In 1919 baseball was America’s sweetheart. Suspendered boys gathered in dirty city streets and dusty fields to play our already-established pastime, swinging thin sticks at unraveling balls. Professional players were idolized as American icons, honest and true men of unparalleled athleticism and genuineness. In a world recovering from war, baseball represented the patriotism, valor, and honesty of American men.
So on October 2, the opening day of the World Series, when the Philadelphia Bulletin published a poem about our noble sport, it was without irony.
Still, it really doesn’t matter,
After all, who wins the flag.
Good clean sport is what we’re after,
And we aim to make our brag
To each near or distant nation
Thereon shines the sporting sun
That of all our games gymnastic
Base ball is the cleanest one!
But as the Series progressed, the Bulletin’s brazen pride in America’s pastime—a pride representative of the nation’s—came into question. The Chicago White Sox, almost unquestionably the best team in the League, were slated to trample their opponents, the Cincinnati Reds—but they didn’t. It didn’t take long for the nation to realize the circumstances behind the Series weren’t just coincidence. Baseball’s official fall from grace came the next year, when eight members of the team were implicated in a gambling conspiracy to intentionally lose the game.
The players of the Black Sox Scandal eventually admitted to their guilt, sullenly accepting their punishment of banishment from the professional sport. All players, that is, except Joseph Jefferson “Shoeless Joe” Jackson. Jackson maintained his innocence not just for years but for decades. Countless abettors have come to his defense—from fellow players to the US House of Representatives—but Jackson remains associated with the scandal, his name on the Major League’s ineligible list and out of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jackson was raised in the red dirt of South Carolina on the outskirts of the mill town Greenville. At just six years old, Jackson made his way to one of his city’s mills and began his career as a “linthead,” or mill hand. From sunup to sundown, Jackson slogged away in the mills, his meager wage supporting his family but leaving no time for an education (the lack of which would plague him later in life). Though Jackson’s mind was not necessarily receiving the stimulus appropriate for a young man, it quickly became evident that his body was. At thirteen, Jackson’s strength and inherent athleticism earned him a spot on the Brandon Mill’s baseball team. Every Saturday Jackson took to the field, earning a considerate compensation of $2.50 (the equivalent of $71 today).
Though he was the youngest player on the team, he quickly emerged as the strongest. Originally slated as a pitcher, Jackson was relegated to outfielder after breaking an opponent’s arm with a fastball, after which other players refused to bat against him. His batting record and hitting ability made Jackson a local celebrity, and the youthful athlete jumped from mill team to mill team in search of higher pay. It was during this time that Jackson earned his anomalous nickname. After purchasing a new pair of cleats, Jackson headed to a local field in Greenville for a game; walking and running in the shoes proved to be a painful enterprise as the blisters emerged across his feet. Rather than give up the game, he removed his shoes and went up to bat in his socks. A chivying fan, noticing Jackson’s lack of footwear, called across the field, “You shoeless son of a gun, you!” The humorous epithet stuck, and “Shoeless Joe” he remained.
By 1905 Jackson was a semi–professional player, and in 1908 he entered the big leagues as a member of the Philadelphia Athletics. From early on Jackson proved antithetic to most professional players; some claim he struggled with adjustment to the big city, others that he suffered through months of hazing, but whatever the reason, Jackson spent his first years as a professional baseballer hitting in feeder teams.
But in 1911, during his first full rookie season, Jackson’s star rose. That year he broke countless rookie records and led the league in stats and averages—a feat he would continue throughout the rest of his career. In 1915 Jackson joined the Chicago White Sox, a team brimming with talent—but still none as adroit as Jackson. In fact, Jackson still holds White Sox franchise records for triples in a season and career batting average.
In 1917 the matchless Jackson and his White Sox won the World Series. World War I conscripted Jackson to factory work in 1918, but in 1919 he returned to the sport full time, better than ever. As the World Series approached, the White Sox were once again slated to take the title with Jackson leading the team. But their victory slipped, fell—and Jackson’s reputation with it.
Jackson was breaking even his own records during his 1920 season when baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, imposed a lifetime ban on Jackson and the seven other players accused of rigging the 1919 World Series. According to Landis, the players had accepted bribes from gamblers and intentionally lost to the inferior Reds. Although Landis’s accusations were generally true—most of the players later admitted their guilt—Jackson’s association with the Black Sox Scandal is still disputed today.
The argument against Jackson is admittedly weak, pockmarked with tenuous connections and claims. According to Jackson and his supporters, the virtuous player knew about the scandal and actually refused the $5,000 offered to his fellow teammates two times. When Jackson approached the owner of the team with the intention of informing him of the fix, his request was denied. When the trial approached, Jackson was unable to afford a lawyer and was instead forced to rely on the team’s crooked lawyer. And once again Jackson’s lack of education and literacy worked against him, as he blindly signed paperwork that would later call into question his innocence.
Despite his purported probity, Jackson was grouped with wrongdoers and forbidden from Major League Baseball (the MLB) at the height of his career. He and his wife wandered home to Greenville, where he invested in a series of businesses and careers, from barbecue restaurants to liquor stores, always playing and coaching minor league baseball on the side. Jackson continued to claim his innocence, and his fans uphold the mantle today. Perception of Jackson’s wrongful incrimination is so widespread, in fact, that even the US House of Representatives passed a resolution in 1999 encouraging the MLB to reinstate the shamed player. But every time the MLB is asked to reverse the decision of Commissioner Landis, the request is denied, and Jackson remains on the MLB’s ineligible list, preventing his election to the Hall of Fame.
Though Shoeless Joe may never be elected to the Hall of Fame, he remains an iconic figure in the history of the sport. He still holds the third highest batting average in the Major League. Even the legendary Babe Ruth claimed that he modeled his hitting style after Jackson’s. Unfairly censured in his prime, the one justice is that Jackson was never allowed the chance to ungracefully slump into the decline of an aging athlete, instead retaining forever his image as one of the best baseball players of all time.
Nowhere is this title more sustained than in his hometown and resting place of Greenville, South Carolina. Here you’ll find the Shoeless Joe Jackson Memorial Park, the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum, and a life-sized statue of the baseball icon in the West End. Though his name may remain absent from the Hall of Fame, it lives on in the hearts of Greenvillians and baseball fans everywhere.