1910: Shoeless Joe

Joe Jackson at Cleveland

On this date one hundred years ago, the Philadelphia Athletics sent Joe Jackson (“Shoeless Joe”) to Cleveland. Jackson was signed by Connie Mack in 1908. He played a handful of games in both 1908 and 1909, decided he hated Philadelphia, the big cities, and the travel, so he returned to South Carolina and did not report in 1910. By the end of July, Mack gave up on him and sent his contract to Cleveland. Jackson reported to Cleveland, got into 20 games and hit .387 with a home run, four stolen bases, and 29 hits. This time he stayed around and became a star. In fairness to Jackson, he was only 18 in 1908.

I’ve made a point of staying away from posts dealing specifically with Jackson for a reason. He is one of the most polarizing figures in baseball history. Only Pete Rose and Barry Bonds rival him as a controversial player. I feel my job here is to inform, not confront. You want confrontation, go visit a political blog. Lots to “confront” about. Having said that, it’s time to deal with Shoeless Joe.

Let me start by saying I’d have given everything I ever had, including my first-born, to have been Moonlight Graham and gotten into just one Major League game. Jackson got that chance and threw it away. I have, therefore, little sympathy for him. He was a star, the idol of millions (whether one of them ever said “Say it ain’t so, Joe” or not), a great ballplayer and he decided he wanted more money. Well, Joe, so do I, but I’m not willing to compromise certain principles for it. Now I know there are a lot of defenses of Jackson. Let’s take a look at some of them:

1. He was underpaid. So what? I’m underpaid. My wife is underpaid. My first-born (who I was willing to give up a paragraph or two ago) is underpaid. Most of you reading this are underpaid. Does that make it OK to, in Jackson’s case, throw the World Series? Surely not.

2. He was too stupid to know what he was doing. Oh, really? What did he think they were giving him the bribe money for, his looks? Besides unlettered and stupid are two different things. There’s ample evidence that Jackson was illiterate, but also evidence he wasn’t stupid. He had a meal routine that belies stupidity. He always ate with a teammate. If the waitress came to him first he’d tell her he hadn’t decided yet and to get everybody else’s order and come back. He’d then listen to what they ordered and get one of the same things. If he wasn’t first, his response was “I’ll have what he’s having.” That’s not a stupid man there. In fact that’s rather clever.

3. Comiskey was a jerk. Got me there; Comiskey was a jerk. But Comiskey isn’t the one throwing games. Comiskey’s human qualities are not in question here, Jackson’s are. And to my mind, Jackson is as big a jerk as Comiskey and two wrongs don’t make either man right, or less of a jerk.

4. Jackson played OK in the series. That’s sort of right. But if you break down his series by at bats you see he doesn’t come through in crucial situations. His home run, as a simple example, is after the final game is already lost. He drives in six runs, but all in games the Sox win or in meaningless situations (like the home run). I’ll give you that Gandil and Cicotte and Williams are greater villains in losing games, but that doesn’t make Jackson any kind of hero.

So there, I’ve said my piece. Obviously I don’t like Jackson and have no wish to see him in Cooperstown. I accept that some other people do. It’s a free country. They’re entitled to be wrong.

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4 Responses to “1910: Shoeless Joe”

  1. Kevin G Says:

    Point 1- I absolutely agree.
    Point 2- I absolutely agree.
    Point 3- I absolutely agree.
    Point 4- Sitting on the fence.

    The fact is that Jackson took $5000 and spent it. He may have changed his mind and played to win, but he still took the money.
    Buck Weaver should be reinstated before anyone else.
    I’d love to hear your take on Pete Rose. As far as I’m concerned he can choke on his betting slips.

  2. verdun2 Says:

    I base my comments on point 4 on a look at the 1919 series by game and at bat (Retrosheet has one version). It is always possible to simply argue that Jackson had a bad game when he didn’t come through in a crucial situation. And maybe it’s true, but it’s coincidental and I worry about too many coincidences. And like you I can’t get around the fact that he took the money.
    I think a second problem in studying Jackson is the movie “Field of Dreams”, which presents an essentially positive view of Jackson. It’s a heck of a movie (Tell me you don’t get a little teary eyed at the “wanna have a catch” scene) and I think it colors a lot of people’s view of Jackson. (8 Men Out has it’s own problems–the champaign scene occured in 1917 not 1919–but at least gives a better sense of the period and the people)
    Rose? Let me get back to you on that (Hint-I agree with you on the betting slip)

  3. William Miller Says:

    I visited the Joe Jackson library here in Greenville where I now live, and where Jackson spent most of his life. He is, of course, beyond reproach in these parts, but then so, too, is Nathan Bedford Forrest. The museum is interesting, though.
    Nevertheless, I have always though that, at the very least, Jackson used poor judgment. Whether or not he belongs in The Hall, well…The Hall has become an enormously muddled institution over the years. I might remove some players worse than Jackson. But no, I won’t shed a tear that he’s not in there.
    Interesting take on his performance in the World Series in 1919. I’d never heard that perspective before.
    Thought-provoking post, Bill

  4. verdun2 Says:

    I don’t think it connected that you live in Jackson’s hometown, Bill. Someday make one of your posts about the library/museum. Would be interesting to get your take on the place.

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