A name that all baseball fans know, a name that has found itself as a piece of history – a scuff on baseball’s report card. But no matter how one looks at Shoeless Joe Jackson, they cannot deny his talent.
Born on July 16, 1887, Jackson was the oldest son in the family. At the age of 10, he almost lost his life to measles. He remained in his bed for two months, paralyzed. His mother nursed him back to health.
Due to his family’s financial situation, Jackson was required to take 12-hour shifts in his hometown’s textile mill. Education was deemed a luxury at this time, so he remained uneducated.
Jackson’s lack of education ultimately would lead to many issues in his life – even leaving a mark on his memorabilia. His wife would often sign his signature. When eating with teammates, he would wait until his teammates ordered and then order one of the items previously mentioned by the team. He didn’t want to ask someone to help him or read the menu to him.
At the age of 13, his mother was approached by an owner of the Brandon Mill and Jackson began to play for the mill’s baseball team. He was the youngest player and was paid $2.50 to play on Saturdays – an equivalent to only $77 in present day).
Jackson began his baseball career as a pitcher but after an accident where he broke another player’s arm with a fastball – nobody wanted to bat against him.
He moved from multiple mill teams until he began playing semi-professional baseball in 1905.
The first mention of “Shoeless Joe” appeared in the Washington Times on July 19, 1908. In a game against the Greenville Spinners, Jackson’s feet were bothering him and he removed his cleats and went to center field in just his stockings. No one noticed, so he came to bat without his cleats.
The papers went on to say that Jackson hit the longest home run ever seen at the Greenville grounds. As Jackson rounded third, one of the upset fans heckled him and shouted, “You Shoeless so and so!”
In 1908, Jackson married 15-year-old Katie Wynn and signed with Connie Mack to play for the Philadelphia Athletics.
He had trouble adjusting to life with the Athletics. There were conflicting reports that he did not like the big city and the hazing from teammates bothered him.
Between 1908 and 1909, Jackson only appeared in 10 Major League Baseball games. He played 118 games for the South Atlantic League’s Savannah Indians. He batted .358 in 1909.
The Athletics traded Jackson to the Cleveland Naps in 1910. He spent most of the 1910 season with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association. He went on to win the battling title and lead his team to the pennant. He would appear in 20 MLB games and hit .387 that same season.
In 1911, Jackson set a number of rookie records. His .408 batting average is a record that still stands and was good for second overall behind Ty Cobb. He had a .468 on-base percentage and led the league.
By the 1912 season, he batted .395 and led the American League in hits, triples, and total bases. On April 20, 1912, Jackson scored the first run in Tiger Stadium. He went on to lead the league again in 1913 with 197 hits and a .551 slugging percentage.
Jackson went on to be traded to the Chicago White Sox in August of 1915. Two years later, Jackson and the Sox won the American League pennant and the World Series. During the series, Shoeless Joe hit .307.
Jackson missed much of the 1918 season while working in a shipyard due to World War I. Despite missing, he came back strong in 1919 and posted a .351 average during the season and a .375 with perfect fielding in the World Series.
In the 1920 season, Jackson batted .382 and was leading the American League in triples when he was suspended with seven teammates after the allegations surfaced of the thrown World Series.
After the White Sox lost the 1919 World Series, Jackson and seven others were accused of accepting $5,000 each to throw the series. By September 1920, a grand jury was convened to investigate the allegations.
Jackson’s 12 base hits had set a Series record and it would not be broken until 1964. He led both teams with a .375 batting average. He committed no errors, and threw out a runner at the plate.
In 1921, a Chicago jury acquitted Jackson and his seven teammates of wrongdoing. Despite this, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, imposed a lifetime ban on all eight players.
“Regardless of the verdict of juries,” he stated, “no player that throws a ballgame; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
After the grand jury returned its indictments, Charley Owens of the Chicago Daily News wrote a regretful tribute headlined, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
Despite the legendary moment of a young fan asking Jackson if it was true. Shoeless Joe confirmed nearly three decades later that the exchange never happened between him and the young fan.
Jackson went on to spend most of the last 30 years of his life proclaiming his innocence, and evidence has surfaced that often casts significant doubt on his involvement in the fix. Jackson reportedly refused the $5,000 bribe on two separate occasions—despite the fact that it would effectively double his salary—only to have teammate Lefty Williams toss the cash on the floor of his hotel room.
Jackson then tried to tell White Sox owner Charles Comiskey about the fix, but Comiskey refused to meet with him.
Years later, the other seven players implicated in the scandal confirmed that Jackson was never at any of the meetings with the rest of them. Williams even stated they only mentioned Jackson’s name to give their plot more credibility, although he never did say why Jackson would have been paid $5,000 had that been the case.
Jackson remains on MLB’s ineligible list, which automatically precludes his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1989, MLB Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti declined to reinstate Jackson because the case was “now best given to historical analysis and debate as opposed to a present-day review with an eye to reinstatement.”
In November 1999, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution lauding Jackson’s sporting achievements and encouraging MLB to rescind his ineligibility after 70+ years later. The resolution was naturally symbolic. Commissioner Bud Selig stated at the time that Jackson’s case was under review, but no decision was made.
In 2015, the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum formally petitioned Commissioner Rob Manfred for reinstatement, on grounds that Jackson had “more than served his sentence” in the 95 years since his banishment by Landis. Manfred went on to deny the request after an official review.
“The results of this work demonstrate to me that it is not possible now, over 95 years since those events took place and were considered by Commissioner Landis, to be certain enough of the truth to overrule Commissioner Landis’ determinations,” he wrote.
And in 2020, ESPN reported that MLB had shifted its policy and that the league “has no hold on banned players after they die because the ineligible list bars players from privileges that include a job with a major league club.” It is unclear how this will ultimately affect Jackson’s Hall of Fame chances.
He went on to play and manage semi-professional baseball teams in Georgia and South Carolina.
In 1922, he and his wife Katie opened a dry cleaning business in Savannah, Georgia. By 1933, the two moved back to Greenville, South Carolina and opened a barbecue restaurant, going on to open a liquor store as well. The liquor store was operated by the Jacksons until his death.
One of the better known stories of Jackson’s post-major league life took place at his liquor store. Ty Cobb and sportswriter Grantland Rice entered the store, with Jackson showing no sign of recognition towards Cobb. After making his purchase, Cobb finally asked Jackson, “Don’t you know me, Joe?” Jackson replied, “Sure, I know you, Ty, but I wasn’t sure you wanted to know me. A lot of them don’t.”
As he aged, Jackson began to suffer from heart trouble. In 1951, at the age of 64, Jackson died of a heart attack. He was the first of the eight banned players to die, and is buried at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Greenville. He had no children, but he and his wife raised two of his nephews.
In 1,332 games and 4,981 at-bats, Jackson had 1,772 hits, 307 doubles, 168 triples, 54 home runs and an average of .356. With 785 RBIs, Jackson earned an on-base percentage of .423 and a slugging percentage of .517.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)