Harvey Frommer / History
By Harvey Frommer
Sixteen years have passed since the original publication of Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball. During that time I've written many books, but none have the drama, the pull, or the controversy of the life and times of Joseph Jefferson Wofford Jackson.
He was born July 16, 1889, into a poor family in Greenville, South Carolina. Education was never a part of his life. At the age of six, little Joe was already working in the cotton mills as a cleanup boy. When he was thirteen, he was performing hard labor a dozen hours a day along with his father and brother. His only escape from the din and dust of the mill was playing baseball on the grassy fields. A natural at the game from the start, Jackson was recruited by the company mill team.
Playing in the outfield one very hot summer day in a new pair of shoes that were pinching his feet, Jackson was so uncomfortable that he took them off and played on in his stocking feet. A sportswriter noticed and dubbed him "Shoeless Joe." Reportedly, it was the only time he played baseball shoeless. But the name stuck.
It was a moniker the youth despised as it reinforced his rural origins and his inability to read and write. Perhaps that is why, when he played for the Chicago White Sox (after stints with the Philadelphia Athletics and Cleveland Indians), he made a point of wearing alligator and patent-leather shoes--the more expensive the better. It was as if he were announcing to the world, "I am not a 'Shoeless Joe.' I do wear shoes. And they cost a lot of money!"
The greatest player ever to come out of South Carolina, Jackson's .356 career batting average is the third highest, making him one of the top players in baseball history. He batted over .370 in four different seasons. Babe Ruth copied his swing; he said Jackson was the greatest hitter he had ever seen. Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, and Casey Stengel were among those who placed Jackson on their all-time All-Star team. Ted Williams called him perhaps the greatest natural hitter of all time. Also, Jackson was such a remarkable fielder that his glove was called "the place where triples go to die."
With all he had going for him, Jackson was undone by the 1919 World Series. His image was destroyed for his being a member of the "Black Sox," accused of throwing the Fall Classic.
In the fall of 1920, Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed baseball commissioner with a lifetime contract and a mandate to clean up the game using whatever methods he saw fit. Landis had the reputation of being a vindictive judge, a hanging judge. And he lived up to his reputation. When a jury acquitted the eight accused "Black Sox" players of all charges against them, Landis, acting as judge and jury, issued a verdict all his own. He banned the eight players from baseball for life.
Shoeless Joe maintained that he had played all out in that World Series of 1919. In fact, he had hit the only home run of the series, recorded the highest batting average, collected a dozen hits (a record at the time), and committed no errors. Nevertheless, Major League Baseball was done with Jackson and his seven teammates. Justice miscarried. Sensationalistic slander had a field day. The powerless were punished while the powerful prevailed. Jackson and his teammates were scapegoats, caught at a crossroads in baseball and American history.
In 1951, a week before he was scheduled to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show to receive a trophy in honor of his being inducted into the Cleveland Indians Baseball Hall of Fame, Joe Jackson died of a massive heart attack.
Attempts to get Jackson into the Baseball Hall of Fame have failed both during and after his lifetime. Yet, Jackson's shoes are at Cooperstown. His life-sized photograph is there. So is a baseball bat he used, along with the jersey he wore in the 1919 World Series and the last Major League Baseball contract he signed. Players with far fewer credentials and far more soiled reputations are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but Jackson is not.
Every baseball commissioner who followed the posturing Kenesaw Mountain Landis has refused to act on Shoeless Joe's behalf. Commissioner Bart Giammatti said, "I do not wish to play God with history. The Jackson case is best left to historical debate and analysis. I am not for reinstatement." Commissioner Faye Vincent said, "I can't uncipher or decipher what took place back then. I have no intention of taking formal action." Neither did Commissioner Bud Selig, who received a myriad of messages, petitions, and pleas and who even agreed to a meeting with Ted Williams, who pushed for Jackson's admission to the Hall of Fame.
Public pressure keeps mounting to undo what many believe was a terrible wrong. Prominent attorneys such as Alan Dershowitz and F. Lee Bailey have argued that Jackson should go into the Hall. There have been petitions, Congressional motions, letters sent to baseball commissioners through the years--all to no avail. At the 1999 All-Star Game, of the one hundred players on the ballot for the All-Century baseball team, only two names were not displayed on banners at Fenway Park: Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson--who had finished twelfth in the All-Century balloting.
But his memory and accomplishments live on. In Greenville, South Carolina, there is a Shoeless Joe Jackson Plaza (bearing a life-sized statue of the great ballplayer), a Shoeless Joe Jackson Memorial Park, a Shoeless Joe Jackson coffeeshop/museum, and a Shoeless Joe Jackson Memorial Parkway. Murals celebrating him are near the liquor store he once owned.
And there are books such as this one that attempt to tell the tale of the illiterate boy who came out of the mills to become one of the greatest baseball players of all time and who wound up as a scapegoat, vilified through the decades by many who didn't know the full story--a story that just will not go away.
Harvey Frommer is his 33rd consecutive year of writing sports books. The author of 40 of them including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM, an oral/narrative history (Abrams, Stewart, Tabori and Chang) was published in 2008 as well as a reprint version of his classic "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball." The prolific Frommer is at work on REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK (2010).
Frommer sports books are available direct from the author - discounted and autographed.
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