says. As long as I have the strength I will play the game, even if I have to do so by myself.”

And he did, too. Jackson played and managed for amateur and semipro teams wherever he could, sometimes under an assumed name and sometimes under his own. His existence proved to be a thorn in the side of Landis, who just couldn’t put the Black Sox behind him when Jackson and the others kept popping up in small towns across the country. Landis threatened to punish anyone who was involved in a game that involved them, and some teams or leagues backed away from hiring Jackson as a result.

Relations with the White Sox never improved, either. Jackson sued the team for money owed on his contract and was awarded $16,711.04 Judge J.J. Gregory then dismissed the case and had Jackson arrested for perjury. He bonded out and was still able to claim a legal win over his old team. He and the Sox eventually reached a settlement.

Eventually, Joe and Kate Jackson settled in Savannah, Ga., where he ran Savannah Valet Service, a successful dry cleaning business. He spent his final years in Greenville, S.C. He owned a liquor store there and was a beloved local figure. He played on local teams into his 50s, though he’d added about 70 pounds to his playing weight. Even with the extra pounds, that swing, which was so perfect that Babe Ruth copied it, wasn’t diminished at all. “There are things that even Judge Landis can’t take away,” he told Greenville News columnist Scoop Latimer in 1937. “No sirree, nobody but Father Time can take that from me, and you see he’s slow about doing it.”

Jackson suffered a series of heart attacks in the late 1940s, which largely confined him to his home at 119 East Wilburn Street in Greenville. He and his wife sold the liquor store, and he was content to take occasional outings into town, where he could talk baseball with old friends and treat local kids to ice cream cones. He was given a lifetime pass to the Greenville Spinners minor-league games, which he enjoyed as well.

Joe Jackson died on December 5, 1951, in Greenville, after suffering a heart attack in his home. He was 64 years old. He had recently been elected to the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame and was to travel to New York City to be honored on national television on December 16. He is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Greenville. If you go, look for the flush grave marker that’s surrounded by baseballs and shoes.

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