Ten Who Missed: No. 8, Shoeless Joe Jackson
We continue our “Ten Who Missed” series. “Ten Who Missed” is a companion to The Baseball 100 — as the name suggests, it will feature 10 players who just missed The Baseball 100 (and those 10 players were chosen by you, brilliant readers, in a survey that Tom Tango and I did a while back). We’ll have a new “Ten Who Missed” essay every Friday. Here’s what we have had so far:
Bonus essay: Zack Greinke
No. 10: Vladimir Guerrero
No. 9: Eddie Murray
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
Deep down in Carolina close to Greenville, there lived a country boy named Joe Jackson, and he also never learned to read or write so well, but he could play baseball just like ringin’ a bell. Nobody knows how he learned to play ball. As far as we can tell, nobody coached him. He just showed up complete, like in the song, 13 years old, unschooled, working full time at Brandon Mill like his father.
He threw a baseball so hard that the mill team made him a pitcher -- until he broke a batter’s arm with his fastball.
He hit so well that the people in town chanted his name and threw coins at him. They called his longest home runs “Saturday Specials.” When he was 15, a local woodworker named Charlie Ferguson gifted him an enormous, 48-ounce bat, the sort that only a folk hero could swing. Ferguson blackened it with tobacco juice.
Joe called 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 country boy who played ball because it was the best part of his life … and the story could have ended there too. For Joe Jackson, every minute on the field was a minute spent outside the dank and gloomy confines of Brandon Mill. As such, he played baseball with boundless joy and talent. He swung Black Betsy with such a gorgeous rhythm that a fella named Babe Ruth fell in love with it.
“I copied my swing after Joe Jackson’s,” Ruth would say. “It is the perfectest.”
The heartbreaking truth seems to be: All of that might have been enough for Joe Jackson. He didn’t long for more. He felt lucky to be paid $2.50 per game — double what he made per day at Brandon Mill — and as his reputation spread, other mills offered to pay him to play for their teams. He figured that soon enough he might make enough playing for teams to quit the mill. That was probably his biggest dream. He could play ball and drink corn whiskey and live a bigger life than anybody he knew, a bigger and better life than his father, George, who had spent a punishing life working as a sharecropper, as a laborer at a cotton mill, and finally putting in 60-hour weeks at Brandon Mill to feed his eight children. There was so little sunshine in George’s life.
Joe Jackson got to play ball in the sunshine.
Then Joe Jackson married Katie Wynn, and for the rest of his life, Katie would read to him, write for him, protect and defend him.
Yes, it might have been enough.
But … in 1908, when Jackson was 20 years old, an old ballplayer named Tom Stouch approached him with an offer to play professional baseball for a new team called the Greenville Spinners. At first, Jackson politely declined because between baseball and the mill, he was making the tidy sum of $45 a month.
“I will pay you $75 a month,” Stouch said.
And with that, Joe Jackson’s song changed forever.
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