The Shoeless Legend: Say It IS So, Joe

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Most people know that Joseph Jefferson “Shoeless Joe” Jackson was banned from baseball for life in 1921.

Even though his life ended in 1951, and the Baseball Hall of Fame had not yet been created when he was banned from baseball, this talented five-tool player is still not in the Baseball Hall of Fame–despite a lifetime batting average of .356, eclipsed only by Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Oscar Charleston, and Rogers Hornsby.

Many books, articles, and even movies have been made about how and why that all happened (or didn’t happen). And all of them pivot on the events of Joe’s 1919 season (and post-season) as a member of the Chicago White Sox.  The purpose of this article is not to re-litigate the rights and wrongs of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Charles Comiskey, or even Joe Jackson himself—those topics are well covered in the books, articles, and movies aforementioned.

Our purpose today is to introduce you to Joe Jackson’s life and career (as hinted in our title) before that fateful year of 1919. What do we know about Joe that IS so, to paraphrase a cliché that became associated with Joe during the 1921 Black Sox trial?

Early Life

Joe was born on July 16, 1887 in rural Pickens County, SC the son of a sharecropper. The patriarch of the family, George Jackson made the decision to move the family into the nearby city of Greenville in the early 1890s to take a job in the textile mills which were booming there because of the industrial power generated by the waterfalls of local rivers.

Young Joe took a full-time job in the mill at the tender age of 6, so he never attended school. If you’ve read any of the books, or “seen the movie,” maybe you remember that Joe remained illiterate through his life. This was not because he was unintelligent; it was because he was uneducated. Mill workers worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.

To add a little spice to this drudgery, the mill owners came up with the idea of having a baseball team to represent their mill. Those teams would compete against the baseball teams of neighboring mills, giving the workers who played a wholesome outdoor activity. The workers who didn’t make the team got a fans’ sense of pride if their mill prevailed over their rivals. At the age of 13, Joe was invited to play with the men on the team representing Brandon Mill. He soon became a local legend, dominating men twice his age.

By the time he was 21, Joe was playing for a local semi-pro team called the Greenville Spinners (who clearly took their name from the textile industry). Herein lies the story of how he acquired the nickname “Shoeless.”

Much like today’s basketball phenoms on the playgrounds of Harlem, Joe’s notoriety worked its way up the food chain, and attracted major league scouts (this was decades before the “farm system” was invented by Branch Rickey). Knowing a pro contract would be his ticket to prosperity, Joe wanted to look his best, as well as play his best, so he bought himself the best pair of “baseball shoes” (cleats) that could be found in Upstate South Carolina. He wore them for the first time in a game against local rivals, the Anderson Electricians in a game on June 6, 1908.

The Legend Begins

By the sixth inning, the new shoes were killing Joe with blisters. He asked his manager, Tommy Stouch, if he could sit the rest of the game to rest his feet. Stouch, a former major league second baseman, declined. Jackson was his best player, and the Spinners were down one. He told Joe to suck it up and get back out there. Joe’s blisters weren’t going anywhere, and his shoes weren’t helping, so he decided to take them off and play the rest of the game in his stocking feet.

No one seemed to notice while Joe was 300-odd feet away in center field, but in the bottom of the 7th, Joe’s turn to bat came up. With the Spinners still down a run, Joe hit what would later be described as the longest home run ever hit at Greenville’s Memminger Street Park. As he was rounding third on his home run trot, an opposing fan noticed Joe wasn’t wearing any shoes. The fan called Joe a “shoeless S.O.B.” which local sportswriter Carter “Scoop” Latimer heard. Scoop thought it was cute, cleaned it up for publication, and within two weeks, every newspaper from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon had run the story about this “shoeless wonder from South Carolina.”

As the legend began to grow, everyone wanted to see this phenom who played all of his games in his bare feet. But that wasn’t the case. Joe played 4 innings in his entire life without shoes on, but the nickname stuck. Joe absolutely hated it.

When he became a major leaguer, playing in northern industrial cities like Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago, the easy use of that name for him contributed to the image of Joe Jackson being a backward yokel from the Deep South who “never wore shoes.” Already self-conscious about his illiteracy, this new nickname was only making things worse for how fans, writers, and even teammates perceived Joe.

Once established as a high profile, high paid major league star, Joe made a point of wearing only the most expensive suits, hats, and shoes to offset this too easy image which had been imposed upon him.

Off to the Majors

The pro scouts were indeed watching him playing for Greenville in that 1908 season, and he was signed by Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics—one of the premier teams in the major leagues. The A’s brought him up to Philadelphia at the end of that season for a 5-game major league “cup of coffee” to see how he would “fit in.”

The answer to that question was “not very well.” All his baseball talent could not offset the culture shock that hit this 21-year-old who had never been out of the South, nor in any big city. Joe had gotten married July 19, 1908, and his new wife, Katie, was among the many things he immediately missed about the South. Added to this, many of the Athletics were college men, most of whom were from the North. Joe, who, had never so much as gone to elementary school, felt uncomfortable even in the company of the few compassionate ones. Sports writers milked the “Shoeless” image, and fans (many of whom were Union veterans of the Civil War) taunted him about being a Southerner.

Seeing Joe as a “project,” Connie Mack decided to let Joe mature further by playing the 1909 season for the Savannah, GA club of the South Atlantic League. After dominating the Sally League, Joe was brought back to Philadelphia for another 5-game cup of major league cup of coffee at the end of 1909. The result was pretty much the same, with the homesick southerner going AWOL from practice, and being found at the train station trying to buy a ticket back home. Mr. Mack finally lost patience with his talented but “quirky” country boy, and traded him to Cleveland in 1910.

Off to Ohio

As it turns out, Cleveland owner Charles Somers also owned the minor league club in New Orleans, and having done his homework on Joe’s ongoing regional transitions, assigned him to the Pelicans for the greater part of the 1910 season. Brought up to Cleveland for 20 games at the end of the 1910 season, Joe had a much more comfortable transition to the big leagues than his unpleasant Philadelphia experience. He felt more “at home” with a Cleveland squad composed of more “country boys” than “college men,” plus he got to bring Katie north with him. The promise of a more satisfying situation for the young couple came to fruition the following season in Cleveland.

Joe and Kate rented a house 2 blocks away from League Park, where Cleveland played their home games. In those days before floodlights, all games were played in the daytime. No matter the score, Kate would leave her seat during the 7th inning stretch, walk home, and make Joe a nice southern dinner to come home to once the game finished. Not only did this young southern couple flourish in Cleveland, but Joe Jackson — the yokel who couldn’t fit in — became a bona fide superstar.

A Cleveland Superstar

This was still 36 years before there was such a thing as a “Rookie of the Year” award, but by the standards of today’s award, 1911 would be considered Joe’s “rookie year,” given that he’d only accumulated 115 major league at bats going into that season.

And what a season it was! As Cleveland’s starting right fielder, Joe Jackson batted .408 over the full season—still a record for a rookie. Shockingly, it still wasn’t enough to win the AL batting title, as fellow southerner Ty Cobb — who would be Joe’s friendly rival over the next decade — copped the crown with a mark of .420. Joe was also runner-up to Cobb in hits, total bases, doubles, slugging average, and runs scored.

Two southerners (from hometowns about 70 miles apart) representing midwestern industrial cities, would continue to be friendly rivals for the next decade. Because of playing in the same league as Ty, no single season batting average of Joe’s ever won a league crown, even though his lifetime average of .356 is third all-time amongst the more than 20,000 men who have played major league baseball. In 1912, Joe led the AL in total bases and triples, placing second in batting average and hits. In 1913, he led the league in hits, doubles, and slugging average; and was runner-up in batting average and total bases.

Joe was a superstar, revered throughout the league, and he and Katie had become local celebrities in Cleveland. Even though he still isn’t enshrined in Cooperstown, Joe Jackson is a member of the Ohio Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Cleveland Baseball Hall of Fame. Altogether, he played in 671 games for Cleveland and 649 games for Chicago, so it’s fitting that he be remembered for his accomplishments in Cleveland as well as his well-documented history in Chicago.

When in South Carolina, be sure to visit the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum at 356 Field Street in Greenville to learn even more about Joe Jackson the ballplayer, and Joe Jackson the man.

Main image credit Embed from Getty Images

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