Sunday, July 16, 2006

'Say it Ain't So'


Shoeless Joe Jackson was born on this day in 1889 in Pickens County, South Carolina.

An illiterate textile mill laborer from South Carolina, Jackson had great natural batting talent, and for a time he rivaled Ty Cobb as the greatest hitter of the American League. Having led his team to the AL pennant at the peak of his powers in 1919, Jackson's brilliant playing that season helped to set the stage for what has come to be known as the "Black Sox Scandal." Just prior to the World Series, Jackson's teammate, first baseman Chick Gandil, approached a Boston bookmaker with a plan to throw the World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds in exchange for $80,000, which was probably fronted by New York gambler Arnold Rothstein. Gandil then enlisted the help of several key White Sox players who either openly shared his lack of ethical restraint, or who had developed a conquering resentment of the draconian cheapness of the owner of the Sox, Charles Comiskey.

Jackson clearly shared the conspirators' sense of resentment of their surroundings; however, there is little evidence to suggest that Jackson was an active participant in the conspiracy: he played exemplary baseball during the World Series, even as his teammates made obvious gaffes on the field. After the Sox lost the Series to Cincinnati, teammate Lefty Williams explained to Jackson that the conspirators had told the gamblers that Jackson was part of the conspiracy, and presented Jackson with $5,000 as his cut from the scheme. With the $5,000 in hand, Jackson made an effort to tell Comiskey about the conspiracy but was rebuffed. With pressure mounting from the newspapers, which began running stories about the fix, Comiskey turned around and offered a $10,000 reward for information about the alleged scheme, and vowed that if any of his players were involved, he would make sure there would be no place for them in major league baseball.

As the 1920 season came to a close with Jackson having one of his greatest years ever, a Cook County grand jury prepared to hand out indictments against the conspirators in the 1919 World Series fix -- including Joe Jackson. Although at trial the eight ballplayers were acquitted of any wrongdoing, baseball's newly-anointed first Commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, expelled the eight from major league baseball for life, stating that "(r)egardless of the verdicts of juries, no player who has entertained proposals or promises to throw a game, no player who sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed and does not promptly tell the club about it will ever play professional baseball."

Jackson played out the next 20 years under assumed names for textile teams, barnstormers and semi-pro clubs -- but his inimitable swing made him instantly recognizable to the fans who watched him play. He tirelessly and repeatedly applied for reinstatement to major league baseball, but it never came.

He died on December 5, 1951 in Greenville, South Carolina. Fated never to enter the Hall of Fame, he has nevertheless entered the realm of myth and legend as a character in W.P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe and the popular movie it spawned, Field of Dreams.

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