Joseph Jefferson Jackson

By Walt Baranger

Aside from Pete Rose, no one engenders as many mixed feeling about the Hall of Fame as does Shoeless Joe Jackson. Accused in the 1919 Word Series scandal, he nevertheless batted .375 with six runs batted in for the series.

Shoeless Joe Jackson

His career batting average, .356, is the third best of all time. He is 16th best for career on-base percentage. He is 26th for career triples, despite playing only in the dead-ball era; only five other players in the entire top 30 are not in the Hall of Fame.

As a right fielder for the Cleveland Indians and a left fielder for the Chicago White Sox, Jackson excelled. In 1917, his fielding percentage (.984) was near the top of the league.

He led the American League at least once in just about every major batting category, and was in the top 10 in virtually every batting category nearly every year from 1911 to 1920 — almost his entire major league career. He even twice figured in the top 10 in stolen bases.

In fact, there is no serious debate about Joe Jackson’s Hall of Hame credentials, except one: He is banned from baseball, forever.

Jackson and his career are overshadowed by the 1919 World Series, which was fixed by eight White Sox players who were in league with assorted gamblers and several other corrupt players.

Jackson’s role in Black Sox scandal was simple enough: He accepted $5,000 to throw the series. However, he tipped off the owner of the White Sox, Charles Comiskey, whose parsimonious ways had precipitated the affair.

(The term Black Sox predated the 1919 World Series and originally referred to the notoriously low pay of Comiskey’s team. It was said that they couldn’t even afford to wash their socks. He promised his 1917 team a bonus if they won the pennant, but gave them some cheap champagne instead. This is often cited as the germination of the conspiracy.)

Jackson asked Comiskey to bench him during the World Series. Comiskey ignored Jackson and, fearing the loss of much of his team, kept quiet about the reported corruption even as rumors began to swirl in the press box. Later, Jackson’s culpability was reinforced by his failure to try to return the $5,000 until after the series.

The evidence of Jackson’s subsequent collusion is clouded by his fine statistics. He batted .375 with six runs batted in and only two strikeouts. His slugging percentage was a whopping .563, and he led the team with 12 hits.

It was a best-of-nine series, and in Game 8 (the final game), with the Cincinnati Reds well ahead, Jackson led the White Sox with three runs batted in, including a home run in the 3rd inning. He also doubled in the 8th inning, scoring fellow conspirators Eddie Collins and Buck Weaver. He came very close to a home run in the 6th inning.

He had few scoring chances in the other games that the White Sox lost; with men in scoring position, Jackson advanced runners in two of only five opportunities. Gauging the blame in a loss is always a chicken-and-egg thing, but surely Jackson was not responsible for the paucity of men in scoring position.

Jackson’s fielding was especially scrutinized after a single to left field in the 5th inning of Game 4. Eddie Cicotte, the White Sox pitcher and fellow conspirator, deflected Jackson’s throw to home, allowing a run to score and the batter to advance to second base. The official scorers (there were four) charged Cicotte with an error — his second of the inning — ruling that he had intentionally jumped to deflect or cut off Jackson’s throw. The main conspirator, the first baseman Chick Gandil, admitted that he yelled at Cicotte to intercept the throw. Still, the incident was used a year later as evidence against Jackson. The Sox lost the game, 2-0.

Shoeless Joe Jackson's subpoena

When rumors of the fix definitively surfaced, Comiskey offered a $20,000 reward for solid information. An investigation was launched. Jackson, who was illiterate, signed a confession without benefit of independent legal counsel; he admitted to taking the cash but denied that he played dishonestly. He was suspended at the end of the 1920 season, despite a stellar year during which he batted .382 and set a White Sox record for triples, 21, that remains unbroken.

Jackson’s signed confession, like so many other things over the years, disappeared from the seemingly porous Cook County Courthouse; it showed up nearly 60 years later. Jackson and the others were found not guilty. Nevertheless, in 1921 the new commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banned Jackson and the seven other White Sox, plus two others.

Landis’s pronouncement was sweeping, and the team owners gave him plenipotentiary powers to enforce it: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”

Using the friendly press and even friendlier investigators to cover up his foreknowledge, Comiskey escaped detection and even swore that Jackson played the series honestly, but both of their reputations were permanently marred. The fortunes of the White Sox took a 40-year swoon, and Comiskey soon handed control of the team to his son.

After a short minor-league stint playing under an assumed name in New Jersey, Jackson headed home to South Carolina and the Deep South. Playing in unaffiliated leagues throughout the region, Jackson eventually earned up to $100 per game during the depression.

Jackson died in 1951 and is still banned, and is thus ineligible for the Hall of Fame. His last words, probably apocryphal, were said to be “I’m about to face the greatest umpire of all, and He knows I am innocent…”

If he didn’t say those exact words, he said something like them on the record many times.

No less a baseball hero than Ted Williams took up Joe Jackson’s posthumous cause, and even Congress passed a resolution asking that Major League Baseball reopen the case. Several web sites are dedicated to his memory, and they contain persuasive play-by-play analysis indicating that Jackson made an honest effort in the 1919 World Series.

It would be very difficult for the commissioner of baseball to reopen the Jackson case without reopening the Pete Rose case, or at least dredging up the uncomfortable ongoing issue of gambling on baseball games. But the Hall of Fame needs to do it, however, if for no other reason than to prove that it is interested in academic honesty in baseball above the politically motivated wishes of the commissioner.

Today Charles Comiskey is in the Hall of Fame and Joe Jackson isn’t. Say it ain’t so.

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