Joe Jackson despised the nickname that would precede his name forever. He thought it was meant to belittle him and his background. He was not wrong. When Jackson was playing minor league ball in Greenville, S.C., a few miles from Brandon Mill where he grew up, he played a game in a new pair of spikes and developed intense blisters. He asked his manager to sit him out the next game. The manager refused. Jackson, out of necessity, played in stockinged feet. He hit a triple that game, slid into third, and someone supposedly shouted “You Shoeless bastard you!” That did it. Jackson would often say it was the only game he ever played without shoes, and he never played a game without socks, but the image was too priceless for sportswriters and fans and teammates.
Jackson might have been the most natural player in the history of baseball. He began working full-time in the textile mill in his town when he was 13 years old — right at the year 1900 — though there is every reason to believe he began working there at least part time long before that, perhaps even when he was just 6 or 7. That’s how it went in Brandon Mill. His father, George, tended the engine that powered the mill … backbreaking and relentless work. There is no indication that George ever played an inning of baseball or was even tempted to play.
But Joe loved the game from the start … as much as an escape from the grueling and colorless life of the mill as anything else. He never attended a single day of school (and never learned how to read or write, even though numerous people offered to teach him). Baseball was the one outlet for his childlike wonder, and he was brilliant at the game more or less from the start. He had an otherworldly arm, and was chosen as the pitcher for mill games until he broke someone’s arm with his fastball. He had a hitting style that was quite unlike the players of his day. He swung left-handed and kept both hands together and close to the end of the bat. He would swing hard and with a bit of an uppercut when he saw a pitch he could drive — and yet he almost never struck out. Babe Ruth, famously, copied his swing.
He began playing in mill games when he was 14 or 15 — according to David L. Fleitz’s book Shoeless he was paid $2.50 a game, twice as much as a day in the mill — and he quickly became a local legend. This seemed enough for Joe Jackson. He bounced around local teams, always looking for an extra few dollars, and the cheers of these small South Carolina mill towns meant more to him anything he would later hear in the biggest American cities. A man named Charlie Ferguson built him a huge bat — 36 inches, 48 ounces, tanned black by tobacco juice — that would be named Black Betsy. People soon started chanting for the bat as much as they did for Jackson himself.
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Joe Jackson probably would have been content with this life in the South Carolina Upstate. Between the mill and the baseball, he was making more money than most other folks. He had baseball and the corn whiskey he carried around with him. People treated him like a hero. He would soon marry a sensible woman named Katie Wynn, who (unlike Jackson) could read and write and handle his affairs. He would often say that he did not need more.
But he was simply too talented to avoid attention. A man named Tom Stouch — who had gotten 17 plate appearances for the Louisville Colonels in 1898 — had seen Jackson play and was entirely blown away. When Stouch became manager of the Greenville Spinners, he had to have Jackson. He offered $75 a month — at least double what Jackson was making working in the mill and playing baseball — and Jackson could not say no*. Jackson seemed to despise fame all his life, but he was perpetually vulnerable to a better money deal. That would prove to be his downfall, of course.
*This was the time he signed his contract with an X. Later — unlike various depictions — Katie taught him how to sign his name.
Jackson led the Carolina Association in hitting right away, and he remained utterly beloved. Supposedly one day he hit a home run that went so far, people in the stands threw $29.75 in coins to him, more than a mill worker would make in a month (“Make it even $30,” Stouch apparently said as he threw another quarter into the hat). Once again, Joe Jackson was entirely content — probably the happiest he would ever be in baseball. But again, his talent pulled him forward. Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics and one of the most famous baseball men, caught wind of Jackson’s talents (Stouch, among others, had written him letters). He sent two scouts to see Jackson, and both said he was the real thing. Mack purchased Jackson’s contract for Philadelphia.
And … Jackson refused to go. At first, people thought it was just nerves, but they soon realized: He really did not want to go. Jackson would say he knew nothing about the Major Leagues and playing in it had never been his dream. His friends — including Stouch — were offended by Jackson’s lack of ambition. At one point, Stouch himself put Jackson on a train and rode up to Philadelphia with him to make certain that he went. But even that didn’t work — Jackson jumped the train in Charlotte and came back home.
When they finally got him up to Philadelphia, he absolutely hated it and was constantly trying to get on a train for home. His teammates bullied him mercilessly. The sportswriters had a field day with him. He was overwhelmed by the big city, and even though he always had kind words for Connie Mack himself, he thoroughly despised his time with the Athletics and apparently talked often with friends about longing for Greenville and and his wife and simpler times.
In 1910, Connie Mack made the trade that would haunt him for the remainder of his life. Mack did it in good faith. He seemed to understand that Jackson would never blossom in Philadelphia. He seemed to understand that his team (Mack had a great team in 1910 that won 102 games and the World Series) did not like having Jackson around. And he reportedly wanted to help Cleveland owner Charles Somers, a baseball icon, who had almost singlehandedly funded the American League (the Boston Red Sox were briefly called the Boston Somersets in his name).
So, on July 30, Mack traded Jackson to Cleveland — technically Jackson was the player to be named later in a trade that brought Philadelphia Bris Lord and cash
“I wish I had a Williams,” Mack would say in 1941 after watching Ted Williams blast his Athletics with back-to-back three-hit games. “I had one once. And I lost him.”
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Joe Jackson hit .408 his first full year in the major leagues. Well, he liked Cleveland a lot more than he did Philadelphia. He lost the batting crown that year to Ty Cobb (he hit a career hit .420) — as he would again and again in his career — and Cobb would sometimes tell the story about how he beat Joe Jackson out. He and Jackson were friends (or as friendly as anyone could be with Cobb during his playing deals) and at some point Cobb simply stopped talking to Jackson. Joe would try to engage him, but Cobb would glare and not say a word. Cobb said this so deeply wounded Jackson that he went into a slump and Cobb ran away with the batting title.
The story is probably pure moonshine — Jackson certainly did not slump much if he hit .408, and Cobb DID hit .420 — but it does seem true that Jackson could go into legendary slumps for the oddest reasons. He was a natural hitter, through and through, and so had numerous superstitions that went along with that. He believed bats had only so many hits in them. A broken bat could send him on a two-week slide. He had this strange habit of collecting hairpins and putting them in his back pocket when he played.
Jackson hit .395 his second season, and again lost the batting title to Cobb, who hit .409. Their styles were very different. Cobb kept his hands far apart when he hit so he could control the bat and his idea was to slash at the ball with the bat. It was spectacularly effective but of his time — if someone showed up today swinging a bat like Ty Cobb he would look bizarre and singular.
Jackson, meanwhile, was the forefather of the modern swing. He would probably look more or less modern if he just showed up in 2013. His swing became Babe Ruth’s swing became Ted Williams swing became Willie McCovey’s swing became Barry Bonds’ swing because Joey Votto’s swing. That’s not to say that any of these men swung the bat exactly alike, but that there is a certain gorgeousness in all of them. Jackson, perhaps, was the first man to have a swing people would call beautiful.
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He hit .373 in 1913, his third year in Cleveland, and that was probably as good as it got for Joe Jackson. The next few years would be somewhat miserable for him, in part because of circumstances and in part because he had a weakness for the better deal.
A whole bunch of things happened all at once. One, Jackson dealt with a series of injuries. Two, there was a new league — the Federal League — that was trying to buy out ballplayers in 1914 and 1915. The league was making ballplayers rich, and Joe Jackson desperately wanted in on the deal. Three, Cleveland owner Charles Somers had run out of money.
The first of these led to Jackson’s performance falling off. He hit .338 in 1914 and just .308 in 1915.
The second of these meant that Jackson was openly looking to get out the three-year contract he signed with Cleveland. “I think I’m in a rut here in Cleveland and would play better somewhere else,” he told The Cleveland Plain Dealer. He wanted to go to play in Washington, he considered going to play for Chicago in the Federal League, he was not bashful about saying he deserved more money. He was making $6,000 a year — considerably less than Cobb and other stars — and so had a fair point.
The third of these — Somers insolvency — was the final straw. He was reportedly furious at Jackson’s disloyalty but more, much more, needed an influx of cash. Enter: Charles Comiskey and his Chicago White Sox. Comiskey wanted to build a super-team and offered three players and more than $30,000 (about $700,000 today) for Jackson. Somers was in no position to say no. Jackson was shipped off and the Plain Dealer bid him farewell by calling him “a purely individual player who sacrificed team work for Joe Jackson.”
Jackson, for his part, told the Plain Dealer Chicago was the right place for him so he could collect some of that “sweet World Series money.”
And so, he went to Chicago. In 1917, he had by far his worst full offensive season. He hit just .301, slugged only .429 — both career lows — but it didn’t matter. The White Sox won 100 games and breezed into the World Series, where they beat John McGraw’s Giants in six games. Jackson hit .304 with seven singles. That was Chicago’s last World Series victory for almost 90 years.
Then, things went bad for Jackson. In 1918, with World War I raging, Jackson made a fateful decision to work for a shipbuilding company to fulfill his military requirement. It was a perfectly reasonable decision, as Fleitz writes in “Shoeless.” He was the sole support for his wife and his mother. He had three brothers fighting in the war. And the U.S. government had made it clear they needed people to work OR fight — Jackson chose work.
People did not see it as reasonable, though, in those charged times. Jackson took a a terrible beating in the press for not going to war. Comiskey himself was particularly vicious — “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 he made numerous other similar cracks and libels. Jackson rightly felt significant antipathy toward Comiskey (who also fought him bitterly over his contract and, later, back pay) which almost certainly played a role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal.
There’s no point in going too deeply into that scandal because it’s so familiar. You can always just stream “Eight Men Out.” Jackson was one of seven men who took money from gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. Buck Weaver, who never took the money, was the eighth man out. Jackson, in his Grand Jury testimony, admitted taking the money, admitted that he agreed to help throw the series, though he said that in the end he played it straight. He later said that admission was coerced and that he had never agreed to play less than his best and had only taken the money because they gave it to him. Numerous details were different in the two tellings.
Jackson did hit .375 in the Series with a then-record 12 hits, which suggests he might have been telling the truth about playing it straight. However a closer look shows he hit poorly and fielded sluggishly when in important positions, which suggests he might have been lying. People will argue about it forever.
What we do know is Joe Jackson took $5,000 from gamblers in a scheme to throw the 1919 World Series. Money was always his greatest weakness. He played in 1920 for the White Sox and had his best season in years, hitting .382, slugging .589 and leading the league with 20 triples. He had a career high 121 RBIs. Jackson probably would have been a fantastic hitter the post-Deadball years, probably a lot like Hornsby. But it wasn’t to be. After the 1920 season, of course, he was banned for life.
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In his Major League career, Jackson had only 5,693 plate appearances. His .356 career batting average is third only to Cobb and Hornsby, his career on-base percentage is higher than Mickey Mantle’s, and his 168 triples in so few chances is extraordinary, more than any player has managed in the last 70 years. He was known as an extraordinary fielder (“Where triples go to die”) with a one-of-a-kind arm. He was, in so many ways, The Natural.
Should he be in the Hall of Fame? Ted Williams thought so. Many others do too. I think he belongs, not because I believe he was wrongly accused or because of the strong reasons why he took the money, but because I don’t think the Hall of Fame should be a morally cleansed place where only the pure belong. I think the best baseball players should be in, plain and simple, and their stories — complete with their genius for the game and their moral failings — should be told. I think that’s the way history should be taught. I tend to believe Joe Jackson did help throw the 1919 World Series. I tend to believe he should have been banned for life. I think that should be on his Hall of Fame plaque.