Baseball 91: Shoeless Joe Jackson

Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans Way back up in the woods among the evergreens There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode Who never ever learned to read or write so well But he could play guitar just like a-ringin' a bell

-- "Johnny B. Goode," Chuck Berry

Joe Jackson could play baseball just like a-ringin' a bell. Nobody knows how he learned to play. Nobody knows who coached him. He just shows up in our story complete, 13 years old, entirely unschooled, already a veteran of the Brandon Mill textile factory in his hometown. He throws so hard that the mill team makes him a pitcher -- that is until he breaks a batter's arm with his fastball. He hits so well that the people in town chant his name and throw coins at him. A local artisan named Charlie Ferguson gifts him an enormous 48-ounce bat, the sort that only a folk hero could swing. Ferguson blackens it with tobacco juice. Joe calls it "Black Betsy."

The reason, I think, so many people are drawn to the story of Joe Jackson is that it starts with the innocent exuberance of a boy who plays ball because it's the best part of his life, because every minute on the field is a minute spent in the sunshine and outside the dank and gloomy confines of Brandon Mill. He plays baseball with boundless joy and talent, and it captivates everyone around him. He swings Black Betsy with such a gorgeous rhythm -- "I copied my swing after Joe Jackson's, it is the perfectest," Babe Ruth said -- that people come from all over South Carolina to see him play. They call his longest drives, "Saturday Specials."

All this might have been enough for Joe Jackson. He's paid $2.50 a game -- double a day's pay at Brandon Mill -- and he is in demand. Other mills hire him to play too. He feels famous. He feels lucky. He plays ball and drinks corn whiskey and lives a bigger life than he ever could have hoped for, a bigger life than his father, George, who toils unhappily in the factory every day with no baseball to brighten things. Three days after his 21st birthday, Joe Jackson marries Katie Wynn, and for the rest of his life Katie will read to him, write for him, protect him, defend him. It might have been enough.

When Jackson is 20 years old, just before he marries Katie, an old ballplayer named Tom Stouch approaches him with an offer to come play professional baseball for a new team called the Greenville Spinners. Jackson says he'd rather not, he's making $45 a month between the factory and the ballgames, and he's content.

"I will play you $75 a month," Stouch says. Jackson is spellbound.

"I'll play my head off for $75 a month," Jackson says.

He signs the contract with an X.

And that's when the story of Johnny B. Goode ends and the story of Shoeless Joe begins.

* * *

Joe Jackson insisted all his life that he only played one game without shoes, and that was when he played for the Greenville Spinners. He developed agonizing blisters while wearing a new pair of cleats. He asked to sit out a game in Anderson, S.C., so that his feet could recover. Tom Stouch wasn't having any of that; he reminded Jackson of his promise to play his head off. So Joe Jackson played in his stocking feet.

"You shoeless bastard, you!" one fan shouted at him as Jackson slid into third for what might be professional baseball's only shoeless triple. He hated the nickname all his life.

Tom Stouch knew just how good a baseball player Joe Jackson was; he saw it before anyone else. Stouch wrote letters to the biggest man in baseball, Philadelphia manager Connie Mack himself, and described the baseball genius of his prodigy. Mack sent two scouts to watch Jackson play. They both wired back: Sign this man.

Connie Mack paid Stouch $900 -- about $25,000 in today's money -- for the rights to Joe Jackson. Stouch was thrilled, not only for the money, but because he truly did love Joe and believed with all his heart that playing baseball in the major leagues was the thing that every single ballplayer in America dreamed of doing.

But that was not Joe Jackson's dream. And he wasn't going.

"I hardly know as how I'd like it in those big Northern cities," Jackson told Stouch. Joe had never left South Carolina. He had no interest in leaving South Carolina. He had no interest, as the newspapers reported, of going up North and "bumping into strangers by himself."

Stouch felt sure that Jackson was just scared, and that, once he got to the big leagues, he'd get over it and be thrilled playing ball with the best players in the world. As David Fleitz writes in his book Shoeless, Stouch decided to take Jackson to Philadelphia himself. They met at the train station. Stouch made sure that Jackson got on. He made sure that Jackson got seated comfortably. Stouch explained the plan a few times: When they got to Philadelphia, he would take Jackson to the ballpark and personally introduce him to Mack, and make sure that he was settled.

When the train reached Philadelphia, Joe Jackson was gone.

Stouch rushed to the ballpark in a panic; he was worried that Jackson had been kidnapped, or worse. Mack shook his head and showed him the telegram he had just received.

"AM UNABLE TO COME TO PHILADELPHIA AT THIS TIME. JOE JACKSON."

He had jumped the train in Charlotte and returned home.

Mack was outraged. He demanded that his aging and injured star, Socks Seybold, go down to South Carolina and bring Jackson to Philadelphia, even if it meant getting "his whole family to come back with you."

Jackson did come back with Seybold ... and he showed some of his great talent ... and he detested Philadelphia even more than he thought he would. His teammates cruelly mocked him for being Southern, for being odd and, mostly, for being illiterate. Of all the Shoeless Joe images, the one I find most touching and haunting is of him pretending to read magazines on the train, sometimes even shouting out, "Wow, that's some story!" This only encouraged teammates to insult him even more, and Jackson felt so lonely and downhearted that three times he tried to sneak on a train and head back to the safety and warmth of his South Carolina home.

[caption id="attachment_23405" align="aligncenter" width="470"] Jackson's swing was ahead of its time.[/caption]

"Shoeless Joe Jackson has returned to his home in Greenville," The Washington Post reported. "Big league life wasn't just to the young man's liking. ... Joe had just about one week of mingling with city folk when he concluded that he was never cut out for the Major League. He told Connie Mack so, and added that he'd rather be a star in the bushes than struggle for a regular place on a big league team."

Mack tried to win over Jackson the same way Stouch had tried, by pushing what he thought was the dream of every young man in 1908. "Mack offered to send him to school to have him educated," the Post wrote, "but the boy refused every inducement. Promises of big salary, education, fine clothes for his girl wife and many other things were ignored."

In the end, Joe Jackson played only 10 games for Connie Mack's Athletics. Mack felt, for numerous reasons, like he had no choice but to trade Jackson to Cleveland in 1910. Mack never got over it, though. A lot of people forget that it was Connie Mack's Athletics who played in that final doubleheader against the Red Sox on that day in 1941 that Ted Williams clinched .400.

“I wish I had a Williams,” Mack said. “I had one once. And I lost him.”

* * *

"I keep him because he reminds me of something." "What?" "Something that I don't want to forget." "What's that?" "That when they come to you sweet talking, you better not listen to anything they say. I don't aim to forget that."

-- The Boss in All the King's Men

Shoeless Joe Jackson never forgot that they came sweet talking him. Once he accepted that he was going to be a big league ballplayer, he spent his life doing two things: Playing extraordinary, even unprecedented, baseball and keeping an eye on the bastards to make sure that they weren't cheating him.

He hit .408 his first full season with Cleveland. His friend and nemesis, Ty Cobb, won the batting title by hitting .420. Cobb used his fellow Southerner as a muse to bring out his best baseball; Cobb had never before hit .400, and he set career highs in doubles, triples, runs, hits and RBIs.

But they were different in a fundamental way. Cobb was a man of his time. He hit with hands held apart, and he bunted, slashed, intimidated and willed his way forward. He had no use for modern baseball when it was thrust upon him, and spent all his life railing against it. He saw baseball as a sweet science, much in the same way that pugilists of the time saw boxing.

Jackson was a man of the future. His swing was of the next generation -- his feet together, his hands together, his gorgeous stroke fluid and powerful and meant to pound baseballs a long way. As Fleitz wrote, people heard a different sound when the ball came off Joe Jackson's bat. If Babe Ruth was Elvis, Joe Jackson was the country blues singer who got there first.

Jackson hit .395 and led the league in hits and triples in his second year. He hit .373 and led the league in hits and doubles in his third. But there was none of the quiet satisfaction that he had felt as a weekday mill worker and Saturday baseball hero. They were cheating him. He knew it. Cleveland was better than Philadelphia, and the owner, Charles Somers, was a beloved figure -- a onetime millionaire who had kept the American League afloat in its early days -- but Jackson knew that he deserved more. Cobb was making more. The owners were making more. Everyone was making more.

* * *

"He looked at me like I was stupid. I'm not stupid."

-- Lyrics from "Aaron Burr, Sir," in Hamilton.

Jackson threatened to quit baseball to go into Vaudeville. He threatened to quit the American League and go play in the Federal League. Finally, he demanded that Cleveland deal him to a winner, so he could get "some of that sweet World Series money." Somers, who once was among the richest men in America but had lost it all, traded Jackson to the Chicago White Sox.

And now, Joe Jackson REALLY had a reason to believe that he was being cheated. Because now he was up against one of baseball's favorite villains, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey.

In truth, Comiskey wasn't considered a villain publicly -- quite the opposite. The press loved him. The fans loved him. This was why it was so frustrating to play for him, because behind the scenes, Comiskey could be ruthless and astonishingly cheap. He began charging his players to launder their uniforms. But in the minds of the public, he was a saint.

And so when Jackson got into battles with Comiskey over salary, back pay and, particularly, his military decision, the press played up Jackson's greed, his ungratefulness and his inability to read. In 1918, Jackson was given a choice about how to serve his country. He could go to fight, but he was also given the option to work for a shipbuilding company. For Jackson, who was the sole support for his wife and mother, who had three brothers already fighting in the war, the choice was obvious: He would work.

Comiskey took it upon himself to call Jackson a coward. “There is no room on my club for players who wish to evade the army draft by entering the employ of ship concerns,” he snarled, and it was the ultimate insult for a man who was already hypersensitive to insults. Jackson would not forget.

The end, which you already know, was probably inevitable. Jackson, feeling cheated and betrayed and angry, took $5,000 to help throw the 1919 World Series. He hit .375 that Series and didn't commit an error, and he long claimed that he had played it straight, which might or might not be true, and is definitely beside the point. Jackson agreeing to take the money was undoubtedly a high factor in getting the World Series thrown. That's how conspiracies work. If the big guy is onboard, it's going to be a whole lot easier to get everybody else on board.

Jackson had a fantastic season in 1920, his best in years. He hit .382, slugged .589, and led the league in triples at age 32. And then he was banned for life.

* * *

Joe Jackson returned to the small southern towns where he began, and played ball until he was almost 50. This has been played off as sad -- a larger-than-life figure, now out of shape, playing in the sandlots against townsfolk. And Jackson did make a few pleas to be allowed back into organized baseball.

But the truth, those sandlots, that's where he was happiest. It took him a long time to figure that out. He eventually opened a liquor store a few blocks from where he grew up. He and Katie never had any children, but he would spend much of his later years teaching the kids in the neighborhood how to play ball. Sometimes he would buy them ice cream. By that point, he was no longer trying to get back in the game.

Late in his life, Ty Cobb and Joe Jackson crossed paths. The story has often been told about Cobb saying, "Don't you know me?" and Jackson saying "Sure I do Ty, but I didn't think you knew me."

My favorite part is what that son-of-a-gun Ty Cobb told Shoeless Joe: "Whenever I got the idea I was a good hitter, I'd stop," Cobb said, "and take a good look at you."

Joe Jackson died five years later. He was 63. Thirty-nine years later, Ray Liotta played Shoeless Joe Jackson in the movie Field of Dreams. In the movie, he threw left-handed and batted right-handed, the opposite of real life.

"I'd wake up in the night with the smell of the ballpark in my nose and the cool of the grass on my feet," the movie Shoeless Joe said. "The thrill of the grass."

"If I had been the kind of fellow who brooded when things went wrong," the real Joe Jackson said, "I probably would have gone out of my mind ... I would have been bitter and resentful because I would have felt I had been wronged. But I haven't been resentful at all.

"I gave baseball my best."