One of the game’s greats from a bygone era remains excluded from the other legends within the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
You know his story. You have seen him represented in several well-performing movies. Yet, nearly a century after his banishment, he remains an outsider in the hallowed halls of baseball history.
Shoeless Joe Jackson was one of the greatest players to ever wear a Cleveland uniform on the diamond, but it appears that his absence from the storied hall of legends will not change any time soon.
In a current era with a Hall of Fame ballot stained by the transgressions of performance-enhancing drugs and their uses, confirmed or alleged, by the biggest names eligible, Jackson’s name gets little mention any more. His plight had long taken a backseat to the much more public efforts to push through hit leader Pete Rose, whose own case for inclusion in the Hall seems to have met its final match. While compelling and notable stances on both sides of his issue can be made, the same too can be said about Jackson.
Towards the middle of the 2015 regular season, Jackson’s name quietly made the news again as another push to end his lifetime ban from baseball, which would open the door for his name to be considered by the veterans committee one day, was made. With the exit of Bud Selig from the chair of baseball’s commissioner, the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville, South Carolina, sent an official letter to new commissioner Rob Manfred in February formally requesting that Jackson’s name be taken off of the ineligible list.
The museum has preserved the memory of Jackson and remains one of just two free-standing museums dedicated to the career and life of a former Major League player. After the closure of the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter, Iowa, since relocated to Progressive Field, the only other such museum is Baltimore’s Babe Ruth Museum.
Multiple letters followed before a response was issued from Commissioner Manfred on the matter. In it, he stated that even 95 years after the events that led to Jackson’s exit from Major League Baseball, it was not possible to be certain enough of the truth of the matter to overturn the decision made by first baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and that he did not feel it was appropriate to re-open the matter. He followed by noting that during his candidacy for the Hall of Fame following his career, Jackson received a total of four votes out of 428 cast on the 1936 and 1946 ballots, but did acknowledge that his status on the ineligible list likely reduced his vote tally. He shared an agreement with the decisions by two of his predecessors, Commissioner Bartlett Giamatti and Commissioner Fay Vincent, in leaving Jackson’s case to historical debate.
The museum was certainly not the first to come to the cause of clearing Jackson’s name. In January 1998, two of the game’s great living legends, Feller and Ted Williams, both petitioned acting commissioner Selig to review the case for Jackson.
“I want baseball to right an injustice,” Williams was quoted in the statement submitted by he and Feller to Selig. “That’s wrong…and baseball shouldn’t tolerate injustice. He’s served his sentence and it’s time for baseball to acknowledge his debt is paid and the Hall of Fame Committee on Veterans to list him as a nominee. It’s time, and it’s the right thing to do. Joe Jackson was one of the finest hitters of all time.”
Jackson and seven other Chicago White Sox players remain barred from eligibility. They stood accused of throwing the 1919 World Series in exchange for cash.
The “Black Sox” lost the World Series. The club’s top starting pitchers, Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, lost a total of five games to the Cincinnati Reds. Cicotte was said to have collected $10,000 for his participation and Williams $5,000.
Jackson was said to have been offered $20,000 for his participation in the throwing of the series, although he was paid just $5,000. Proponents fighting for his cause have said that his performance in the series certainly looked as though he was trying to win – he hit .375 with three doubles, the series’ only homer, and six RBI. When the Sox had won the Series with him in 1917, he had hit .304 with seven singles and a pair of RBI. But his numbers at the plate in wins were far different than the losses (.545 in three wins, .250 in the five losses), and questionable plays in the field also led to increased doubt that he was not trying and playing at his best.
After a grand jury in Chicago convened to investigate rumors of the fix, Cicotte and Jackson confessed to their involvement in September 1920. Owner Charles Comiskey suspended the seven men remaining on the roster (Gandil was out of the league already, having tripled home Jackson in the eighth inning in game eight of the 1919 series for his final professional at bat) for the remainder of the season, and Landis eventually suspended all eight permanently.
A jury would eventually acquit the Black Sox of all charges in a court of law, but that was under the premise that the act of throwing a ball game in and of itself was not a criminal offense, or so instructed a judge to the jury on the matter. Despite the acquittal, written confessions from players were made and the MLB had a belief that all eight men either knew about the conspiracy or actively participated in it. Jackson testified under oath of his involvement and the sum of money he was set to receive.
He would later recant those confessions.
Before the Black Sox scandal, Jackson was one of the greats of the game. Ruth once shared that his swing was modeled after that of Shoeless Joe.
Jackson first debuted in the Majors with the Connie Mack-led Philadelphia Athletics in 1908, appearing in five games in each of his first two seasons and hitting a combined .150 with six singles and six RBI to start his career. He spent the bulk of each season in the minors, winning batting titles each year, but could not seem to catch on with the A’s MLB club. At the end of July, 1910, he was sent to Cleveland as the player to be named in the trade of A’s infielder Morrie Rath and Naps outfielder Bris Lord.
Jackson’s career was energized in Cleveland. After a month and a half with their minor league New Orleans club, he played 20 games to conclude his first season with the Naps, hitting .387 with two doubles, five triples, a homer, and eleven RBI. He began the next season as a regular outfielder for the club and hit .408 with 233 hits, 45 doubles, 19 triples, seven homers, 83 RBI, and 41 stolen bases for the season, leading baseball with a .468 on-base percentage while finishing fourth in the AL MVP voting at the age of 23.
He remained at the top of his game in 1912, leading baseball with 226 hits while batting .395 with a .458 OBP in 154 games. He finished ninth in the MVP vote. He would again lead baseball with 197 hits in 1913, while also leading the league with 39 doubles and a .551 slugging percentage and finishing runner-up to Walter Johnson for the league’s top honor.
He hit .338 for the Naps in 122 games in 1914, finishing fifth in the MVP tally. He would play 83 games under the new Indians moniker in 1915, hitting .327, but he did not end his season in Cleveland. Indians owner Charles Somers was in financial despair and feared that Jackson, one of his best players, would jump to the Federal League to receive a rumored multi-year contract of $10,000 per year that was offered to him there, rather than play out the final year and a half on his three-year, $6,000 a year deal in Cleveland.
Rather than lose him and have nothing to show for it, Somers dealt Jackson to Chicago for Larry Chappell, Ed Klepfer, Braggo Roth, and $31,500 cash. He hit .272 for the Sox in his final 45 games of the year.
He continued to play at the same high level in the Windy City, hitting .341 in 1916 and .301 in 1917. He was deferred involvement in the military commitments of World War I initially as a married man, but the ruling was later overturned and he instead elected to find employment building battleships, which resulted in a .354 average in his extremely-limited official action in 1918. He hit .351 in that storied 1919 season and was hitting .382 with 42 doubles, 20 triples, 12 homers, and 121 RBI (the latter two career highs at the age of 32) through 146 games when his suspension from Comiskey came down.
He finished his 13-year career with a .356 lifetime batting average, 307 doubles, 168 triples, and 202 stolen bases. He twice led the league in hits and three times led in triples. His .408 average for the Naps in 1911 remains both a Cleveland record and a record for Major League rookies.
Some who saw the left-handed hitting outfielder listed him as one of, if not, the greatest natural hitters of his era.
Jackson was eligible for enshrinement until 1991, when the Hall of Fame responded to the situation created by Rose and ruled that those players who were on baseball’s list of ineligibles would not be granted consideration for election.
The case can be made on both sides. Time has passed, and Jackson’s lifetime ban may have ended at the completion of his life on December 5th, 1951, at the age of 64. The validity of written confessions from the illiterate Jackson may not be of much value. His retractions of any of these admissions following his ban from the game bring forth many questions. But the confessions he did make shadow his proposed innocence, as do the stories of the other seven men out of the game. While some could argue that Jackson’s lower batting average in World Series losses could indicate his effort to throw said games, it could have equally been likely that he was unable to carry the team to a win that day with a below average performance from the human Jackson, aiding the Sox in a loss. His .375 average was the tops on the team for any player with more than two trips to the batter’s box in the Series and Reds pitching did not get credit enough for allowing just 20 runs scattered over eight games.
It appears increasingly likely that Jackson will never have a plaque gracing the grounds of Cooperstown, especially with the current stance against those displaying any improprieties while affiliated with the game. Despite that, his performances on the field will be remembered by baseball historians and he will remain one of the greatest to ever play professionally.
Securing a formal spot in baseball’s museum will not make him a better player than the stories and statistics show. His legacy will live on, albeit forever tarnished by the acts he was accused of in that 1919 World Series.
Photo: Charles M. Conlon/The Sporting News