Please welcome guest author Arlene Marcley. Marcley is the founder and president of the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and Baseball Library in Greenville, SC, a non-profit, all-volunteer organization dedicated to honoring Shoeless Joe Jackson’s life and professional career.
The great Ted Williams once remarked, “When I was younger, the Red Sox used to stop in Greenville, SC—that’s Joe Jackson’s home. And he was still alive. Oh, how I wish I had known that and could have stopped in to talk hitting with that man.”
Many of us wish we could have talked with Joe Jackson! There are still folks around the Greenville area who knew Joe. Most of them were kids during the ‘40s, when they learned to bat and throw from the old man who ran the liquor store on Pendleton Street.
Joe Jackson came from a hard life of southern poverty. He was born on July 16, 1888, in Pickens County, the first of six boys and two girls born to George and Martha Jackson. When Joe was six years old, he went to work at Pelzer Mill sweeping cotton dust off the wooden floors.
In early 1900, George Jackson moved his family to the Brandon community of West Greenville—not far from Fluor Field. Life was tough for the large family, and like so many children of textile mill workers, Joe went to work at Brandon Mill to help his family. There was never time for school, and Joe never learned to read or write. He probably would have spent the rest of his life working in the textile mill except for one thing—baseball.
In 1901, the managers of the Brandon Mill baseball team had watched 13-year old Joe play baseball in pickup games. They were so impressed with his powerful natural swing and follow-through that they got permission from George and Martha to sign the boy to the Brandon Mill men’s team.
Between 1901 and 1907, Joe thrilled the crowds with his throwing arm and spectacular catches in left field. They cheered and clapped when he came on deck with Black Betsy, his favorite bat. “Give ‘em Black Betsy, Joey! Give ‘em Black Betsy!” they yelled. Folks said they could be blindfolded and still know when Joe hit the ball — it had a special crack! When Joe hit a homer, his brothers would scatter through the crowd passing their hats for tips and sometimes made as much as $25.00 a game.
His home runs were known as Saturday Specials, his line drives Blue Darters, his glove, A place where triples go to die, and he could throw the ball more than 400 feet on the fly. Many years later, Ty Cobb told Joe: “Whenever I got the idea I was a good hitter, I’d stop and take a look at you. Then I knew I could stand some improvement.”
In 1908, Joe was playing semi-pro ball with the Greenville Spinners. During the first game of a doubleheader, Jackson played in new spikes that quickly wore painful blisters on his feet. In the second game, with the Spinners at bat in the seventh inning, Jackson took off his spikes and walked to the batter’s box. No one noticed he had discarded his shoes until he hit a triple. As Jackson slid into third base, a fan of the opposing team shouted, “You shoeless son-of-a-gun!”
It was the only time Joe played shoeless in a game, but he was tagged with the moniker Shoeless Joe, and the name stuck.
It didn’t take long for word of Jackson’s quick instincts and precise skills on the baseball field to reach the professional league. Connie Mack signed him with the Philadelphia Athletics in August 1908, and then traded him to Cleveland in 1910. The following year Joe batted .408, the highest batting average ever recorded by a rookie.
In August 1915, he was traded to the Chicago White Sox for $31,500 cash and three players. The White Sox were a talented team, winning the world championship in 1917 and the American League pennant in 1919. They were the heavy favorites to beat Cincinnati in the 1919 World Series, but the Reds ultimately took the title.
In response to suspicions that the White Sox were under the influence of sports bookies, Joe Jackson and seven other White Sox players were accused of conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series.
The headline WHITE SOX INDICTED! stunned baseball fans. At the trial in 1921, it took only two hours for a Chicago jury to render a verdict of not guilty on all counts. Despite acquittal in a court of law, and without conducting an investigation, baseball’s newly appointed baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banned Jackson and seven of his teammates from professional baseball for life, sending a no-tolerance message regarding gambling in baseball.
Whether Joe Jackson really helped fix the 1919 World Series has remained a point of dispute for eighty-nine years. Of all the White Sox players, his involvement in the alleged conspiracy seems the least likely. Joe played flawless baseball, hitting .375 for the Series, the highest on either team. He had twelve hits (a World Series record at the time), six RBIs, and no errors in eight games. He accounted for eleven of twenty runs by the Sox, and he hit the only home run in the Series!
Joe told The Sporting News in 1942:
Regardless of what anybody says, I was innocent of any wrongdoing. I gave baseball all I had. The Supreme Being is the only one to whom I’ve got to answer. If I had been out there booting balls and looking foolish at bat against the Reds, there might have been some grounds for suspicion. I think my record in the 1919 World Series will stand up against that of any other man in that Series or any other World Series in all history.
Following his banishment from professional baseball, Joe and his wife Kate moved to Savannah in 1922, where they owned a successful dry cleaning business. They moved back to Greenville in 1932 and opened a barbeque restaurant on Augusta Street and later a liquor store on Pendleton Street, a stone’s throw from Brandon Mill where they both grew up. During ball season, Joe played with semi-pro teams throughout the south, and even with teams in the north.
In 1941, at the age of 53, Joe played in his first and only night game, putting on a hitting exhibition and belting two home runs in the process.
Joe Jackson’s last time at bat was the evening of December 5, 1951, when he died at home at the age of sixty-three of a heart attack.
I can say that my conscience is clear and that I’ll stand on my record in that World Series. I’m not what you call a good Christian, but I believe in the Good Book, particularly where it says “what you sow, so shall you reap.” I have asked the Lord for guidance before, and I am sure He gave it to me. I’m willing to let the Lord be my judge.
Joe Jackson, as told to Furman Bisher,
October 1949 issue of SPORT Magazine
Joe Jackson continues to be one of the most beloved and publicized ball players of all time. Several movies, a Broadway play, songs, poems, countless books, television documentaries, feature articles, and the internet have all spun Joe Jackson into an American icon.
JOSEPH JEFFERSON WOFFORD JACKSON
Philadelphia Athletics 1908-1909
Cleveland Naps 1910-1915
Chicago White Sox 1915-1920
Position-Left Field Threw Right Batted Left
1911 highest batting average ever by a rookie – .408
1912 Led American League in triples
1913 Led AL in hits Slugging percentage .551
1917 Led Chicago White Sox to World Series victory against New York Giants
1919 World Series batting average .375
Lifetime Batting Average .356, third highest in baseball history