Even in Short Time in Cleveland, Shoeless Joe was One of the Best
Vince Guerrieri | On 19, Aug 2015
He came to Cleveland because Connie Mack thought he would never amount to anything in Philadelphia.
And when he left – 100 years ago this week – there were some who said he wore out his welcome … but it was closer to the truth to say the owner needed to come up with cash.
He never put up the numbers in his next stop, Chicago, that he did in Cleveland, but Shoeless Joe Jackson attained a different kind of immortality – and notoriety.
Joe Jackson demonstrated a natural talent for baseball in his native South Carolina, playing on various factory and semipro teams before latching on to the Greenville affiliate of the new Carolina Association in 1908. While there, he played in a new pair of shoes, developing blisters on his feet. His manager told him he’d have to play the next day in Anderson – there were only 12 players on the roster – and Jackson opted to play in his stocking feet. In the seventh inning, he walloped a triple and as he pulled into third, he said a fan stood up and called him a “shoeless sonofagun.” The nickname stuck.
Jackson tore up the league, and by the end of the year, Connie Mack had bought his contract for the Philadelphia Athletics, then the first great dynasty of the American League. But Jackson never fit in, and bounced back and forth between Philadelphia and the minor leagues. Mack – who had an eye for talent – reluctantly traded him to Cleveland.
Jackson fit in better in Cleveland, and proceeded to become the best hitter in team history – a title he can still lay claim to. In his first full season with the Naps, he hit a career high of .408 – still the highest single-season batting average in team history, but not even good enough to win the batting title that year (Ty Cobb hit a robust .420). In 1912, Jackson led the league in hits and triples (his 26 triples that year remain a team record), and the following year, led the league in hits and doubles. Jackson remains the team leader in career batting average (.375) and in the top five in triples (89), on-base percentage (.441), slugging percentage (.542) and OPS (.983) – feats even more incredible considering that he played less than five full seasons in Cleveland.
By 1915, team owner Charles Somers was tapped out. He had suffered setbacks in his coal business, and he was stretched thin in baseball investments. The upstart Federal League had caused player salaries to rise, and Somers and team president Ernest “Barney” Barnard had developed baseball’s first farm system. (Behind the scenes, Somers was essentially the financier for the American League, serving as silent partner or loaning money to several other teams.)
With debts of more than $1.75 million, Somers started selling off players, and on Aug. 21 – five days after signing a contract extension through 1920 – it was Joe Jackson’s turn. “Because of a bad financial year, I was forced to let Jackson go,” Somers told Henry Edwards of the Plain Dealer. “Attendance has fallen off to such an extent that it was up to me to take some radical move to relieve the pressure and this deal was the result.” Somers assured fans that the team would keep Ray Chapman, saying that he had just turned down an offer from Tigers owner Frank Navin for the popular shortstop.
Jackson was nonplussed, and even a little pleased with the deal, saying, “I am perfectly satisfied. Why shouldn’t I be? I am getting an advance even on the new contract I signed with Cleveland Monday, and I am also helping Charley Somers out of some of his troubles. Charley has treated me so splendidly since I came to Cleveland I was willing to go anywhere he wanted to sell me.”
And so Jackson went to Chicago, where owner Charles Comiskey was decidedly less generous – although some tales of Comiskey’s penurity might be more legend than fact. But one thing is certain: There was no love lost between Comiskey and American League Commissioner Ban Johnson, and when Ban Johnson saw an opportunity to bring the hammer down on Comiskey, he did so, making accusations regarding not only the 1919 World Series, but that the White Sox were throwing games in 1920.
By 1921, Major League Baseball had a new commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, but no more Shoeless Joe. Jackson, along with seven teammates (one, Chick Gandil, had already retired) was banned from baseball for the World Series fix.
Meanwhile, the Indians were celebrating their first World Title, having dispatched the Brooklyn Dodgers (or Robins, in honor of their manager, Wilbert Robinson) in seven games. Eight months after selling Jackson, Somers finally found a buyer for the team: Jim Dunn, who was determined to spend whatever it took to bring a championship to Cleveland (and had no problem overspending to bring Tris Speaker to Cleveland, shortly after buying the team).
It’s easy to wonder: If Joe Jackson had been able to stay with the Indians until Dunn’s purchase of the team, where would he have ended up? Would he have become the team leader needed in the wake of Chapman’s death and helped to a World Series win? Would he have been the added talent the team needed when they came up short in 1918 and 1919? And most of all, he probably wouldn’t have fallen in with gamblers and bitter teammates looking for a payout from someone if not the owner.
Joe Jackson probably would have been a member of the Hall of Fame. Well, the Baseball Hall of Fame, that is.
He’s been a member of the Indians Hall of Fame since 1951 – shortly before his death at the age of 63.