Will Shoeless Joe Jackson ever get in the Baseball Hall of Fame? – SportingNews.com
‘Cooperstown Chances’ examines the Baseball Hall of Fame case of one candidate each week. This spans the large number of players currently on the ballot for the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, as well as active stars and long-retired players eligible for consideration through the Veterans Committee. This week: Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Who he was: It’s as if Shoeless Joe Jackson will live forever. Though the legendary White Sox outfielder has been dead 63 years, Arlene Marcley, president of the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum, put him in the news again recently by applying for his reinstatement with Major League Baseball. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred turned down this request, of course, as commissioners have been doing for more than 80 years.
Reinstatement requests for Jackson go back as far as December 1933, when the disgraced star wrote the commissioner who banned him for life in 1921, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, asking permission to coach a minor league team in Greenville, S.C., Landis turned him down. Through the years, commissioners Bart Giamatti, Fay Vincent and Bud Selig have looked into Jackson’s case, none willing to overturn Landis’s monumental ruling.
As is well known, Landis banned Jackson and seven other White Sox players for their alleged roles in fixing the 1919 World Series. Their involvement is termed here as alleged because a jury acquitted them of criminal charges in 1921, though numerous accounts attest to improprieties with the series. Jackson, for one, testified before a Cook County grand jury in September 1920 and in a civil trial in Wisconsin in 1924 to accepting $5,000 from teammate Lefty Williams.
There’s this myth that Jackson slunk off in shame for the remainder of his life after his ban. He actually more or less got on with life, as many people do after a life-altering event. He played baseball under assumed names, ran a few small businesses — a clean and press business, a barbecue stand and a liquor store among them — and, perhaps most important, publicly recanted his confessions of helping fix the 1919 World Series.
There’s another myth, oft-repeated, that sportswriter Furman Bisher scored the only interview with Jackson following his ban. Jackson interviews are actually pretty easy to find: 1927, 1933, and 1937 with newspaper writers; 1941 with Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich; 1942 with Sporting News. Throughout these interviews, Jackson struck a defiant tone.
“I don’t like being called an outlaw player because I fail to see where I am one,” Jackson said in 1927. “I was never convicted of any charge in any court. I was promised full reinstatement if the charges of conspiring to ruin the White Sox were not true. But what happened when I was cleared?”
Cooperstown chances: 20 percent
Why: Technically, Jackson’s current Hall of Fame chances are nil, as baseball’s had a rule since 1991 preventing enshrinement of anyone on its list of ineligible players. But things can change over time.
But there’s been a movement in recent years to reassess Jackson’s legacy. Some fans question whether the 1919 World Series was fixed at all, with a number of inaccuracies exposed in the definitive account of the series, Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book Eight Men Out and the 1988 film based in it. Others question the culpability of Jackson, who was illiterate and posted superb numbers in the series, hitting .375 with the only home run.
“I know what you’re going to ask me,” Jackson told Povich in 1941. “It’s what they all ask me when they get their nerve up. Well, Sonny, I’m as innocent as you are. I had no part in that fix in 1919.”
This differs with what Jackson said in court on two separate occasions. He told a Cook County grand jury September 28, 1920 he took $5,000 from White Sox hurler Lefty Williams. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported Jackson emerging from court erect and smiling, saying, “I got a big load off my chest,” though this might be apocryphal. Black Sox researcher Jacob Pomrenke said the Tribune got several facts wrong in its reporting, such as Jackson telling the grand jury he let down at certain key moments in the series. In fact, the court transcript has Jackson saying he played to win and made no intentional errors.
Jackson sued White Sox owner Charles Comiskey for back pay in 1923 and admitted again, in a 1924 deposition, to taking $5,000, though his story changed. Gene Carney wrote in 2006 for The Baseball Research Journal that Jackson said he got the money after the World Series as opposed to after Game 4, as he’d told the 1920 grand jury. Pomrenke told Sporting News Jackson said in 1924, but not 1920, that he’d used the money to pay his sister’s hospital bills.
Jackson’s story changed enough, Pomrenke said, that after the 1924 jury ruled 11-1 in Jackson’s favor, the presiding judge set aside the verdict, reduced Jackson’s judgment to $1, and jailed him for a night for perjury.
Pomrenke, who also serves as web editor for the Society for American Baseball Research, is certain Jackson took the $5,000, though he said, “You can believe he took the money and played to win.”
As Ken Burns noted in his 1994 PBS miniseries Baseball and its corresponding book, Landis said in banning Jackson and his teammates, “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
Even with the gravity of Jackson’s offense, though, many have celebrated him. Manfred’s letter this summer denying Jackson’s reinstatement included a curious mention of his low vote totals in BBWAA elections for Cooperstown: just two votes in the inaugural election in 1936 and another two in 1946. Pomrenke suspects BBWAA members declined to vote for Jackson because they assumed he wasn’t eligible.
Even so, fellow Deadball Era great Nap Lajoie endorsed Jackson for Cooperstown in a March 5, 1943 interview with the Morning Herald of Uniontown, Pa. “If anybody doesn’t want Jackson they can cut him out,” Lajoie said. “But I still think he was one great ball player.”
Lajoie called Jackson “the greatest hitter he had ever seen.” Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby said similar things, with Ruth famously copying Jackson’s swing and including him in the outfield for his all-time team in 1933.
Ted Williams put Jackson in his Hitters Hall of Fame and, with Bob Feller, petitioned Selig in 1998 to clear Jackson’s name. “He’s served his sentence and it’s time for baseball to acknowledge his debt is paid and the Hall of Fame Committee on Veterans to list him as a nominee,” Williams said. “It’s time and it’s the right thing to do.”
“Joe Jackson was one of the finest hitters of all-time,” Williams continued. “I wish I could have talked hitting with that man. It’s too late, but it’s not too late for him to come and join me — and all the other Hall of Famers — in Cooperstown.”
For supporters of Shoeless Joe Jackson, 94 years after his ban, it’s still not too late.
‘Cooperstown Chances’ examines the Baseball Hall of Fame case of one candidate each week. Series author and Sporting News contributor Graham Womack writes regularly about the Hall of Fame and other topics related to baseball history at his website, Baseball: Past and Present . Follow him on Twitter: @grahamdude.