All He Knew Was Baseball
By: Dan Crowley
His family has lived in the Greenville, South Carolina, area for generations. He is just over six-feet tall and weighs about 180 pounds. He hits from the left side but throws right-handed. Joe Jackson is a baseball player, a good one, whose roots in the game run deep.
Coming out of high school, Jackson was selected in the 2010 Major League Baseball amateur draft by the Kansas City Royals. This past spring at The Citadel he was one of the top hitters, leading the team in doubles (15) and triples (4), finishing second in hitting with an average of .279 while slugging .393. After his freshman season, in which he hit .302, he was named to the Southern Conference All-Freshman Team. Last summer he played baseball in the Coastal Plains League for the Columbia Blowfish.
This summer Jackson is catching and playing first base for the Bourne Braves in the Cape Cod Baseball League.
“I wanted to play here,” Jackson said of the Cape League. “I wanted to get some at bats and face some good pitching day after day. These are quality players here and the competition helps you.”
Like most Cape League players, he’d like to play professionally someday. He comes from a family of athletes. His father played baseball and golf and his grandfather was a softball and baseball player. He also had a great-great-great-uncle who played some baseball and, some still will argue today, was one of the best hitters to ever step into the batter’s box.
Shoeless Joe Jackson died 41 years before his nephew Joe was born. Shoeless Joe also batted from the left side while throwing right-handed. He was also six-feet-one-inch tall and during his professional career weighed in around 178 pounds and, according to Babe Ruth, was one of the greatest natural hitters to play the game.
“I copied Jackson’s style because I thought he was the greatest hitter I had ever seen,” Ruth is quoted to have said. “(He was) the greatest natural hitter I ever saw. He’s the guy who made me a hitter.”
“He was the finest natural hitter in the history of the game,” according to Ty Cobb.
Uncle Joe picked up the name “Shoeless” in 1908 when playing for the Greenville Spinners in the Class D Carolina Association, signing his first professional baseball contract for $75 a month. The 19-year-old quickly made a name for himself playing the outfield, with his strong arm, acrobatic catches and big bat, leading the league with a .346 average. A reporter for the Greenville News, so the story goes, gave Jackson his name when he played a game without shoes because his new baseball shoes had yet to be broken in. The name stayed with him the rest of his life.
In August of 1908, Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack bought Jackson’s contract. He made his major league debut on August 25 that year. In July of 1910, Mack traded Jackson to the Cleveland Naps. The next season Jackson batted .408.
In August of 1915, the by then Cleveland Indians sold Jackson’s contract to the Chicago White Sox. In 1917, despite being slowed by an ankle injury, Jackson helped take the White Sox to the World Series championship, defeating the New York Giants. It was the last time the White Sox won the pennant until 2005.
In 1918, with America’s entry into World War I, Jackson went to work building battleships and played in the Bethlehem Steel League where he won the batting title, hitting .371. The next year, back with the White Sox, he helped take Chicago to the 1919 World Series to face the Cincinnati Reds.
What would become the Black Sox scandal followed. Members of the White Sox, led by first baseman Chick Gandil, conspired to throw the series. That year it was a nine-game series with the Reds winning it in eight games. The following September, allegations by gambler Billy Maharg claimed that eight players from the White Sox helped him fix the World Series. Team owner Charles Comiskey immediately suspended Jackson and the six other accused players who were still on the roster. Eventually, all eight players were acquitted in a jury trial but banned for life from baseball by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Shoeless Joe Jackson remains on Major League Baseball’s ineligible list which automatically precludes his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.
“We didn’t really talk about him that much,” Jackson said of growing up with a famous uncle. “It was all just everyday life for us. After his (Major League) playing days, he got back into the game. I remember a story once about how he was watching a game and they asked him to pinch hit. He hit a home run. He was a very humble person. After baseball he had a liquor store and he just went on with his life.
My grandfather (also named Joe) knew him. He had his bat (Black Betsy), but he sold it. My dad (also named Joe) has his 1917 World Series ring. It was a pendant back then, but he had it made into a ring. The Baseball Hall of Fame called, asking for the ring. He said no. I think they have some of his stuff in Cooperstown, maybe a uniform or something. They want the player’s items, but they don’t want the player.”
New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden recently said, “If baseball’s greatest records are in the Hall of Fame, then the players who set them should be too.”
“I agree with that,” Bourne’s Joe Jackson said. “He should be considered for the Hall. I believe he was innocent. He was illiterate and he might not have known the extent of what was going on. He told the family that he didn’t do it and family always tells family the truth.”
Shoeless Joe is attributed to having said, “It don’t take school stuff to help a fella play ball.” There might have been some truth to that statement within the context of its early 20th century place and time, however, much has changed.
“A college education is huge,” Bourne’s Joe Jackson said. “You never know when you’ll see your last pitch. If you don’t have a college education then you have nothing to fall back on.”
Family stories decades after Shoeless Joe’s passing may be few, but there is respect for the shy, quiet and humble man who played with Ruth and Cobb.
“I respect how he handled everything,” Jackson said of his uncle. “He wasn’t emotionless; he just didn’t let things that bothered him show in front of people. I know that what happened killed him, but he kept it to himself and moved on. I hope someday to be the player he was. I hope to have the image of a good player, to be known for how I handle things on and off the field.”
Former baseball legend Connie Mack said that what happened to Shoeless Joe Jackson, “is one of the real tragedies of baseball. I always thought he was more sinned against than sinning.”
Ninety-three years later, Shoeless Joe Jackson’s role in the Black Sox scandal, to many, remains unclear. Sixty-one years after his death, Major League Baseball still refuses to allow one of their best a place in Cooperstown. But some of the most compelling evidence may simply be in the words of a three-times-removed nephew who also loves baseball when he said, “All he knew was baseball. It’s all he wanted to do. He told the family that he didn’t do it and family always tells family the truth.”
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