Shoeless Joe Jackson Was No Saint

Joe Jackson cards by Helmar.

“When a Cincinnati player would bat a ball out in my territory I’d muff it if I could—that is, fail to catch it. But if it would look too much like crooked work to do that, I’d be slow and make a throw to the infield that would be short. My work netted the Cincinnati team several runs that they never would have had if we had been playing on the square.” — Shoeless Joe Jackson about his role in the 1919 World Series scandal, in testimony leaked by at least three newspapers in 1920.

“God knows I gave my best in baseball at all times and no man on earth can truthfully judge me otherwise.” — also Shoeless Joe Jackson

As a result of historically inaccurate books and a Hollywood movie that repeated those myths about the 1919 World Series scandal, Shoeless Joe Jackson has become a sympathetic figure, a tragic hero felled by circumstances outside his control.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As many historians have shown with detailed investigations and primary source material, Jackson conspired to throw the 1919 World Series. He did so willingly, fully aware and in defiance of the consequences. According to his own words, he accepted bribe money and he was peeved when he was not paid what he was promised. He admitted his participation in the scheme in testimony to a grand jury, text of which still exists. Later, when he tried to claim innocence in the newspapers, the judge in the trial warned Jackson that he would be brought up on perjury charges.

Yet, to many baseball fans, Shoeless Joe is a victim.

The basic arguments in his favor are these:

1. Jackson played his ass off in the Series, and his .375 average, 12 hits, and six runs batted in prove it.

2. Jackson was not a smart man, and he was duped by teammates who convinced Joe that everyone else was doing it anyway. This was the case made in the movie Eight Men Out, a steaming pile of fiction that was riddled with historical errors.

3. Along with the other seven accused players, Jackson was acquitted by a Chicago jury.

Why Shoeless Joe Was Guilty

Let’s examine those points:

1. A close examination of the play-by-play record reveals that Jackson produced almost every one of his hits and RBIs in games in which either the Sox were not playing crooked or when a crooked game was already well out of hand. I won’t go into the detailed play-by-play here, but I’ve reviewed every play from that Series involving Jackson, and it indicates that he hit poorly when the game was in doubt and got hits when a loss was already assured. He batted .500 in the two “honest games” and .333 in the crooked games. His only homer and all six of his RBIs came in the honest games and in Game Eight, when the team was hopelessly behind. He also made three plays in left field that were very suspicious, though they were not ruled errors. He made half-hearted efforts to field balls, which was noticed by his honest teammates, and which Jackson confirmed in statements (like the one printed above, which leaked from his testimony).

2. Those who use Jackson’s limited education to defend him are really reaching, to the point of absurdity. It doesn’t matter whether Jackson was a well-educated man or not: he knew right from wrong. He knew it was wrong to accept money from gamblers, and he knew enough to get upset when he received only $5,000 of the $20,000 he was promised. Shoeless Joe was not a country bumpkin. He was a crucial figure in the scheme’s success, confirmed in testimony from his fellow conspirators. As official Major League Baseball historian John Thorn has stated so well, “Jackson, though illiterate, [was] neither tragic nor dumb.” Jackson said: “I got $5,000 and they promised me $20,000. All I got was the $5,000 that Lefty Williams handed me in a dirty envelope. I never got the other $15,000. I told that to Judge McDonald. He said he didn’t care what I got … I don’t think the judge likes me. I never got the $15,000 that was coming to me.”

3. Lastly, Jackson and the others were acquitted for two reasons: (1) his lawyers (paid for by White Sox owner Charles Comiskey) successfully argued that there was no law specifically forbidding baseball players from taking money for throwing games, and (2) the jury was star-struck. The trial was a farce, influenced by Comiskey, who wanted to silence the bad press surrounding his team.

The Myth of Shoeless Joe’s Shame

Here’s another thing most people believe:

After being barred from the game, Jackson lived in the shadows. He played in outlaw leagues for a few years, hoping to make some money, but without the big gates of organized ball, he didn’t earn much. He tried his hand at running his own business and he briefly licensed his name to endorse products, but he never regained his footing. He died having ruined his life for a measly $5,000.

But that’s hogwash too.

In reality, Shoeless Joe Jackson bragged openly about his involvement in the scandal, benefited from it, and lived a fairly successful life in South Carolina after being banned from organized baseball. He also had the audacity to sue the White Sox for the amount they did not pay him after he was banned from the major leagues. He even lied at the civil trial, recanting his recorded testimony from the conspiracy trial.

Here’s another leaked bit of testimony from Shoeless Joe:

“And I’m going to give you a tip. A lot of these sporting writers that have been roasting me have been talking about the third game of the World’s Series being square. Let me tell you something. The eight of us did our best to kick it and little Dick Kerr won the game by his pitching. Because he won it, those gamblers double crossed us because we double crossed them.”

Does that sound like an illiterate rube who got tricked by gamblers?

The last time he rested his head on a pillow, Joe had no regrets about the 1919 affair, other than being caught.

There are still people who think Jackson is an innocent man who got a raw deal. But an examination of the facts and Shoeless Joe’s own words reveal a different story. He was not a romantic, tragic figure. His motivation was one of the oldest in history: greed.

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2 thoughts

  1. Nicely done! As a White Sox fan who first read “Eight Men Out,” at age 11 half a century ago, the sad story of the Black Sox has forever tinged my view of both sports and America society as a whole. There are lessons to be learned, but none of them ever will be if you try to whitewash one of the key figures simply because he was a great player with a colorful nickname.

    I think part of the problem is there have been so many tellings of this story, all with their own slant, that getting to the heart of the matter is difficult. Even “Eight Men Out” itself is problematic in that it has its two versions, Eliot Asinof’s book that was written using what was known as “New Journalism” to present a truth while not adhering strictly to the facts, and John Sayle’s movie, which though a period piece that was beautiful to behold was more interested in insipidly whitewashing a character of its own, Buck Weaver. But that’s the movies; there are certain things that movie makers of that era knew the audience wouldn’t accept. It’s why they never could have sold paying moviegoers on Robert Redford in a version of “The Natural” that actually adhered to the book’s ending.

    And all of this was muddled further by the movie version of “Field of Dreams,” with Ray Liotta’s portrayal of Jackson, or the endless research by SABR authors on the 1919 scandal, ostensibly to bring the facts to life, but with the added bonus of squashing all the pleasure out of reading Asinof’s work, which itself had kickstarted a re-interest in the story 40 years after it occurred.

    As they say, “when the truth becomes legend, print the legend.” It’s an easy sell to accept Jackson’s later protestations of innocence, because people with no knowledge of what happened would prefer to see him as a sympathetic character. A couple of decades ago, Tom Harkin, a senator whom I generally respected, wrote to Bud Selig requesting a new consideration of lifting the ban on Jackson. When asked why, Harkins said that, well, “Field of Dreams” had been filmed in his home state of Iowa and had got him interested in the story. But no one learned anything about Jackson, the man, from “Field of Dreams,” except one more version of the legend,

    I read Asinof’s book a number of times as a teenager, and each time a part of me held out hope that this time, the eight Black Sox would turn the tables and win the Series. But they didn’t, because they really were guilty of throwing the Series. Maybe the lesson to be learned was that the influence of gamblers was so accepted at the time that the players never considered the firestorm they were igniting. As I said, the book had a great influence on me, and it took a long time for me to accept that it wasn’t being written as pure history, that there were too many colorful scenes that didn’t play out quite that way. But pretending the 1919 Series wasn’t thrown and that Jackson was a naive innocent serves nothing. So it’s nice to see you posting the counter argument to that fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I accept that Shoeless Joe knowingly participated in throwing the 1919 World Series for money. Still, he was a great ball player — he could hit, throw, run. You name it, on the ball diamond he could do it all. And like most of us, he was a flawed, imperfect human being. Do those character flaws — and they were serious ones about his basic honesty, integrity and person ethics — preclude him from election to the Hall of Fame (HOF)? A difficult question. I, for one, would like to see Shoeless Joe in the HOF simply based on his accomplishments on the diamond. Ty Cobb was possibly the most ornery man to ever put on a pair of cleats. Stories abound about Cobb and his reputedly less-than-stellar behavior — both on and off the field — and of him being a person sorely lacking even an iota of human kindness and decency. And yet, Cobb, for all his faults and flaws is (deservedly so) enshrined in the HOF. I would also like to see Pete Rose in the hall but here’s the quirky part: I don’t believe Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens should be sharing wall space with the likes of Hank Aaron, Walter Johnson and Roberto Clemente. Weird huh?

    Liked by 1 person

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