The sordid saga of ‘Shoeless Joe’

Babe Ruth, left, and Shoeless Joe Jackson talk hitting in Chicago in 1920
PHOTO: New York Daily News 1920

It’s possible baseball sluggers George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr. and Joseph Jefferson “Shoeless Joe” Jackson bonded because of the similarities of their impoverished childhoods.

Ruth was raised primarily in an inner city Baltimore orphanage, even though he was not an orphan, and Jackson was the son of poor rural sharecroppers in Pickens County outside of Greenville, South Carolina who never attended a day of school in his life. Ruth’s parents, saloonkeepers, couldn’t afford to feed him so they put him in an orphanage and Jackson’s sent him out to pick cotton when most kids are learning their ABC’s.

But the orphanage and cotton mill had baseball teams, which gave both their chances to succeed. One did, gloriously, and the other did not, infamously. To set the table for this story of triumph and tragedy from 100 years ago, here are the ten best hitters for career average in the history of baseball through the 2017 season:

Top 10 Career Batting Average

1 Ty Cobb: .366
2 Rogers Hornsby – .358
3 Joe Jackson – .356
4 Ed Delahanty – .346
5 Tris Speaker – .345
6 Billy Hamilton – .344
6 Ted Williams – .344
8 Dan Brouthers – .342
8 Harry Heilmann – .342
8 Babe Ruth – .342

The rare photo with this piece, showing Ruth and Jackson sitting and talking (probably about hitting) had to be taken in Chicago during the 1920 season. That season was Ruth’s first in a Yankee uniform and Jackson’s last in professional baseball.

Jackson and seven other members of the White Sox were banned for life after the 1920 season by Judge “Kenesaw Mountain” Landis, the first commissioner of baseball, for conspiring to fix or rig the outcome of the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds – even though all eight were found “not guilty” in a court of law. The cheating charges, called “The Black Sox Scandal of 1919,” were undoubtedly true against six of the eight, but not against Jackson. He admitted taking money, but denied any involvement in throwing the games, and one other, Buck Weaver, who admitted knowing about the fix, but didn’t take any money and didn’t report what he knew.

Jackson – one of baseball’s biggest stars at the time – was banned by Landis for circumstantial evidence against him, including a long, handwritten and signed letter from him supposedly admitting his guilt. The judge overlooked the well known fact that Shoeless Joe was illiterate. He could neither read nor write and couldn’t sign autographs for his legion of fans. He couldn’t even order food off a menu and always ordered last when out to dinner with his teammates listening to them order first, then going with whatever sounded good.

Six of the White Sox players were certainly guilty of cheating, because their 1919 World Series statistics, both pitching and hitting, were awful. But Jackson was the leading batter in the Series hitting .375 in the games the White Sox lost and over .500 in the games they won.

He had 23 fielding opportunities in left field, made all of the plays with zero errors and even threw out five runners trying to advance on fly balls. He denied participating in the fix, but admitted knowing about it and was banned from baseball forever by Landis for not reporting it to authorities.

The general feeling was that Jackson got railroaded by Landis, who was hired by the owners to clean up baseball, which had gotten dirty during the war years of 1914-18. Players were underpaid and gambling on baseball games was a popular pastime so conditions were ripe for a big mess like the Black Sox Scandal.

Hollywood made a movie in 1920 about it callled Eight Men Out, which included the famous line of a young fan speaking to Jackson outside of Comiskey Park: “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” which never happened in real life, but Jackson always said it wasn’t so from the get go, to no avail.

Landis booted him from the game when he was 32 and in his prime years at the end of the 1920 season, not long after the photo was taken. Ruth was 25 at the time and grew up in Baltimore a big fan of Jackson’s saying: “I copied (Shoeless Joe) Jackson’s style because I thought he was the greatest hitter I had ever seen, the greatest natural hitter I ever saw. He’s the fella who made me a hitter.”

Ruth had already won three World Series as a young pitcher for the Boston Red Sox (1915, 1916 and 1918), who inexplicably traded him to the Yankees in 1919 for $100,000. It is generally considered to be the worst trade in baseball history, which led to “The Curse of The Bambino” because that 1918 Series win was the Red Sox’s last in the 20th century as they didn’t win another until 2004 against the St. Louis Cardinals. Ruth was a great pitcher and loved holding the World Series record for scoreless innings pitched into the 1940’s, but the Yankees turned him into a home run hitter and he won four more Series as a batter (1923, their first ever, 1927, 1928 and 1932).

He’s the only player in baseball history to win multiple World Series as a pitcher for one team and a home run hitter for another; a distinction that will last forever. Just as Jackson was being banished from the sport, Ruth was taking it over on his way to becoming the greatest baseball player who ever lived to play the game.

Shoeless Joe went on to live a long life of obscurity, but not poverty and shame as was often reported. He was a successful purveyor of distilled spirits (liquor stores) who married a literate woman able to read, write and sign things like cheques and mortgages.

He died in 1950, two years after The Babe, forgotten and unforgiven.As for his nickname, it’s not true that he played baseball barefoot. As a young teen in South Carolina at the turn of the century (1900), he played “Mill Ball” on Sundays, since work was forbidden in the Bible Belt.

Greenville’s statue of Shoeless Joe Jackson.

There were cotton mills all over the south in those days and most had their own ball teams. A small town sportswriter happened to be watching a game in which Jackson was trying unsuccessfully to break in a new pair of spikes, which were giving him blisters. Finally he set them aside and finished the game in his stocking feet and the legend of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson was born. It followed him throughout his career to the Hall of Infamy, but not the Hall of Fame, from which he is also banned despite the third best batting average in history.

There is a Shoeless Joe Museum in Greenville dedicated to clearing his name and getting the ban lifted, but it will never happen. Joe took the money from the gamblers, reportedly $5,000, and was as guilty as an egg-sucking dog with yolk dripping from his chin. It didn’t matter that he was just trying to beat the gamblers at their own game. Ruth got the “Babe” nickname as a 19-year-old rookie signed in 1914 by the Red Sox, who were well known for signing unknown teenagers to small contracts to save money. They probably thought they made a great deal by selling him for $100,000 when he was 25 in the photo. It was a HUGE mistake. The Yankees who started off in 1903 as the New York Highlanders became the Yankees in 1913 and followed Ruth to their first Series win in 1923. They now have 27, far and away the most in baseball. Second best is the Cardinals with 11. Shoeless Joe just faded away and never said it was so, but at least he got one World Series win with the cheapskate White Sox, in 1917, sandwiched between two Red Sox wins and two years before the Black Sox debacle.Good for Joe and his trusty bat, “Black Betsy,” but the sordid saga of “Shoeless Joe” was baseball’s saddest story… ever.


2019 World Series Primer

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