Joseph Jefferson Jackson (July 16, 1888 – December 5, 1951), nicknamed Shoeless Joe, was an American baseball player who played in the American League of Major League Baseball in the early part of the twentieth century. Jackson enjoyed a thirteen year career in which he played for the Philadelphia Athletics, Cleveland Naps (now known as the Cleveland Indians), and the infamous Chicago Whitesox.
Although he was not a power hitter, he received acclaim for his performance on the field as well as his ability to hit the ball. Jackson, who played left field for most of his career, has the third highest career batting average in Major League Baseball history at .356, including a record-setting .408 rookie batting average in 1911. He also batted .340 or better in eight of his thirteen seasons.
His career was cut short due to his association with the controversial Black Sox Scandal, when members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox participated in a conspiracy to throw the World Series. As a result of Jackson’s involvement in the scandal, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Major League Baseball’s first commissioner, banned Jackson from playing after the 1920 season. To this day, Shoeless Joe Jackson has been banned from receiving any honor associated with Major League Baseball, although there is currently deliberation as to the possibility of posthumously admitting him into the baseball Hall of Fame.
Joe Jackson was born in Pickens County, South Carolina, the eldest of eight children. As a young child, Jackson worked in a textile mill in nearby Brandon Mill. Jackson’s job prevented him from devoting any significant time to formal education. However, he still found the time to make it to the baseball diamond. He played for the mill’s team, but when he broke the catcher’s arm with his powerful throw he was reassigned to the outfield.
Later, he played for a semipro Greenville team called the Greenville Spinners. During one of the games, mid-inning, he removed the new cleats that were giving him blisters, and a fan of the opposing team yelled out an insult to the shoeless runner as he rounded third base. The intended insult—”Shoeless Joe”—stuck even though Jackson had played without his spikes only one time.
Throughout his life, Jackson would suffer from his illiteracy. It would become a major factor during his major league career, particularly in the Black Sox Scandal, and has even affected the value of his collectibles. While on the Cleveland Naps (Cleveland Indians), he was taken to an upscale restaurant by his teammates and was tricked into drinking from the finger bowl.
Occurrences like these haunted Jackson and caused him to leave the team multiple times. Despite being uneducated, however, he married Katie Wynn, who he often had sign his signature for autographs and memorabilia. Consequently, anything actually autographed by Jackson himself brought a premium when sold.
1908 was an eventful year for Joe Jackson. Jackson began his professional baseball career when he joined the Greenville Spinners of the Carolina Association. He married Katie Wynn and eventually signed with Connie Mack to play Major League baseball for the Philadelphia Athletics.
For the first two-years of his career, Jackson had some trouble adjusting to life with the Athletics. As a result, he spent a portion of that time in the minor leagues. Between 1908 and 1909, Jackson appeared in only ten games. In the 1909 season, Jackson played 118 games for the South Atlantic League team in Savannah, Georgia, where he batted .358 for the year.
Major League career
The Athletics finally gave up on Jackson in 1910 and traded him to the Cleveland Naps. After spending time with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association, he was called up to play on the big league team. He appeared in 20 games for the Naps that year and hit .387. In 1911, Jackson’s first full-season, he set a number of rookie records. His .408 batting average that season is a record that still stands. The following season, Jackson batted .395 and led the American League in triples. The next year, Jackson led the league with 197 hits and sported a .551 slugging average.
In August of 1915, Jackson was traded to the Chicago White Sox. Two-years later, Jackson and the White Sox won the World Series. During the series, Jackson batted .307 as the White Sox defeated the New York Giants.
In 1919, Jackson batted .351 during the regular season and .375 with perfect fielding in the World Series. This, however, did not prevent the heavily favored White Sox from losing the series to the Cincinnati Reds. During the next year, Jackson batted .385 and was leading the American league in triples when he was suspended, along with seven other members of the White Sox, after allegations surfaced that the team had thrown the previous World Series.
Black Sox scandal
After the White Sox unexpectedly lost the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, eight players, including Jackson, were accused of throwing the Series. In September 1920, a grand jury was convened to investigate.
During the Series, Jackson had 12 hits and a .375 batting average—in both cases leading both teams. He committed no errors, and even threw out a runner at the plate. Jackson did bat far worse in the five games that the White Sox lost, hitting .286, with no RBI until the final contest, Game 8, when he hit a home run in the 3rd inning and added two more RBIs on a double in the 8th, when the White Sox were considerably behind.
The Cincinnati Reds also hit an unusually high number of triples to left field during the series, far exceeding the amount that Jackson—generally considered a strong defensive player—normally allowed.
In testimony before the grand jury, Jackson admitted under oath that he knew about the fix and had been offered money to participate but he had also asked to be benched for the Series to avoid any suspicion that he was involved, but his request was refused. He also took an envelope containing $5,000.00 given to him by teammate Lefty Williams and went to see Charles Comiskey. He was told by Comiskey’s secretary Harry Garbiner that Comiskey was busy and could not see him.
Legend has it that leaving the courthouse during the trial, a young boy begged of Jackson, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” In his 1949 interview in Sport Magazine, Jackson debunked this story as a myth.
In 1921, a Chicago jury acquitted him and his seven White Sox teammates of wrongdoing. Nonetheless, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the newly appointed Commissioner of Baseball, banned all eight accused players, claiming baseball’s need to clean up its image took precedence over legal judgments. As a result, Jackson never played major league baseball after the 1920 season.
Was Jackson innocent?
His name still remains on the Major League Baseball Ineligible list. Jackson cannot be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame unless his name is removed from that list. He spent most of the last 30 years of his life proclaiming his innocence. He released a statement that “Regardless of what anybody says, I was innocent of any wrong-doing. I gave baseball all I had. The Supreme Being is the only one to whom I’ve got to answer. If I had been out there booting balls and looking foolish at bat against the Reds, there might have been some grounds for suspicion. I think my record in the 1919 World Series will stand up against that of any other man in that Series or any other World Series in all history.”
In November 1999, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a motion to honor his sporting achievements, supporting a move to have the ban posthumously rescinded, so that he could be admitted to the Hall of Fame. The motion was symbolic, as the U.S. Government has no jurisdiction in the matter. At the time, MLB commissioner Bud Selig confirmed that Jackson’s case was under review.
In recent years, evidence has come to light that casts doubt on Jackson’s role in the fix. For instance, Jackson initially refused to take a payment of $5,000, only to have Lefty Williams toss it on the floor of his hotel room. Jackson then tried to tell White Sox owner Charles Comiskey about the fix, but Comiskey refused to meet with him. Also, before Jackson’s grand jury testimony, team attorney Alfred Austrian coached Jackson’s testimony in a manner that would be considered highly unethical even by the standards of the time, and would probably be considered criminal by today’s standards. For instance, Austrian got Jackson to admit a role in the fix by pouring a large amount of whiskey down Jackson’s throat. He also got the nearly illiterate Jackson to sign a waiver of immunity. Years later, the other seven players implicated in the scandal confirmed that Jackson was never at any of the meetings. Williams, for example, said that they only mentioned Jackson’s name to give their plot more credibility.
During the remaining twenty years of his baseball career, Jackson played and managed with a number of minor league teams, most located in Georgia and South Carolina. In 1922, Jackson returned to Savannah and opened a dry cleaning business.
In 1933, the Jacksons moved back to Greenville, South Carolina. After first opening a barbecue restaurant, Jackson and his wife opened “Joe Jackson’s Liquor Store,” which they operated until his death. One of the better known stories of Jackson’s post-major league life took place at his liquor store. Ty Cobb and sportswriter Grantland Rice entered the store, with Jackson showing no sign of recognition towards his former teammate. After making his purchase, the incredulous Cobb finally asked Jackson, “Don’t you know me, Joe?” Jackson replied, “Sure, I know you, Ty, but I wasn’t sure you wanted to know me. A lot of them don’t.”
As he aged, Joe Jackson began to suffer from heart trouble. In 1951, at the age of 63, Jackson died of a heart attack. He is buried at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Greenville, South Carolina